The angel Gabriel

I have just read Luke chapter 1 and I have to say that it is a strange story by modern standards. The whole thing revolves an angel called Gabriel, and the story is familiar enough to be able to read it without really reflecting at all on how odd it all sounds. But when I start thinking that Luke is here writing what he regards as an historical account I have to admit that it raises questions. What exactly is an angel? Does Luke actually believe in such beings? Do angels interact with humans? Is this story for real, or is it just some kind of super spiritual explanation of a whole lot of rather ordinary events?

I don’t intend to try to answer all those questions here and now. Finding answers that satisfy are not always easy. But one thing is for certain: this first chapter of Luke’s gospel firmly establishes that this story, which Luke writes as “history,” is firmly embedded in the supernatural. For modern western readers the word supernatural is connected to the idea of fantasy, not with the idea of truth. We tend to believe that truth is established by what can be observed and what can be proven. Since supernatural phenomena are seldom observed, and pretty much impossible to prove (despite the efforts of many to do so), they are generally relegated to the category of “untrue.”

That is not to say that we are uninterested in the supernatural. In fact it provides material for a large part of the contemporary entertainment industry. We may not “believe” in the supernatural, but we enjoy being entertained by it: think of the current obsession with werewolf TV (True Blood), magical sagas (Harry Potter), fantasy movies (Lord of the Rings) and superhero films (Marvel). One might wonder why we are so fascinated by fantasy and the supernatural. But whatever the answer to that question, most modern rational thinkers don’t believe such stories are true. Truth is something based on scientific enquiry. It is objective. We build our lives and societies on truth, at least we think we do. The supernatural is something that grows out of the imagination. It is subjective. It is best left in the realm of entertainment. Or so we believe.

Luke was a doctor and would have based much of his day to day practice in an ancient form of scientific enquiry: observation, accumulated knowledge, reason. But he lived among peoples whose worldview included the supernatural within the concept of truth. Truth for people of the ancient world was not limited to what could be observed, measured and proven. Reality in the ancient mind consisted of the supernatural as well the natural. Supernatural thinking would certainly have impacted the thinking of heath practitioners like Luke. So as a doctor he was working from a different set of presuppositions to the modern western doctor.

So the very first challenge as I read the gospel of Luke is to decide how I am going to respond to claims of the supernatural. Perhaps that is the biggest challenge for me as a modern reader of these ancient scripts, and as a modern Christian. Because the whole of the Christian faith is rooted in the supernatural. Luke’s first chapter introduces the supernatural with the person of Gabriel, an angel sent by God. The rest of Luke’s writings are a constant barrage of such extraordinary happenings. How do I think about this as a modern reader? How does it impact my life as a citizen and as a doctor?

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