You may know the hymn from which my title is taken. You may even know that this year’s St Matthew’s Christmas Tree Festival is taking that as its theme. Angels, it seems, are everywhere: one of the most popular songs in recent times is ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. You’ll find angels in the movies, including the Christmas classic, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ in which Clarence, a second-class angel, gets his wings. Angels are popular in art, from icons and stained glass, to statues and tattoos, and from architecture to children’s nativity plays.
We get our word ‘angel’ from the Greek ‘angelos‘ which means ‘messenger’. In the bible, angels are messengers, communicating between God and humanity. Sometimes, particularly in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, the ‘Angel of the Lord‘ is almost indistinguishable from God. The angel that appears to Abraham or to Moses is God’s representative. Since God is far beyond human imagination, the angel bridges the gap. And when Jacob wrestles with a strange figure, usually considered to be an angel, he is said to have “striven with God”. Jacob also has a vision of a stairway to heaven: he sees a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
In the New Testament, when Jesus meets Nathaniel, he tells him that he will see
“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51)
It’s an odd picture; not one I’ve ever seen in stained glass, but Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, God’s ‘stairway to heaven’. Jesus is the ‘place’ where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven. Jesus is the mediator, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.
If your picture of an angel is overly influenced by children’s nativity plays, in which the angels are played by little girls in tinsel tiaras and fairy wings, then you should note that the only biblical angels we know by name are male: Michael and Gabriel. (There’s also Raphael if you count the apocryphal book of Tobit.) Not only are they male, they are tough, warlike characters. In the book of Daniel, Michael turns up as defender of God’s people, Israel, and, in the New Testament book of Revelation, when war breaks out in heaven, Michael and his angels take on the dragon and his evil forces.
In the Old Testament, Gabriel helps Daniel to understand the strange vision God has given him. When Gabriel appears, Daniel is so terrified that he falls to the ground. If you are still not convinced that meeting an angel would be a terrifying encounter, then let me point out that, in most cases in the biblical story when an angel appears, the first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid!”
Gabriel also turns up in the New Testament. He appears to the priest Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive, will give birth to a son, to be called John. (We will know him as John the Baptist.) The angel Gabriel is then “sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth”, to a virgin called Mary (Luke 1:26-38). If the news given to Zechariah is strange, this news blows that out of the water. Mary will bear a son, call him Jesus, and he will be called ‘Son of God’.
In Matthew’s account, an unnamed angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and reassures him that Mary’s unplanned pregnancy is God’s doing – “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”; he is “‘Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’.” (Matthew 1:18-25). An angel of the Lord, accompanied by “a multitude of the heavenly host” then appear to the shepherds to tell them to hurry down to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place (Luke 2:8-20). If a single angel is a terrifying sight, then imagine the prospect of seeing “a multitude of the heavenly host”! A whole army of angels filling the sky!
Angels reappear at a number of key points in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, at moments when heaven breaks open to earthly view and when God speaks. I don’t know that I have ever seen an angel – but the bible warns me not to rush to judgement since, some have “entertained angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2). But as we approach Advent and our Christmas Tree Festival, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be open to the possibility of God sending us a message of encouragement and hope through an angel or two. And as we prepare to celebrate the Christmas message, in which God and humanity are brought together by the one who is far superior to angels (Hebrews 1:1-14) let’s be open to the fact that we might have an angelic mission to others as messengers of that good news.