As a priest, I have acquired quite a few angels over the years…not real angels, angel figurines and ornaments. There was a woman in my last parish who would give me a different one every year. With those and all my other Christmas angels, my house is overwrought with angels at this time of year. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are playing instruments, some are singing and some are even in the shape of instruments. Of course there are a couple of things they all have in common. They are all women, which is kind of odd when you think about it. The angels in the Bible are usually men. They are all pleasant looking with flowing robes. None of them look scary at all. There are no zombie angels, no angels with limbs missing (unless you count the one with the missing foot—but that just fell off at some point when I was unpacking decorations). None of them have their faces contorted as if they are screaming.
Of course angels aren’t supposed to be scary. They are supposed to be comforting like those people in Touched by an Angel, Michael Landon on Highway to Heaven or Clarence on It’s a Wonderful Life. Those are the kind of people who you would want to have on hand if you were in a sticky situation. Yet I am pretty sure that the angels of the Bible looked nothing like the angels we see on TV. Usually, especially in the Gospels, the first thing that the angels would say was, “Do not be afraid.” They would not have had to say that if the people weren’t. And if people were responding with fear consistently, there must have been something about angels that scared people.
So were they scary looking? Did they come with weapons and armed guards, or was there something else going on? Let’s consider the story we heard tonight from the Gospel of Luke. There were shepherds watching over their flock at night. This was before electricity, so this must have been pretty dark, probably completely dark. They were trying to stay awake, pacing a little to keep warm and then suddenly, “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
Even if the angel looked friendly and warm, it is understandable that they were terrified. They were surrounded by darkness and out of nowhere, an angel appeared surrounded by what we can assume was a great light. Often the glory of the Lord is described as a great light, almost blinding. And you know how it is when you are in the dark and all of a sudden someone turns on a light. Even if it is not a particularly bright light, it takes a while to adjust. You might even squint your eyes and ask the person to turn it off. In that moment, the light can feel unwelcome.
The people living at the time of Jesus’s birth had gotten used to the dark. It had been almost 500 years since the last great prophet preached to the Hebrew people. For those years and more, they had longed for this moment, this coming of the Messiah but that longing had turned into something more like a fairy tale longing; a princess waiting for her prince to come but with no real grasp of what that prince would be like or what his coming would mean.
So yes, they were afraid. They were shepherds and they were used to waiting and preparing. They were used to a routine. While their lives were not easy by any means, they knew what to expect. They knew what was expected of them. But with this angel who came with the light of the glory of God, they knew in a moment that the world would never be the same. They were terrified and in some ways, they were right to be terrified.
The angel told them not to be afraid. He said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Surely these words must have allayed their fears. We know these words. Most of us hear them every Christmas. A Savior and a Messiah…that has got to be good news. There is no reason to fear that.
Maybe by then the shepherd’s eyes had adjusted to the light. Yet just as they were accustomed to that light and the sound of that one angel, an entire army descended (that is what host means…it means an army). This army did not come brandishing swords. They brought news of peace to all whom God favors.
Despite the tidings of peace, my guess is that those shepherds were still a little afraid. They had just seen something extraordinary and they knew that their world would never be the same. The time of waiting was over. They had a choice. They could stay in that field and let their eyes get used to the dark again. They could remain there because that was their job. And if they did not stay, who would care for the sheep? They could have come up with 100 excuses to stay in that field instead of searching for a nameless child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. But they didn’t.
They had seen the light. They had heard the good news of God almighty and they could not just sit there and pretend as if their life had not changed. No matter how scary that light was, they determined to find it again. They had to be near it. Not only that, but they had a message to deliver. They did not know to whom they were delivering the message or exactly why, but they knew they had a message that was so important that an army of angels had come to them to bring it.
So they went and they found Mary, Joseph and the child in a manger. They saw the light in the flesh. Maybe they did not quite understand it, but they knew that what they witnessed was divine and they shared what had brought them to this place. They shared the news from the angels with Mary and Joseph and by doing so they helped the parents of Jesus understand what had just happened. I bet that every part of that journey (while exciting) was still terrifying.
Usually when we think of angels, and even God to some extent, we think of protectors, beings that will keep us safe. But in the Bible, the angels challenged God’s people to discover a different part of themselves. They were terrifying not because they were scary to look at but because they moved people outside of their own little worlds. They exposed people to the light. Obviously that light was more than just light. It was a transformation of being and attitude. It was a realization that they no longer lived only for themselves, but for the Savior of the World.
Christmas should be a warm and fuzzy time. The Christmas story should make you feel good. But let’s not get too comfortable with this story, because at the heart of this story is disruption and discomfort. It is risk. It is fear and yes it is glory. You could go home, open some presents, watch football and eat too much and call that Christmas. Or you take this time to look for God’s angels in your own life. They might not glow softly in the night with long flowing robes and wings. In fact, I can assure you they won’t. The angels that we Christians really need are the angels whose wings cause a windstorm of change and whose light is not a soft glow but a blaze of glory that wakes you up and inspires you to be a better version of yourself. Merry Christmas! May it be a gloriously transformational one.