It’s definitely Christmastime. Not liturgically of course, but certainly culturally. And at Christmastime it seems like angels are everywhere. Most nearly all religions and religious traditions profess belief in some form of angels. But those traditions and theologies can be very different: from the sacred to the secular, from the sublime to the ridiculous, angels can come across as being everything, all things to all people. Cute and cuddly, majestic and graceful, impish and playful. Mysterious and new age-y. All of which can leave our impression of angels as really nothing at all. Lots of intelligent and thoughtful people are more likely than not to dismiss angels as whimsical, charming myth.
And yet, angels play a key role in the story of the Bible. In the Scriptures from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation there are more than three hundred direct references to angels and many of them take place in the Christmas story.
The Christmas story is filled with angels, thousands of them. It all begins with the arrival of the angel named Gabriel, who appears first to a man named Zachariah. Gabriel tells Zachariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, who had wanted desperately to have children, would give birth to a son. They were to name him John, he would be called John the Baptist, and he would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Then Gabriel appears to Mary, to tell her about the birth of Jesus, and seek her cooperation. After that he appears to Joseph and finally to the shepherds at Bethlehem:
And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said, “Fear not!”
Luke tells us these shepherds were so afraid, they were sore with fear. Consistently we learn from Scripture that the first thing angels inspire is fear.
Which is interesting: angels are actually described in the Bible as fierce and formidable, and the people who encounter them are terrified by the experiences. But what is feared in angel experiences is not danger, it’s distance, the distance between God’s ways and our ways. Angels, when encountered, reveal the difference, the divide between God’s ways and ours, at least they give us a glimpse of it, and even a glimpse of it is terrifying.
But that is not the whole or the end of the story. The God who is the God of angel armies, the God who created these fierce and formidable creatures goes before us and commands them to do the same. Angels, their existence and the stories we hear in Scripture are reminders to us that God does not leave us all alone and unaided. Not at all.
Maybe that’s the first and best reason to get to know angels. The truth and reality about angels helps us grow in the truth and reality that is God-with-us.