Do you awaken in the night, worried your theology of angels is adequate? – Me either. At Christmas angels wing their ways from realms of glory with announcements, visions and warnings, and heavenly choirs. I doubt they resemble the angel atop the Christmas tree – Victorian females in formal gowns. That doesn’t fit Gabriel. Nor do angels look like chubby, harp-playing cherubs. Such depictions of angels came later in history. In our day Guardian angels are the genre of interest. Who couldn’t use a little extra protection and guidance through this present veil of tears especially if God isn’t working for you?
Some years ago a husband died, leaving a wife and teenager. The wife was certain her husband was now her guardian angel. Not wanting to disabuse her of her preferred grief coping mechanism, I kept quiet, thinking, “Wow! How quickly that ‘devil’ who wouldn’t take out the garbage or change a light bulb has become an angel.” Better hope absent-minded priests don’t get second careers as guardian angels – like a Teague. Based on my earthly track record, you wouldn’t want us. The name “Teague” I think, means “helpless” – “loses stuff and misplaces keys, cell phones and whatever is not attached.”
In the Greek, “angel” means messenger, a being God sends to enlist someone for a divine cause. That can mean trouble, not comfort. Mary’s confused by Gabe’s strange greeting. She hears she’s favored. She hears the angel out and consents to God’s request – without knowing what she’s getting into. Clearly, she trusts this angel and what God is doing. Does she have a choice? I believe so. God wants consenting partners, and won’t force one to accept the challenge, or smite you for refusing. Notice who God chooses – not just saints, the powerful or well-to-do – those most likely to succeed. God favors the lowly and least, like Mary. And as she tells it, God scatters the proud; brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly. Mary’s child Jesus, who humbles himself to join his life to ours, will show us what that means. Pride won’t last in God’s realm – that sort of pride that let us think we are better than, deserve better, or know more than others. Some refuse to learn. No problem – life circumstances, rather than Jesus will be their teacher. Getting knocked off your throne doesn’t feel so good, I hear.
Modernity is a little edgy with angel visitations, virgin births and wandering stars – and rightly so. Some so fear Christmas they rent billboards to warn you it’s dangerous to be in here. I think that’s amusing. Long ago people didn’t question belief in God. That was a given. Faith meant having a right relationship with God – one of trusting that God is always for and with you. Faith grows from an encounter with a force and power of love that transforms and changes lives by forgiveness, unconditional love and welcome, not condemnation and guilt. Mary willingly brings into human flesh the miracle of God’s love within us. The Holy Spirit continually offers to bring the birth of God within us, too. Like Mary, we must consent.
Don’t worry if you’re uncertain about your theology of angels. Jesus never said your salvation depends on what you believe – not even about his momma. Is your encounter with the living God transforming you – that’s the crucial question? Angels, churches, John the Baptist – bring the message. They’re not the message. They point to a larger truth and reality. What matters is that you and I invite God to change and reshape us, as Mary does. God comes in our flesh to dwell among and within us.
Emmanuel – God with us – can happen when a Christmas carol moves you with joy and tears rise up suddenly from a deep place inside. God is with us when we think of the children of Our Next Generation, people at Repairers of the Breach or the Hospitality Center in these Holy Days – and we feel do something. God is with us when prayers for others spontaneously bubble up from nowhere; when the pain and suffering of this world get to us; when we love without waiting for others to love us first. God is with us when we listen for another’s pain and fear, and hold it with them. God is with us when we refrain from responding in anger or nurse negative thoughts; when we can learn to laugh again; when we focus on what is good, rather than what is wrong with others. God is with us, continually bringing new life to birth in us when we pay attention. And when a big smile breaks across your face suddenly – you’re paying attention.
We are well-educated people here. We are not easily taken in. I cannot prove how or that God comes to us. But I know it is true – by faith. If you trust God is here, you’re more likely to see God present and at work in and through you. If God can raise the raise the dead, surely the Creator of the Universe can come as God desires – even as one of us. Sometimes we are unable to explain what our little minds can never prove or comprehend – we just point to such truth.
Supposedly Joan of Arc, when on trial, was asked by an archbishop, “Do you claim to hear angels?” She replied, “Yes, don’t you?” Amused, the archbishop says, “No, I don’t.” Her response: “What a pity that you are an archbishop and can’t hear the songs of angels.” What a pity if we hear the story of Christmas, yet miss the God who comes to love us so much.