At Christmas time, children are captured by the images. Children want to know why and how and when and where. Children want to know about the angels.
Angels are the messengers of God. We don’t know much about them – what they look like, where they live – but we know two important things about them. They carry out important tasks for God, and they show up to deliver important messages for God.
In the Christmas story, there are several angel appearances.
First, an angel appears to Zechariah, Mary’s cousin-in-law. Zechariah was a priest, described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God." Getting the opportunity actually to go into the temple and present the incense offering was a rare honor that a priest might get only once or twice in his life. On this day, as told in the first chapter of Luke, it is finally Zechariah's turn, and in he goes. He is promptly met by the angel Gabriel, who tells Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth (who is, according to Luke, "very old") are going to have a baby (who will turn out to be John the Baptist). Zechariah's response is "How do I know you are telling me the truth?"
Too often, we have the same reaction. Here is Zechariah, a priest, a man of God, who is in the very temple of God. He meets an angel, and by all accounts he understands that it is an angel. And yet, Zechariah has the temerity to doubt what the angel has to say. “How do I know you are not lying to me?”
Perhaps as a sign, and perhaps as a bit of reprimand, Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute on the spot, and Zechariah does not speak again until the baby John is born.
Why would this righteous priest not believe a communication from God delivered to him face to face by an angel? Why do we so often miss the message of the angels?
Perhaps Zechariah was simply not ready for a holy communique′. Like many of us, he was going through his churchy motions and making his religious noises, but the last thing he may have expected was for God’s messenger in fact to show up. Failing to expect to hear a message from God in church is a real danger; we get used to church and forget that things can happen here. And we get used to Christmas and forget that things can happen now; we can not expect the angels’ song to be for us today. The phenomenon of approaching the altar of God without really seeking God is particularly a hazard for those of us who make church a habit, for whom the sanctuary can become routine. For God to honor our service and actually appear may not be on the radar of those of us who are simply going about our business.
There may be another explanation for Zechariah's immediate disbelief, however. Maybe Zechariah was ready for a word from God but did not prepare for the message to be personal. He thought God might speak to the nation, not to him. It is one thing to expect God to give a sweeping declaration to all people. It is something else for God to deliver an individual message just to Zechariah, just to you, just to me.
My thoughts turn to our nation. Whether the issue is race, socio-economics, or patriarchy, a comparison of today to the hard times of the past and a prediction of what good things will happen in the future is distant. That is information for the generations, a sweeping gesture that is doubtless correct and in its own way uplifting but still remote, still impersonal.
Sometimes, we prepare for the general announcement and are not ready for a personal call. What if God wants me to make a difference in my community, today? What if I am supposed to be part of the answer? What if the angel is speaking to me about what I am supposed to do, not proclaiming a broad dictate for the nation over the next fifty years?
This Advent, we hear the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth." That sounds so general, so futuristic, so all-encompassing: one day, God will wipe away every tear and end all strife, and there will indeed be peace on earth.
But what if those angels are singing now to us, individually? What if we are supposed to be making that peace? What if God is calling us (not someone else) to make a change here (not somewhere else) now (not in the future)? What if Christmas ought to be making a difference where we live today and tomorrow and the next day? After all, Jesus has come. He lives in each of us. What if peace on earth really is supposed to begin with me, with my neighbors, with my block, with my community, with my city?
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Am I ready to meet the angel, and if I am, am I ready for the angel to speak to me ... about me?
The next angelic appearance in the Christmas story is the appearance of Gabriel to Mary with the declaration of God’s outrageous plan. And what is Mary’s response?
“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be. . .?’” [Luke 1:34]
I do not read Mary’s question as doubt. She is not suspicious or distrustful like Zechariah, and Gabriel does not react the same way with her as he did with Zechariah. Mary is asking for guidance – “How is this going to work, Gabriel?” – and so she is not struck dumb but rather given a rather overwhelming explanation of virgin conception. It is not doubt when you simply do not understand how a miracle works, and God and His angels are not offended when we admit it and ask for more information.
