We are in our second week into our Advent journey to Bethlehem. Last week we reflected on the place of stars, particularly the Bethlehem Star, which lit the path for the three kings to find their way to the Christ Child. We explored how this special star lights our advent journey as well. Today we celebrate the role of the angels, their message, their song and the role they played in the birth of Jesus. It is hard to imagine the Christmas story without our celestial friends. What do they have to teach us as we prepare to receive the newborn Jesus in our hearts?
First question on our minds is what are angels? A panel of young theologians were asked to described who or what, angels are. Their answers:
· My angel is my grandma who died last year. She got a big head start on helping me while she was still down here on earth. Amber, 9
· Angels work for God and watch over kids when God has to go do something else. Mandy, 8
· My guardian angel helps me with math, but he’s not much good for science. ~Harry, 7
· Angels talk all the way while they’re flying you up to heaven. The main subject is where you went wrong before you got dead. Ronald, 10
· Everybody’s got it all wrong. Angels don’t wear halos anymore. I forget why, but scientists are working on it. Oliver, 9
· Angels live in cloud houses made by God and his son, who’s a very good carpenter. Jacob, 6
· I only know the names of two angels. Hark and Harold. Gregory, 5
Unlike popular theology that tells mourning families that their loved one died because God needed another angel in heaven -- Angels are pure spirits created by God, not human spirits who somehow have been promoted. I heard our relationship with angels best put this way: Angels are spiritual beings who are invisible except when they choose otherwise; we humans are visible beings whose spiritual side is invisible until we choose to let it show. Angels like us, worship God and carry God’s will. Angels have a special role in guarding and guiding humans. The word angel means “messenger,” and throughout the Bible we see them playing key roles at key times in human religious history. It is a bouncer-like angel that God set to bar at the entrance to paradise – to keep humans from being able to return. Angels are thought by some to be the disguised visitors who appear to Abraham and Sarah, and then convey the prophecy of a son to this long-barren couple (Genesis 18). It is believed two angels appeared to Lot and then rescued him before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). Hagar, a servant who Sarah expelled, was saved in the wilderness along with her son-- by an angel. God sent an angel to free the Apostle Peter after he was jailed by King Herod (Acts 12:7-11). And of course, angels abound in the nativity and death of Jesus: The mighty angel Gabriel appeared first to the priest Zechariah with the message of the birth of a son, John the Baptist, Gabriel next appeared to Mary, to announce she would be the mother of Jesus. The angel hosts appeared to the shepherds, the night of Jesus’ birth; and they are present with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and stood at the empty tomb, to announce the resurrection of the Lord.
It is the sole desire of an angel to give glory to God, and to guide us to Jesus. What does Jesus say in Luke 15: I love this translation: “count on it: the angels throw parties every time a lost soul returns to God.”
What is your image of an image of an angel? Is it a smoldering Gary Grant or the handsome Denzel Washington, in “the Bishop’s Wife,” the bumbling Clarence Odbody who needs to earn his wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or as the “heavenly social workers” Monica and Tess in the old TV Series, “Touched by an Angel,” or the troubled but devoted angel Seth in a “City of Angels?” Which do you prefer: Chubby little Cherubs or warriors with armor, swords and spiky wings? Take your pick. Popular faith teaches us that angels are indeed all around us, we are even appointed guardian angels to help us choose the right and turn to God.
Those of us who went to Catholic schools were told in our tender years to move over in our seats – to make room for our guardian angel to sit next to us. One of our nighttime prayers is the following:
Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God's love commits me here;
Watch over me throughout the night,
keep me safe within your sight.
It is good to remember the angels and to call upon them at this pivotal time in our lives. Will this be just another ordinary Christmas, filled with obligations, busyness, and overspending and overeating? How do we turn this holy season into a song of praise, how do we sing Gloria, along with the angels, when every day we find ourselves choking with deadlines that have nothing to do with Jesus’s birth? Let’s hear the angels today. Perhaps in spending time listening to their voices, blended in with the human voices that proclaim good news, perhaps we can reclaim our souls, strengthen our spirits and follow the trails of the melody, until it leads us to the holy places of this holy time. Dare we sing Gloria? Dare we let ourselves be touched by angels, who bring us messages of encouragement and comfort, unsettling messages to set us free from misconceptions and to refocus our hearts on the matters of God, and God’s love and purpose for our lives rooted in Jesus Christ?
We see angels at work in those two powerful Christmas movies: “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “The Bishop’s Wife” were produced on the tail of the Second World War, both set in the season of Christmas. They spoke to a generation that saw the horrors of two world wars, a world now capable of self-destruction with nuclear weapons. The angel bumbling Clarence, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” arrives as his charge, George Bailey, contemplates suicide. Clarence helps George to see what the world would be like without him; that values of community service, sacrifice and family and faith that make the world a better place to live. George’s eyes are open, he is embraced by the love of his family and his community, and Clarence earns his angel wings.
Dudley, the angel in “the Bishop’s Wife,” helps the bishop see that people are more important than building campaigns, our love relationships need to be nurtured as a priority and form the basis from which we live and interact in the world with integrity. All the interest in angels during the recent decades, in one way or another call us to be true to ourselves, to see the value in our lives as we love and serve as God calls us to. It also speaks to our yearning to know that our presence in the world makes a difference. Nelson Mandela, the South African political leader and anti-apartheid activist, put it this way: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” That is what the angels work for us to see and do.
It is the difference that we make in the world that calls us to share in the life and teachings of Jesus, that calls us to be companions to the angels. That is why the angels sing. That’s why they delight in our knowledge of forgiveness and being true to our authentic spiritual beings. Sing Gloria, they are here to tell us, because that is our soul’s purpose, to sing glory to God through our actions in this world. Sing Gloria, they proclaim, because we too are Christ bearers in the earth.
So scout over, and know there’s an angel sitting next to you. A angel seeking to guide you in this Advent season. An angel that wants to help you see, like Clarence did, what a difference you are in God’s world. An angel like Dudley that wants to open your eyes to cherish the people around you. An angel like Gabriel that wants you to warm to the new spiritual life developing in your heart. Angels like Hark and Harold, who give us a voice to proclaim truth, to sing Gloria to a world enveloped in noise and nonsense.
Sing Gloria, to bring good news to those who live in the shadow of darkness. Sing Gloria, to help other harried, distracted friends gently recover the focus of Christmas. Sing Gloria to proclaim the primacy of love, the duty of love, the courage to love, as Advent beckons us. Whenever you have a chance, sing Gloria, practice it these next few weeks along with the hosts of heaven. Together we are guiding our hearts to be ready, to sing with all creation, seen and unseen, together to shine our light on Jesus, to proclaim the age old song, Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace on earth and goodwill to all, because Love is born. Love joins the song this second week of Advent of peace and sings to each person, here, to you and me, Gloria, Gloria to you, Christ-bearer, messengers of the good news, let us work with the angels and be the difference the world needs to open its heart to the Gloria of Christmas this year.