Hymn Guide: The Angel Gabriel

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“Gabriel’s Message,” also known by its first line “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came,” is a hymn often sung at Christmas or the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. Originally a folk carol from the Basque Country in northern Spain and southern France, the English paraphrase was written in 1895 by Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould was a prolific author and hymn-writer, also known for writing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Verse by Verse

The hymn opens with a recapitulation of Luke 1:26-28, in which God sends Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth:

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The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow his eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Gabriel’s “wings of drifted snow” and “eyes of flame” create a feeling of mystery and intensity, a feeling also captured by the tune’s minor key and syncopated rhythm. The modern singer Sting further developed this dynamic in his version (see Sting’s video below).

Gabriel’s greeting combines the “Hail Mary” of the traditional Latin Angelus prayer (“Ave Maria”), with the translation of the Greek charitoo, which means “favored one.” And the concluding “Gloria” will repeat at the end of each verse, bringing to mind the angels from Luke 2:14.

Gabriel’s message continues in the second verse:

“For know a blessed mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honor thee,
Thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

Beginning with the announcement of Jesus’ conception from Luke 1:30, Gabriel’s message expands to include the words of Mary, Matthew, and Isaiah. In Luke 1:48, it is Mary who says “all generations will call me blessed,” and in Matthew 1:23, it is Matthew who quotes from the “seer” Isaiah to identify the child as “Emmanuel.” In a way, Gabriel here takes on the unified witness of scripture, informing not only Mary but also us about the meaning of this pregnancy.

The third verse switches to Mary’s voice, combining her response to Gabriel from Luke 1:38 with the opening of her Magnificat in Luke 1:46.

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!

We who sing these words are situated in the place of Mary, following her example in receiving the unmerited grace of God, and responding by faith in obedience and praise. As Paul teaches in Ephesians, God strengthens each of us by his Spirit, that, like Mary, “Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17).

In the final verse, the story is brought forward, not only to Christmas morning itself, but also through the ages and around the world as Christians celebrate the incarnate Lord and the indispensable role of his mother Mary.

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!

On Video

The first video is of the King’s College Choir of Men and Boys, singing at its annual service of Lessons and Carols. The second video features Sting from 1987, with a mysterious tone and a driving beat.

Published on

March 25, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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