If you know many people who went to law school, then you know a lot of people who hated it. This is not a universal rule (I actually kind of liked it), but it is close. They hate it because it is hard. They hate it because it is competitive. They hate it because if they do not begin studying during Week One, they will be so hopelessly behind by the middle of the term that they can kiss a good grade good-bye.
But most of all, many people hate law school because they have to learn how to think all over again. My professors called the business of law school “teaching students how to think like a lawyer.” That meant tossing out our liberal arts training of philosophical reasoning or our business school marketing plans and placing in our minds instead a process of examining statutes and rules and precedents, and then questioning everything until we came to a basic core value. Now, whether I am reading a case or talking about my child’s school day, I cannot help but think through the concepts differently. I have to question.
I am trained to question. If my legal training has done nothing else, it has helped me get over the pretending to know all there is to know about God and to be willing to question things.
When it comes to religion, we want to run from questions, as if expressing uncertainty and confusion or admitting that things do not make sense to us would be an indication of failure as a Christian. Instead of recognizing that our limited human minds could never grasp the fullness of God or the intricacies of His plan, we want to pretend that we “get it” all the time with complete understanding. We lose track of the idea that we can ask as Mary did without the misgiving of Zechariah.
There may be no better example than how we approach the story of the birth of Christ. Perhaps it is because we know the story by heart, but most of us never really question why God chose to enter the world as an infant in a cave outside a hamlet some distance from any metropolitan city.
We know the Christmas story so well, from the word going out from Caesar Augustus to the days being accomplished that she should be delivered to the swaddling clothes to the heavenly host to the flight to Egypt to Mary keeping all of these things in her heart. It may well take you back for me to suggest that there are many legitimate “questions of Christmas.”
I bet that if you begin thinking about the questions of Christmas, you will have trouble coming up with any beyond “What Child is This?” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” After that, your questions of Christmas most likely are wondering which of the twelve days has those leaping lords and who in the world are Jeannette and Isabella and why are they bringing a torch?
But if you do think about the story, then I believe that you, like Zechariah and like Mary, will respond with questions. You may have an angel explain it to you, but whether in doubt or in reverence, your honest reaction will include a “what?” or a “how?” And if you get beyond that, it is not unreasonable to ask, “What were the angels possibly talking about?”
That brings us to that third angelic part of the Christmas story, our scripture for today from Luke 2, the appearance of first one, then a multitude of the angels. “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
And then a multitude of angels join for their song of peace on earth.
Certainly, the coming of the Christ child did not end the bitter struggles of His people against the Romans occupying their homeland. Clearly the birth of the promised child has not chilled the aggression that has characterized history for the last two thousand years, just as it typified humanity for thousands of years before His coming. Though we look for it longingly, we have not yet seen even a week pass that could be described as world peace. War and strife continue.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Does that ring hollow to you?
Surely the angels knew that the wars, and battles, and insults, and lies, and gossip, and anger that define humanity would continue, yet they filled the sky with glorious song. What did they understand that we may not yet grasp?
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from His roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD— and He will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what He sees with His eyes or decide by what He hears with His ears; but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth; with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put His hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:1-9]
There is an answer here. It may not make “sense” in the way the courts would want it proven by evidence or a scientist would want to test a hypothesis, but there is an answer here, waiting to be believed.
The answer that the angels understood was – and is - and is… that His coming brings peace. Not the absence of fighting – for His coming surely does not subtract from our world. No, the angels knew, as Isaiah knew, that this rod of Jesse would bring something new and that that something would confound the wisdom of this world. God's creation, which had strained at the wrong course of things since the day the forbidden fruit was eaten, could once again rest. God was in charge, and there was once again a way. Salvation has come to the world, and all war and strife will cease one day, for those things no longer govern. This little child is the One who shall lead them, and the government is on His shoulder.
