In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to 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 now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. ~Luke 1:26-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Angels are woven into the fabric of the Christmas story. An angel speaks to Mary. An angel speaks to Joseph. A whole host of angels sing to the shepherds the night of Jesus’s birth. Angels are one of my favorite parts of the season and my home is visual testimony to the love I have for them. My tree is exclusively decorated with a variety of angels ranging from flying cherubim to crystal-winged figures to chubby ceramic forms to the light-up angel that is perched at very top. There are angels painted in the most beautiful colors and a lot of angels that are shiny gold or more traditional white. Interspersed are the angels my grandmother crocheted for me before she passed many years ago. These special angels appear annually and one of my favorite things to do to center myself during the season is to pour a cup of tea, turn off all the other lights in the house and simply enjoy the glow of the angels who reflect the lights of the tree.
In another corner in my home is a gathering of angels who are present year-round. Many are angels who have been given to me by friends, family members and parishioners who know that I collect them. The variety in that grouping of angels is stunning and, because each one comes with a story, the collection has deep meaning.
As people of faith, we’ve done a pretty good job of giving the angels a special place with special meaning. And like the rest of the Christmas story, we’ve done a pretty good job of cleaning them up to fit more nicely in our nativity scenes, on our Christmas cards and yes, even on our Christmas trees. The angels of the gospels were far from the peaceful symbols we enjoy. It seems they were downright frightening and their visits were quite unsettling. Usually when they appear, the first words of their mouths are “fear not” which makes me think that were addressing the reality that they scared people to death. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary is no exception. Luke lets us in the interaction. Gabriel’s opening words set the stage: “Greeting, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But Mary doesn’t rush over, give him a big hug and jump up and down with excitement. She is “much perplexed” which I think is another way of saying “scared speechless.” Before Gabriel can deliver the message in its entirety, he first has to share those familiar words: “Do not be afraid.”
Why is everyone afraid? I think part of the fear must come from the actual appearance of the angels. Mary is alone when the angel appears; his visit in not expected. Joseph is struggling when the angel talks to him; but once again, his visit not expected. The shepherds are merely going about their work, watching their sheep by night, when the whole group of angels appears to them to sing the good news; I’m pretty sure they were not expecting a heavenly host that night. And if that weren’t enough, the message of the angels can be somewhat disconcerting. It’s “good news” but not easy news. Mary is told she is pregnant – pregnant with God’s son! There’s a message you don’t hear very often. Joseph is told to go ahead and marry his very pregnant fiancé – even though the kid isn’t his. You think he was struggling before the message? I’m thinking the struggle got even more real after the visit from the angel. We read the shepherds were surprised but curiosity got the best of them and they decide to go and check it out and see if the message is real or fake news. What would I have done? That’s the question I often ponder as I sit in the glow of my Christmas tree during this season. What was it like to receive a special messenger from God? How would I have responded to the message? What was it like to be part of God’s plan? Could I have possibly said, “let it be according to your word”?
I don’t hear too many stories of angel visits today. It might be a storyline for a TV show or movie or the plot of a book, but winged creatures aren’t part of our world. But does that mean God doesn’t have messengers anymore? Does it mean God quit sending messages? In my wider faith community, the United Church of Christ, we proclaim boldly “God is Still Speaking”. So, as I sit in the glow of my Christmas tree with the light reflecting off the angels, I also need to ask myself these questions: “Who are God’s special messengers in the world today? How do I know they are from God? How will I recognize their voice? What message do they have for me? How will I respond? Am I afraid, perplexed, confused, intrigued?”
We may not each have an angel tree. We may not each have an angel collection. But I do believe the story of the season invites us to listen and reflect. Who are the messengers God sends to you? What message do they bring? Will you hear them?
Rev. Sandy J. Damhof, Director. Sandy has served as the Protestant Campus Minister at UAlbany for 15 years, Sandy is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. She has served churches in the Bronx, NY and Delmar, NY and now resides in Albany with her husband, Curt. She is the founding pastor of Journey United Church of Christ, a new church start located in Glenmont, NY.