In the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Church, there is a beautiful and shocking dialogue that takes place on the feast of Mary’s Assumption. Found in The Festal Menaion, a collection of propers for the Byzantine liturgical rites, it imagines an extended dialogue between Gabriel and Mary as she receives news announcing her as the mother of Jesus. The dialogue attempts to extract the meaning of the event for the congregation. A short section where Gabriel greets Mary reads like this:

Mary (to Gabriel): My mother Eve, accepting the suggestion of the serpent, was banished from divine delight: and therefore, I fear thy strange salutation, for I take heed lest I slip.

Gabriel: I am sent as the envoy of God to disclose to thee the divine will. Why are thou, O Undefiled, afraid of me, who rather am afraid of you? Why, O Lady, dost thou stand in awe of me, who stand in reverent awe of thee? [1]

Later, the dialogue continues:

Mary: O Gabriel, herald of truth, shining with the radiance of Almighty God, tell me truly: how shall I, my purity remaining untouched, bear in the flesh the Word that has no body?

Gabriel: I stand before thee in fear, as a servant before his mistress, and in awe I am afraid to look at thee now, O Maid. In His goodness shall the Word of God descend upon thee, as dew upon fleece. [2]

Mary’s imagined words to Gabriel at their first meeting are tinged with Old Testament imagery. Back in the garden, long ago, Eve too was visited by an angel (in the form of a serpent) who brought a greeting of his own. There, Eve was no match for the devil’s crafty word-fencing and she ended up misquoting God’s commands and eating the forbidden fruit. Mary, aware of this, tells Gabriel that she is fearful her own words will get her into similar trouble. Mary knows she is in the presence of the divine, and she exercises wisdom, filled with fear, that her words may come to bring about her fall. Words, it seems, are the true power in creation.

But it is Gabriel’s response that truly shocks. He is surprised at Mary’s fear of him, for, as he says, “Why are thou, O Undefiled, afraid of me, who rather am afraid of you?” And later he repeats this confession, “I stand before you [Mary] in fear…and in awe I am afraid to look at thee.” Why is Gabriel afraid of Mary?

In this imagining we get a rich tapestry from which to give some thought to Mary, Jesus’ mother. A clue to Gabriel’s fear can be found in Hebrews, “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you?” (Heb. 1:5).

The Word of God, the Logos, is no angel. He is very God of very God. But the writer of Hebrews continues and says, “You made him [Jesus] for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet” (Heb. 1:7-8).

In other words, the Son of God, the eternal Logos, has taken on flesh, become a man. And in so doing, mankind has been exalted in him. The eternal Logos, the Creator, the Ancient of Days has been given a new name, a human name: Jesus. His name means salvation. Gabriel, an archangel, a powerful, fiery creature who could with his sword defeat all the armies of the earthquakes in fear before the virgin whose womb houses the eternal Word enfleshed.

He trembles before the peasant girl because she has become a temple, a tabernacle. In her dwells the Lord, a consummation enacted by the Holy Spirit. What formerly could not be contained by the skies or valleys now rests in the belly of a young girl. What was previously inconceivable has been conceived: “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) cries Solomon. Solomon in all his wisdom cannot envision it, and Gabriel must contend with it. Thus, in imagining Gabriel as afraid of Mary, the Church celebrates the incarnation of Jesus into the world with the truth of his two natures. Like us, Jesus will have a mother, like us, Jesus will enter the world through birth. He will not appear from the skies. He will be caked in blood and fluid, a dirty birth in a dirty manger to a filthy girl who cannot afford fine spices, perfumes or ablutions and has spent days or weeks on the road. The smells of Christmas are of two natures as well: body odor, hay, animal, dung – but eventually – frankincense, myrrh, and cinnamoned kings with gifts. All this mingled in the smoky glow of a warming fire.

He trembles before the peasant girl because she has become a temple, a tabernacle. In her dwells the Lord, a consummation enacted by the Holy Spirit.

Mary is the most fruitful woman the Bible in which the entire story of Scripture is symbolically narrated or symbolized: Eve is disobedient to God’s commands and contributes to original sin, Mary is obedient to God’s commands and graced with sin’s Destroyer. Eve is the mother of sinners, giving birth to sinners, Mary is the mother of Jesus, the first fruits of God’s new creation. The Law of God, the commandments, are given but not followed by humanity, but Mary carries in her womb the fulfilment of the law, the coming of grace. David built a tabernacle and an ark, Solomon a temple, but God could not forever dwell there with his people. The temple fell and the ark was lost. Concentric rings of Levitical priests, a Holy of Holies, shut-out God from getting too close to the community. God was near but kept at a distance.

But in Mary, God is as close as he can ever be. God has drawn near – nearer than breathing. In the Captivity, the Jews were stuck in Babylon waiting for a return to their promised land, exiles in a foreign country. Mary will take her young Son to Egypt, a refugee, from Herod’s wrath. It is a self-imposed exile but also a return. Just as the law’s accusation made us refugees from God but by grace, we have returned. In turmoil, suffering, and waiting the nation looked forward to a Messiah, in Mary the hope of the nation is realized. When the bridegroom’s wine barrels had gone dry, and the wedding joy was about to end in embarrassment, Mary’s faith saw the heart of God in the gladness of wine, the celebration of marriage, the rightness of mirth. Jesus’ first miracle was for his mother, a sign not only of his divinity but of his heart to provide for our trivial needs. Mary’s womb is a symbol of baptism, as Leo the Great observed when he said “To everyone, when he is reborn, the water of baptism is like the Virgin’s womb, for the same Holy Spirit fills the font, who filled the Virgin, that the sin, which the sacred conception overthrew, may be taken away by the mystical washing.” [3] At the cross, when most of the men fled, Mary stood at its base, beholding her crucified Son and Lord. She is the remnant of the Jews that come to the cross and she is a witness to the love and sacrifice of God. She will see the risen Lord, she will be in the upper room at Pentecost. She represents all of us who, given the Spirit, do the work of God as we await his second coming.

Scripture has a lot to say about Mary, but it is her last recorded words that offer us a startling vision of her character. Jesus’ first miracle occasions her last recorded words. She will become less, and he will become greater. Those words are: “Do whatever he tells you.” This is just what she did upon hearing the angel’s instructions. It’s what Eve failed to do. And it is what Mary models for us to be. Her call to obedience should not be taken as a call to live by the law. Rather, it is a call to listen to him, to hear. To “do” is to first know what to do. Grace does not emancipate us from any requirement of obedience. Rather, grace allows Jesus to be obedient on our behalf that the righteous demands of the law can be fulfilled.

That is what Mary represents: a trust in the One who can gladden hearts and save souls. When the prayer that celebrates her says that she is, “full of grace” the phrasing is not wrong. She not only is literally filled with grace himself, filled with Jesus, but also, filled with the grace of union. God has come to her, God has tabernacled with her, God has chosen her, God has made his home in her, God is named to her as the one to save her. God is close to her, God is with her, near her, and by her. The Father has sent the Son to her, the Spirit has sanctified her, the Word of God has issued her a promise and fulfilled it. This is Mary’s testimony—and it is also ours. Everything said of Mary here, is our testimony as well.

Grace does not emancipate us from any requirement of obedience. Rather, grace allows Jesus to be obedient on our behalf that the righteous demands of the law can be fulfilled.

That is why the Church imagines Gabriel frightened. How could he have ever dared to dream of this reality where God takes on flesh? As the preacher in Hebrews says, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” [4] That is frightening news to an angel who stands in the presence of the King. And that’s why Mary can have the last words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” [5]