Luke 2:8-11 NRSV In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
There are few biblical characters so misunderstood and so frequently misused in contemporary Christendom as the angels. They are reduced to our personal servants, on call to protect our stuff, and to speak encouragements to us as we blithely continue in our unfettered pursuit of affluence and influence. We render them either as cherubs – childlike, fat and happy on our Christmas cards, or as models of the human feminine form (think Roma Downey in the TV series Touched by and Angel). These are both an effort to domesticate what in scripture are clearly wild and powerful messengers from God who begin every encounter with “Fear not!” precisely because the natural human response to a real angel is usually terror.
So why is it that we want so badly to domesticate God’s messengers? Perhaps the answer to that would be unique for each of us, but I suspect that we might have many impulses in common. Maybe we are afraid that if we were to encounter a real messenger of God that the message would be really life-changing. God might have high expectations, or maybe just want us to question some of our most cherished and settled assumptions. Maybe we would discover that God was asking of us something new – something outside our comfort zone.
But we can gather our courage by reflecting on the messages already received this Advent/Christmas season. God is with us! God is profoundly for us! God desires peace and goodwill on earth! If God sends a challenging message it is no doubt for our good. If God asks us to “leave [our] father’s house and our country and our kindred and go . . .” then God will be asking nothing less of us than has already been asked of our spiritual ancestors. We need not fear the messengers nor the messages they bring because both are sent by the One who loves us more deeply than we are ever likely to know – One who loves us so much that love came down, was incarnate, and dwells among us full of grace and truth even now.
All my heart this night rejoices,
As I hear, far and near, sweetest angel voices;
“Christ is born,” their choirs are singing,
Till the air, everywhere, now their joy is ringing.
For it dawns, the promised morrow
Of His birth, Who the earth rescues from her sorrow.
God to wear our form descendeth;
Of His grace to our race here His Son He sendeth.
[Hymn Lyrics by Paul Gerhardt; translated from German by Catherine Winkworth 1858.]