By now most of you know that I am stepping away for the assigned readings in Advent to offer devotional reflections on different people, groups, and elements gathered around the Nativity. On the First Sunday of Advent we considered how the donkey symbolizes how all creation is invited to participate in the redemption and joy of the Incarnation. Last Sunday we thought about the shepherds, who represent our work, labor, and tasks and we thought about the magi, who represent our intellect and curiosity. Each group invites us to find what is sacred and holy in what they represent. This week I want to focus our attention on the angels who are present in and around the Nativity.
Polls indicate that something like 60% of us believe in angels. If this was a discussion group and not a sermon, I might ask if any of you have ever had an experience with an angel. I have, but only in second person. The church where I grew up owned a retreat center (a large, A-frame structure) located in a very, very, very remote part of southeastern Ohio. Our youth group went there several times a year for a weekend and our youth minister invited speakers to lead our time together. At one retreat the speaker was to meet us there, but became lost on back roads of this isolated location.
As the speaker tells the story, he happened upon someone walking along a remote road so he pulled over and asked for directions. Now, in all the years we went to the retreat center I don’t ever remember seeing a person walking those back roads. Even more remarkable, the person actually knew where our retreat center was located and was able to provide directions, including multiple turns down dirt and gravel roads. As our speaker reflected upon the incident he proclaimed to believe that the person on the side of the road was in fact an angel. How else would you explain it, he asked us? I recall being skeptical at the time, but it must have made an impression on me because 35 year later I still remember the story.
That thin experience stands in sharp contrast to the Nativity stories where angels pop up all the time and all over the place and there never seems to be a question if it was an angel or not. In Matthew’s Gospel, which tells the Nativity story from Joseph’s and the magi’s points of view, angels are relegated to dreams. In a dream, an angel tells Joseph that his betrothed wife is pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit. While the text doesn’t say specifically who warns the magi in a dream not to return to Herod, the inference is that the message comes from an angel. Joseph has a second dream where an angel warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt, thereby avoiding Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Another angel dream lets him know when it is safe to return to the land of Israel and a final angel dream directs him to settle in Galilee rather than Bethlehem, which is ruled by Herod’s son.
Luke’s Gospel, which focuses on the stories of Mary and shepherds, contains the real dramatic angel stories. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will give birth to a son who is to be named John. Six months later Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will conceive by means of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son, Jesus. An unnamed angel appears to the shepherds to announce the birth of a Savior, and then a chorus of angels, also referred to as a great company of heavenly hosts, appears and breaks into a song of praise.
Angles are found here and there throughout the Gospels, but nothing like the frequency found in the birth stories. I did some scholarly research and learned that early on in the Old Testament angels served four primary functions:
• They proclaimed messages from God.
• They announced coming events.
• They protected the faithful.
• And they enacted judgment on sinners.
During the period between the Old Testament and New Testament, roughly 300 years before the birth of Jesus, the notion of angels became more complex. A hierarchy of angels emerged. Some angels functioned as intercessors. Some served in an army while others became hostile to God. It was during this time that Satan appears as a distinct figure in various writings while a select few angels in the service of God also come to be known by name. During the time of Jesus the existence of angels was hotly debated between the Pharisees (who believed in their existence) and the Sadducees (who did not). The notion of a guardian angel begins to develop around the sixth century after the birth of Christ. Many other religious traditions, both ancient and before Judaism and current and contemporary, describe experiences of angels and encounters with them.
Given all of this, what are we to make of the angels who are present in and around the Nativity, especially from a devotional focus? What do they signify to us, or perhaps better put, what do they signify about us?
I remember reading years ago an article where the author reflected on how Gabriel must have felt as he announced to Mary, who was barely a teenager at the time, that God had chosen her to be the human bearer of the Divine incarnation. The author, and by now I forget who it was and where I read it, wondered if Gabriel’s voice quivered as he spoke the words given to him to proclaim. Did Gabriel wonder as to the wisdom of God’s plan? I would like to think that he did. Why would God become incarnate? And why would God become incarnate in this young, unmarried peasant girl? And why would God’s plan for the salvation and redemption of the world depend on such a fragile figure? And why would all of it hinge on her answer, because it does seem that her consent was necessary in order for things to move forward? I know that if I was Gabriel I would have a lump in my throat as I carried out my task.
Angels can serve as models of many things: obedience to God’s call, exemplars of what it means to worship and praise God, and ministers who watch over others in times of need come to mind. But more than anything else, for me the angels of the Nativity represent hope and hopefulness. They proclaim a word of which they themselves may not be entirely convinced. Their faith is not a blind faith, i.e. God always works it out in the end, and it certainly is not a faith built on foreknowledge of how the future will play out. With hope in their hearts and faith in the Lord, they proclaim a future that is filled with God’s blessing while being aware of all the other less than desirable possible outcomes.
I thought about this last Saturday night as I listened to Vince Neri offer a toast at the wedding reception for his daughter Paula and new son-in-law Chad Wagner. His was a message of hope for their life together and the great adventure they were beginning. Absent from his words was any trace of anything other than the beauty and joy and wonder of a lifelong marriage together. As I listened I though to myself that I was hearing the proclamation of an angel: a message of hope and hopefulness in a world where many different things can go awry.
It is the message we convey to a friend who is out of work: “Hang in there. Something good will turn up.” It is the message we proclaim to a student: “Put your heart into your paper, do you best, and it will be fine.” It is what we say to a friend who is facing surgery, “You are going to come through this.” It is what we offer to a loved one on their deathbed: “God will receive you with open and loving arms.”
Each of these things could turn out different. Each might go another and more painful direction. But the presence of the angels in and around the Nativity encourages us to be people of hope and proclaimers of hopefulness. It is not Pollyannaish, nor are we to speak empty words devoid of meaning. Rather, with all of our heart and all of our faith and even with our own personal doubts we are invited to believe in a world where God’s desire is for blessing and peace and healing and promise; to believe in a world where things can and do turn out for the best; to believe in a world worth believing in. Every time we proclaim this as possible we speak the message of an angel, we speak the words of hope.
My favorite character in Minnie the Pooh is Eeyore; he of the “its probably not going to work out” fame. There is no denying that every silver lining has a dark cloud, but reminding us of that is not the work of angels. Angels live on hope, feed on hope, and disseminate hope in and through all they do. When I see the angel figures in and around the Nativity that is what I think about and that is who I feel called to be. This Advent we are invited to be people who hope, who speak words of hopefulness, and who act out our hope in God.
I am curious if any of you have had a personal experience with an angel. In my limited inquiries this week I did not find anyone who had. Perhaps I should have asked if anyone had ever had another speak to them a word of hope and hopefulness. My guess is that we all have received a message like that. Maybe God doesn’t need to send angels around so much because we can do their work for one another.