The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, D.D.
Christmas is a complex time!
From its “religious” context, Christmas challenges our early twenty-first century understanding of the polarity between the possible and impossible. The story of Christmas is about God being born into the world in the form of a tiny baby named Jesus. It is about magi: kings or astronomers from Persia, who followed a star until it brought them to Bethlehem in Judea and who visit the newborn with expensive gifts. It is about the good news of the birth of Jesus announced first to shepherds … the lowliest of outcasts. Why would God choose them? And then all of this was announced in one way or another by angels. From a practical, empirical point of view it lacks plausibility. Yet the story works because it is all about angels and miracles. It’s all about Christmas.
Angels! And what about angels? We place facsimiles of them on top of our Christmas trees. We image them in our ecclesiastical art as having wings, as seraphs, of being Anglo-Saxon in appearance, of beings wispy and ethereal and as somehow being the very voice and presence of God in the telling of the Christmas story.
Lots of folks wear angel pins on their clothing. Maybe there are a few here tonight wearing their angels. When I used to race Sprint Cars, someone gave me a sticker to place in the cockpit of my race car that read, “Never drive faster than your angel can fly.” I didn’t respond well to the message.
In our liturgical celebration of Christmas in our churches we sing Christmas carols laced with the imagery of angels. There are 37 carols in our Episcopal hymnal; of that number 22 make specific references to angels. In the book of the Old and New Testaments, angels are mentioned more than 40 times as messengers and intermediaries between God and humankind. There can be no mistake about it: in our various religious traditions and beliefs, angels are pretty important!
Nativity pageants at our churches employ lots of children dressed in what we think angels would have looked like in Jesus’ time. You simply couldn’t have a Christmas pageant without lots of angels dressed in white, with feathery glued wings of cardboard and with heads encircled with golden halos. It just wouldn’t do! It just wouldn’t be Christmas!
Christmas movie classics play to our religious traditions by depiction the role of angels in the lives of people. There’s the bishop’s wife, with the angel Dudley, played by Cary Grant. Then there’s Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, with Clarence the angel who finally got his wings. And then Charles Dickens visits Scrooge with the presence of three angelic specters: “past,” “present,” and “future.”
The angel Gabriel plays a very prominent part as God’s messenger to the Israelites of the Old Testament, in announcing Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in revealing God’s teaching to the prophet Muhammad in the Koran. It is interesting, is it not, that in the three great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, so often divided by theological interpretation and corrupting political influence, that God would send the same angel, Gabriel, to be the unifier and the intermediary between heaven and earth?
In truth, human beings of many religious persuasions have from the beginning of time believed that angels exist as intermediaries between God and humankind.
When was the last time an angel visited you? And do we really believe that God continues to speak to us in deep dreams and in direct angelic, physical encounters? That, my brothers and sisters, is one of the great challenges of the Christmas season and the Christmas story! And it is the challenge of miracles!
But I’m here to tell you that as theologically challenging as it may seem, the mysteries of God’s presence in our lives are often announced through the presence of angels. And in the classic sense they appear sometimes in dreams … and sometimes in person. And Christmas is the annual reminder that there have been, are, and always will be angels among us.
Think of those “aha” moments in your life when for whatever reason someone you didn’t know either came to your rescue, brought you great news, healed your soul, reminded you that everything was going to be ok, or raised your level of consciousness about the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the forgotten among us. Could it be the person who rings a bell at a Salvation Army kettle outside your favorite supermarket is an angel? Could it be that the poor homeless person on the street that you pass by in the busyness of your work day downtown and who calls out for compassion and help is an angel reminding you of your responsibility to care for your fellow human beings. Could it be that the wisdom of a little child opening presents in wonderment on Christmas morning represents one of God’s tinier angels reminding us through their unbridled joy and ecstasy that through giving and receiving… God’s own love and affection for each of us abounds?
And tonight Bethlehem, the city of Christ’s birth is in need of another angel born miracle. When we read, pray, and sing about the little town of Bethlehem, can we believe that the huge concrete wall and guard houses that surround that city will be torn down? And that once again Palestinian Christians will be able to join their fellow Christians from around the world to pray, worship, and celebrate the birth of Christ in the Church of the Nativity and in Bethlehem Square as they once did before politics, self-righteousness, and violence claimed the city as a twenty-first century Trinity of shame?
If Christmas is about angels and miracles, then Christmas must be also be about believing that with God, all things are possible. And I for one am a believer! Look around you tonight! And as we sing Christmas carols, pray to our God, and receive the sacrament of Christ’s body in the Holy Eucharist and celebrate the birth of Jesus, think: Might there be angels among us tonight? And if so, what miracles and messages might they bring to us and to the church in the New Year? Be prepared! For God’s promises never fail!