It is no more startling to see a wolf and a lamb dwelling together, or a cow and a bear feeding congenially from the same place, than it is to let a little child lead. It is ironic to us that peace should be brought by one so apparently powerless, but God's creatures – His angels, the lion, the bear, the viper, and the lamb – know the master's voice, and the world is at peace. Creation sees and knows the Prince of Peace. That is why the leopard and the goat will lie down together, for they will both hear the same command from the same ruler.
The coming of the child is, in Isaiah's words, a sign for the people that His rest shall be glorious. We know that the struggles will have an end. The victory is sure. From the perspective of a people rising above the worldly tumult to see that we are on the holy mountain of the Lord, we understand that God's plan is in place. God – not evil – is in control, for He has sent His little child to lead. The lion knows it. The leopard knows it. All of His creation knows it and is at peace.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.
I don’t know how much you know about Christmas carols from other nations and traditions, but there are some interesting things to notice. In the Canadian “Huron Carol” written by a French missionary to the native peoples of the Sault Sainte Marie area, the lyrics go like this:
Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled,
that mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim,
and wandering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria."
Within a lodge of broken bark the tender Babe was found,
a ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapp'd His beauty round.
But as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angel song rang loud and high... "Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria."
The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
as was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria.
O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou,
the Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy who brings you beauty, peace and joy. "Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, In excelsis gloria."
[Jean de. Brébeuf, 1623, tr. Jessie Edgar Middleton, 1926]
The Sussex carol is: “On Christmas night all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring.” The Spanish “Riu Riu Chiu” tells of the voices of a thousand angels bringing the news of the boy’s birth. The Zambian carol Kikongo reflects the angels’ song: “Here’s good news for everyone; great happiness is ours! Rejoice and be glad for the savior has come to the earth from God!” And how does that crazy British one, “I Saw Three Ships,” end? “And all the angels of heaven shall sing on Christmas day in the morning.”
Do you see what I am getting at? No matter the tradition, no matter the geography, there are two constants in the telling of the Christmas story. The baby Jesus, and the angels. The other details may be altered – shepherds may become hunter braves and the Magi may be chiefs from far away. The trinity may be represented as three ships, or the setting may be the forest.
But we always have Jesus. And we always have angels.
On that night on the hills outside Bethlehem, the angel preaches the most basic of gospel sermons.
“Fear not.” Just like Jesus Himself, whether He is walking on water or teaching the future apostles to pull in miraculous hauls of fish or raising the dead, the angel opens with “Fear Not.” Jesus is here. The angels are telling us that our reason for fear has vanished.
“Good tidings.” The gospel is good news. The angels have nothing but good things to say, so you’d better listen.
“Great joy.” This is worth getting excited about.
“To all people.” Jesus has come first to the Jews, starting in a little town of Bethlehem, and then to the Gentiles. No matter the magnitude of the sins you committed just yesterday. For God so loved the world.
“A savior is born.” Jesus came to seek and to save. You are no longer lost. Your nightmare is over. You are saved.
“You will find the child,” if you just seek Him. The angels will give you the sign. You always know the signs. You just have to seek.
And then, when that sermon is over, the choir special starts. Have you ever wondered what that choir practice was like? Jaroslav Vajda captured it well in his translation of the old Slovak poetry. I believe the angels had been waiting since the beginning, watching the Father’s creation spin dangerously askew as humankind exercised the precious gift of freedom to indulge their sinful natures, and I believe the angels were heartbroken. But then Gabriel was given a mission, and they knew that something was about to happen, and they began to plan, to practice, to prepare, and to pray. On that night before they broke the sky asunder, they must have been so excited, nervously shifting back and forth on their celestial feet until Michael told them it was time. And just before they began to sing, their seraph choirmaster must have said, “Before the marvel of this night, adoring, fold your wings and bow. Then, tear the sky apart with light, and with your news the world endow. Sing peace, sing bliss, sing love!” [Jaroslav Vajda, “Before the Marvel of this Night,” 1981]
Glory to God. This is His work, whether you know Him as Gitchi Manitou or Jehovah or Father God. All glory to Him.
