Angels 101

Christmas 2017
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.

It’s Christmas, so I should tell you what you need to know about angels. Think of it as Angels 101.

They can appear out of nowhere. Angels will scare the hell out of you, deliver a revelation that blows your mind, then suddenly depart, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, “OK, What was that all about? Can I trust this revelation? Or was it just the pizza I ate last night? Do I build my life on what I have received here? Or maybe I should just forget this ever happened, go back to business as usual.

A story. In 1914, the guns of August sounded, sending Europe into war. As Christmas drew near, the Pope called for a cease-fire. The generals replied: “Impossible!” The German High Command told their troops, “Let your hearts beat to God during the coming season, but keep your fists on the enemy.”

But on sundown on Christmas Eve, the troops did not heed the generals. The firing stopped. Soldiers on both sides came out of the trenches, sang carols, exchanged gifts. On Christmas Day, they ate together and played soccer. Then, as evening fell, they embraced each other and said good-bye. Christmas was over.

The next day it was war as usual. The vision was gone, the angel had departed as it were, and anger and isolation returned, and more bloodshed, more families back home in tears.

It was a one-time event; it never happened again. A young English soldier wrote home that the Germans were friendly, “jolly good fellows.” At the end of his letter, he stated simply the puzzling thing about that Christmas truce: “Both sides have started firing and are enemies again. Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

Strange it all seems, doesn’t it? This strangeness is a door to what some call the miracle of Christmas. For a moment, this young soldier glimpsed a truth beneath everyday logic, a Word deeper than all the other words, a bond with the enemy soldiers that ran beneath all the overwhelming political conflicts and struggles. “Strange it all seems, doesn’t it?”

When such conflicting visions and words alternate rapidly, we become confused. If I say that the Christmas Day communion the soldiers experienced is what is most true, then I’ll be at odds with the majority of people in the world around me, as strange as a Christmas truce. But if I choose the popular line that war is both inevitable and endless, then the Christmas truce becomes a mere blip on the radar screen, a freak occurrence. I may be puzzled or amazed by it for a moment, but then I just go back to business as usual.

Ultimately, whenever a deeper truth reveals itself, we are at a crossroads. We can ignore it and continue with the everyday tasks that claim our attention–holding down our job, caring for loved ones, shopping for groceries, walking the dog–or we can open the gift that has been given, ponder what it means for us.

We find this to be true all through the scriptures. Again and again, as people watch what Jesus does and says, they have to decide what it will mean for them. Some say, “Wow! Did you see what that guy did?! Amazing!” Then they turn around and go back to business as usual. Others shrug their shoulders and say, “OK, well, that was weird.” And they turn and go back to business as usual.

But there are others who bypass the amazement and move to a deeper level. They ponder what the revelation means, and what implications it may have for them. Among these ponderers is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

When the angel first announces she is to be the mother of the Messiah, Luke says she deliberates. She does not immediately answer Yes, does not just blindly obey. She puts the Creator of heaven and earth on hold, carefully considers whether to trust such a preposterous revelation, whether she can build her life on it. Mary is a woman who thinks. She deliberates.

And once she does finally say yes–to God’s great joy and relief–then the pondering begins. What will this mean for her, her relationship with her soon-to-be husband, her family and her community and her people? Are there things she must now set aside, or new things she must now do or do differently? What are the implications of a revelation such as this? Mary ponders what it will mean for her.

And later, as this evening’s gospel reports, after all that happens on this night–the emperor’s census, the perilous journey to Bethlehem, the failed attempt to find lodging, the giving birth in a homeless encampment, the report from scruffy shepherds that an angel had appeared to them, the tiny child in her arms gazing into her eyes–after all this, Luke says “Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” Mary is not merely amazed at it all, she also ponders.

I suspect those of us who are LGBT have a unique insight into pondering.

Because we’ve received a revelation. It’s about who we are at a profound level. In light of this revelation, we deliberate: Do we embrace this revelation? Can we trust it, build a life on it?

And if we do we embrace it, then the pondering goes deeper: What do I do now? Do I tell my family and friends, my colleagues, my boss, my landlord? How will I handle their range of reactions? Should I let myself fall in love? How will I not only survive but also stand against a culture that isn’t always sure of our right to exist? We LGBT folks know how to ponder.

And this feast in which God becomes flesh, this, too, is a moment for pondering. A revelation has been given to us about the very heart of the universe. It’s about Jesus, whom one writer calls the Compassion of God.

  • Jesus, who doesn’t cling to his divine power but becomes a fragile child, gazing up with unspeakable trust into the face of his mother;
  • Who later says, “Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • Who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind, goes among the outcasts where love has not yet arrived, and by eating with them, reminds them of their own loveliness and thereby renders them lovely.
  • Who ultimately dies alone, rejected and despised;

Jesus, the Compassion of God.

So much to ponder here. How do we explain this everlasting God becoming an immigrant, crossing the border into our history, sharing fully our moments of love and laughter, our pleasures and delights, our pains and struggles and disappointments, the ups and downs of our days? How to explain this immigrant God?

Tonight’s revelation is mind-blowing. It runs so completely counter to the logic of the world, the logic of Wall Street and national defense programs, the logic that urges us to climb to the top at all costs, acquire more power, more money, more respect, and fame.

How do we account for the downward movement of God on this holy night? We have so much to ponder.

And what will tonight’s revelation mean for you? Can you trust it? Can you build your life on it? How will it affect your relationships? Your career?  

How will it affect how you respond to all that has happened these last few years: 

  • an increasingly shrill white supremacy at Charlottesville; 
  • the police killings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez, of Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, Philando Castile and so many others; 
  • the sexual exploitation of women, 
  • the brutal tearing apart of immigrant families, 
  • the growing economic inequality and the swelling numbers of homeless on our streets, 
  • the drums of war growing louder each day

After all this, how will the revelation of this holy night how you respond to the way things are now?

If you say yes to the revelation of this night, will there be things you must now set aside, and new tasks to take up in the coming year, new adventures, new risks? What will the revelation of this holy night mean for you?

These are questions I can’t answer for you. Confronted with a revelation like this, we must each stand on our own two feet. There’s not one size that fits us all. We must each make our own decisions before God. I can’t tell you how to respond.

But I can hope that, like Mary, you will ponder this night’s revelation. And maybe these words will help. They come from an unlikely place, from the pen of a 16th-century friar.

I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you do not have. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

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