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The Messenger, the Mystery, and the Meaning
Luke 1:26-38
by DG Bradley

Have you noticed that there is a lot of interest in angels today? There are at least two current popular movies about angels, one very popular television show about angels (not counting reruns of Highway to Heaven). According to one source, the number of books in print in the United States has increased in the past five years from five to about 200. One can buy angel pins, calendars, pictures, stories, and all manner of items with angel motifs. The Hoosier United Methodist recently asked a few United Methodist ministers and members if they believed in angels? All said they did. I am not sure that this is necessarily good. There are those who see the current interest in angels ". . . as a sign of spiritual confusion rather than spiritual awakening."1 I am not sure if the present fascination with angels is good or bad, probably a little of both. I do know that believing in angels is not part of the articles of belief of Christianity. I also know that the author of the Letter (or Epistle) to the Hebrews in the New Testament had to contend with the beliefs of a cult devoted to angels as the superior divine beings, trying to convince them that Jesus Christ is much more than an angel. I also note that in the article in the Hoosier United Methodist that none of those who said they believed in angels also said that they had ever seen or been contacted by an angel.

Do I believe in angels? I would say "Yes, but not as most people think of angels." I agree with C. S. Lewis who once wrote,

"Fra Angelico's angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft . . . and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art . . . They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying 'Fear not!' The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, 'There, there.'"

In my office, I have a picture of an angel of which I think C. S. Lewis would approve. It is a picture of an angel unlike any I have ever seen. The face is mysterious, more like a giant button or the mask of Darth Vader than any human. If some such appearing being suddenly did appear to me, a firm "Do not be afraid!" would be necessary before further communication could proceed.

I also have never seen an angel, to the best of my knowledge. What I do know about angels is what most people have: mention of angels in Holy Scripture, pictures and drawings, literary depictions of angels, movies. Up until recently, there was little talk about angels, except at Christmas where they suddenly proliferate in scripture and hymn and Christmas card art. I personally like angels, but I do not like the way angels are depicted. I agree with C. S. Lewis that angels, along with much of Christian thought and symbol has been made so saccharine, so unoffensive, so soft and comfortable, that Christianity has come to mean that which is bland, innocuous, and removed from all that is harsh and hard in reality. The temptation is to think that goodness is weakness, therefore all that is good or godly must be weak. Therefore we turn the mighty angels of heaven from beings whose very appearance requires reassurance to sweet little things that could not scare a fly. Therefore, we turn Christmas from an awe inspiring proclamation of the power and purpose of God being present with us in Jesus Christ into a festival of coziness, shopping, and glitter. Somehow the messenger, the mystery, and the meaning are diluted.

I do believe in angels, but not in the way most people think of them. I believe angels are messengers of God, not mere helpers like Santa's elves to help us attain our wishes. I believe angels are messengers of God who bring both the mystery and meaning of God's power, presence, and purpose into the actuality and reality of our limited dimension of existence and being. Far from what Hollywood shows, the presence of the divine is neither dreamy nor unreal, but truly real, super-real, if you wish. It is the darkness and half-seen aspect of this world that is illuminated to reflect the true glory of God's creation so that we are given a glimpse of what is true and good.

There appeared to Mary, a young woman in a small town in the hills of Galilee, an angel named Gabriel, the strong warrior who stands in the presence of God, who greeted Mary as one favored by God, who told her that the Lord is with her. Then the angel told Mary not to be afraid, for she has found favor with God, that she will conceive and bear a son, whom she will name Jesus for He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end. When Mary asked how this could be, the angel told her, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God." And Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

This is a wondrous message. The apostle Paul referred to the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed. Now so much makes sense. God brings the divine love and grace into the world through the flesh of a child who unbinds the chains of sin and evil in all its delusions and oppressions that enslave the world. The angel messenger brings a message of mystery and meaning that Mary accepts with faith and obedience.

There is an old saying, "After the ecstasy is the dishes." What happened afterwards seemed so ordinary. There was a birth. There was a child to be raised. There was cleaning and meals and washing, and all the needs of life and work. Angels are not mentioned much after the shepherds returned to the fields. It was into such a world of ordinary needs and deeds that the most extraordinary event occurred. It was into our world that the Christ, the Messiah, was born about whom the angels sing.

There was one other angel mentioned in the Gospel. After the crucifixion of Jesus, after the burial, when the women came on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Jesus, there was an angel who asked them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

Do I believe in angels? I believe in Jesus Christ of whom the angels sing. I believe in the mystery of the ages that is disclosed in Jesus Christ. I believe in the meaning of the message given to Mary, that her child is great, is called the Son of the Most High, and of his kingdom there will be no end. I believe that we have been given a wondrous gift of love and power and hope and victory. I believe that the meaning of Christmas is so wondrous that all our festive finery is a pale reflection of the joy in heaven whenever any person, be it sinner, seeker, child, or adult, feels the presence and love of God through Jesus Christ and enters into the grace of God to be reborn and transformed.

Again the message is given to us. Again all we can do is to accept or reject the offer of God's love and grace, to say, "Here am I. Let be to me as you have said." Let the mystery and message of Christmas open the reality of God to us and to all the world that we too may sing with all of heaven with joy and wonder today and forever.

Amen and Amen.