And on earth, peace.
Do not question the peace as Zechariah did, in doubt and dumb disbelief growing out of his bad habits and his utter unreadiness to meet God. Let you questions be as those of Mary, questions of wonder and seeking, questions asking for direction as you recognize your place in this plan, questions that are followed by the prayer: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” [Luke 1:38] And after that prayer follows praise, as Mary’s Magnificat follows her growing understanding of the promise growing within her.
Mary’s kinds of questions are ok. We can ask questions as a child asks questions. Like wonderful, expectant children who want to know the “why” of everything they are learning, we should hear the angels’ song and ask, “How?” “What can I do to help?” “Show me how this works.” We need to find the child within us, or we may miss the child of Christmas.
When we cannot think of the questions, we have bypassed the mystery. We have wandered without looking for that guiding star, and we have grown too old to remember the glow of Decembers past when the child in us asked about mangers and shepherds and wondered about frankincense and myrrh.
We need to find a child within us so that we can once again open our eyes to the wonderful mysteries of God’s becoming man, lest we lose all the happiness of caroling. It is a child within us who wonders why the Christ child has not even a cradle to rock or a soft pillow for His head. That our savior, shepherd, and king could come with a mission to die and become our brother, lamb, and servant is a puzzle around a mystery wrapped in a question.
We need to find the child within us to ask “Why Joseph? Why Bethlehem? Why Mary? Why trust such an ordinary girl with the One who would walk on water and deliver us all?” We would have thought that God would come with kingly crowns and regal thrones. If we take the time to ask the questions, we shrug our collective shoulders and scratch our heads. After all, this really is a strange way to save the world. Where is His splendor?
Experiencing the time of advent and Christmas will not provide you all, or even most, of the answers; nor can we find them for ourselves. Trying to understand the loving gifts of the God of the rainbow and of the manger is like trying to capture the wind on the water or measure a mother's love. The questions lead us to more questions. Yet, somehow, although we do not understand it, God's coming down to Bethlehem turns December to May and transforms a chilly morning to a smiling field ready for harvest. You see, we may not work out individual, logical answers for each query; but the questioning process leads us to the Answer, with a capital A. We may see through a glass darkly, but we know whom we have believed, and we know what has happened at Christmas.
In the depths of the sorrow of the War Between the States, his wife having been killed and his son wounded, Longfellow penned these words:
Then from each black accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the south, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head. “There is no peace on earth,” I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of “peace on earth, good will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, “God is not dead nor doth He sleeps. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will toward men.” [Henry Wadswoth Longfellow, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," 1863]
Despite the mockery, the angels still sing. You see, those bells in Longfellow’s poem are standing in for angel song. No matter the cannon, the hate, the decrees of Caesar Augustus, the disease … no matter the despair that causes us to bow our head, those bells still peal on Christmas Day, those angels still sing.
Longfellow asked the questions, and for a dark while he thought he knew the answer, but then the bells pealed. The world saw no better hope to save it than Caesar Augustus, but then the angels sang.
We have to ask the questions. We have to find a child inside to get past the old traditions and the adult rush and the grown-up's too-quick and too-simple answers to ask the questions, to see the mystery, and to wait with faith to hear the angels still singing their song. Where is that child? How do we find a child within us?
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. [Isaiah 9:6]
To find a child in you, you must find the Child in you. When you let that Child’s peace reach you and touch you, you once again see the mystery, share the wonder of the ringing bells, and, with the angels, sing “Alleluia” to our king in the silent night.
While we cannot answer all the questions, with the faith of that child within us we can answer the question “Where is the Child?”. He is with us. He is in us. He is our Wonderful Counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father, our Prince of Peace. To those around us at Christmas time who are asking the questions, let us tell the story of the Jesus child. He is the One who brings us light, our Savior and brother the same, our heavenly king, and the Savior of all. Let them hear the angel song.
There are lots of questions. Ultimately, there is but one answer:
Surely this must be God's Son.
Gloria in excelsis deo!