The Messenger, the Mystery, and the Meaning
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
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
Amen and Amen.