Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rumors of Angels

Advent rolls into Christmas, and there are rumors of angels in the air. True, some of them are pretty tacky rumors: mass produced figures in shining robes to enhance seasonal sales, and Victoria’s Secret models exchanging the robes for underwear. Our era seems to have traded the fat flying babies of the Victorians for an image of the celestial being as seductress. But away from the marketplace the rumors are different.

St. Luke speaks of angels. Zechariah, priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, is overpowered by a presence who identifies itself as Gabriel, and informs him that his aged wife Elizabeth will bear a son who will be a powerful prophet of God. Soon thereafter the same angel turns up miles away in the village of Nazareth to inform a young woman named Mary that she will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High. In short order angels appear to reassure Joseph that it is all right to take Mary as his wife; a squadron of angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds in the field. Others advise the Wise Men to return home without visiting Herod, and Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt.

“What’s with all the angels?” the modern mind asks. And in a real sense, that is the sensible question for the ages. “What’s with all the angels?”  Indeed.

Angels, some scholars tell us, can often be understood as a kind of literary convention - when you read about angels you know there are big doings afoot. That describes the situation, but doesn’t really explain it. If angels are a literary convention, the deeper question is, “Why?” Could it be that angels are just what they purport to be, messengers from the very Source of all creation? Could it be that God Almighty, aware that we would be struck dead with terror at a full-blown manifestation of Divine Presence, courteously chooses to send lesser beings to communicate important messages?  Even the angels have to introduce themselves with the words, “Fear not!”  The spiritual literature of the world certainly hints at such an understanding.  And if the awestruck reaction of humans to these lesser beings is any indication, what must be the magnificence of the Source who sent them? In a profound sense these are unanswerable questions, but they stand as a signal that the events, which we commemorate in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, are beyond our very limited imaginations.

Take some time this weekend to hear the angels, and let your imagination take in the proposition that in a small corner of what would eventually be called the Middle East, among the Jewish people in a time when they lived under a conqueror, a baby boy was born into a poor Jewish family whose roots included King David.  This baby was in every way a child of his time and people, and yet was also the incarnation of the God who called all worlds into being, who called Israel out from all the nations, and today seeks to call all humanity out from sin and ignorance to become a new creation in a restored and renewed world.

Howard H. MacMullen, Jr.
© December, 2011

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