The Lessons of Angels

During the Advent and Christmas season we encounter angels, and their lessons, that until now I’ve neglected to talk about.

The first angel is the angel that visits Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. While in the Temple an angel appeared to him and announced the he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. This he announced despite their advanced years. Not believing this to be possible Zechariah asks for a sign. Instead he was struck silent, losing his voice until little John was born. While he doubted at first the experience did strengthen his faith. It was he who went on to say “Through the bottomless mercy of our God, one born on high will visit us to give light to those who walk in darkness, who live in the shadow of death; to lead our feet in the path of peace.” Through his encounter with an angel, Zechariah experienced a renewed faith.

Appearance of the Angel to Saint Joseph, by Georges de La Tour

The second angel is the heavenly messenger to St. Joseph. At the time Joseph was betrothed to Mary when it was discovered she was pregnant. While planning on divorcing her quietly, the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The angel who came to Joseph serves to remind us through encouragement to “Be not afraid.”

If ever there was a man who had reason to be afraid, it was Joseph. Jewish law dictated that a girl who became pregnant outside of marriage could be stoned to death. Joseph had reason to fear not only for Mary but also for himself. As they were betrothed he was the obvious culprit of her pregnancy in the eyes of their peers, and marrying her would be an admission of guilt. But upon hearing the word of the angel: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”, he responded with courage. He would respond with this same trait later when warned by an angel to take his fragile family and flee for safety into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution.

A third angel is the one who lead the Heavenly Hosts of angels who descended in a blaze of light and sang out “good news of great joy” to the Bethlehem shepherds. There is some speculation that this angel is Gabriel whom the shepherds receive and respond to. They put aside their fears and open their hearts to joy. They even imitate the angels in two ways: praising God by repeating the “glory!” of the heavenly choir, and they spread the news of Jesus’ birth. Taking faith and courage from the example given to them these simple and unlikely men become the first evangelists.

These are just a few of the examples we can take from the angels who appear and put to use in our own lives. I want to touch briefly upon another, one I took from reading a short story by J.B. Phillips called “The Visited Planet.”

In his story, a senior angel is showing a very young angel around the splendors of the universe. They view the whirling galaxies and blazing suns, and the fly across the infinite distances of space until they enter one particular galaxy.

As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

“I want you to watch that one particularly,” said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

“Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me,” said the little angel. “What’s special about that one?”

To this young angel the earth does not seem so impressive. He listens in stunned disbelief as the senior angle tells him that this planet, small and insignificant and not overly clean, was the renowned Visited Planet:

“Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, went down in Person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should He do a thing like that?”

“It isn’t for us,” said his senior a little stiffly, “to question His ‘why’s’, except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be. But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that. As to why He became one of them – how else do you suppose could He visit them?”

The little angels face wrinkled in disgust.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?”

“I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.”

The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.

It is beyond my comprehension as well. But I accept this notion as a key to understanding Christmas and that it is also a touchstone of my faith. That one night in the cold, in the dark, among the chilled hills of Bethlehem came God, entering into time and space. God, who knows no boundaries, took on the confines of a baby’s skin and the restraints of mortality.

It is from this non-biblical story, one that offers much food for thought, that I glean the lesson of humility.

Faith. Courage. Humility. Lessons to take with us beyond Christmas and throughout rest of the year.

*****

A great representation of this last lesson is found in Terrence Malick’s wonderful film The Tree of Life. Below is a portion of his creation sequence from the movie.

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