CHRISTMAS EVE HOMILY
And the angel said, "Do not be afraid!"
That' s what angels always say in the Bible, first thing when they show up: "BE NOT AFRAID."
"Do not be afraid, for I bring you glad tidings!"
Which always makes me wonder : why is everyone in the Bible so afraid of angels? Aren'
t they pretty creatures, with big fluffy wings and halos and white robes? That'
s what tradition tells us and I guess that'
s nice enough on the top of your Christmas tree, but what about when one of them suddenly just appears in your house during an ordinary day, like Gabriel did to Mary? Full-size, wham, right in your living room? What if you'
re out in the fields with your sheep, and suddenly you look up and the sky is full of them, big as can be? What if you'
re in the temple like Zecharias was, just minding your own business in prayer, and one appears before you? The Bible often says that those beholding angels were "sore afraid." What a great expression. Sore afraid. If angels crashed right now through this big windows, wouldn'
t we be sore afraid? Of course we would. But that'
s okay with the angels. At the very top of every angel'
s job description is to fill mortals with awe and wonder.
Angels are the in-breaking of the Holy among us. They represent the part of life that we' re always too busy to see, that part of life that we' re always walking right past: they are messengers from the realms of glory. When angels show up --- did you notice this? -- they never just start a casual conversation. They announce themselves with great majesty"Hail, favored one!" and their message is always something like this: "Wake up! Pay attention! Something is happening! You are not a human being having a spiritual experience! You are a spiritual being having a human experience! This is God' s world and you are a character in a sacred story. Get ready to take your part!"
Are you ready to take your part?
This is the message of Christmas. That we are not just earth-bound creatures, working creatures, driving creatures, shopping creatures, eating and sleeping and procreating creatures, studying and striving and learning and living and dying creatures, we are also creatures from the realms of glory. We are God-beings -- and whether we know it or not, we have a divine destiny to play out in our lifetime.
We will not be Jesus in our lifetime. Only Jesus was Jesus, so beautifully realized and enlightened a human being that 2,000 years later, we still celebrate his birthday with all this outpouring of yearning and light and love that we bring here this evening.
You are not Jesus and neither am I, but his story is ours. The beautiful promise of his birth and life calls out to the promise of our own.
What if an angel crashed through your ceiling to say "Greetings, favored ones! Do not be afraid. You have been chosen to inspire, encourage, and be in all ways a blessing to the world." Would you believe it then?
Do you believe it now, even with no angel to tell you?
We have forgotten that angels are not just guardians that we wear as little lapel pins to protect us, but that they issue an invitation from God to be co-creators of a beautiful, just and peaceful world.
Somewhere in yourself, you knew that. Somewhere in yourself, you knew that angels were important, that you had to have them around this time of year to remind you of who you really are. Somewhere in yourself, you knew that you might be called upon you to be an angel, a messenger of comfort and a presence of peace for someone else.
You knew that, and you got out the angels again, because you knew you needed to see them at least this magical time of year.
Bernie Gardner -- up in the choir loft told me that his maiden Aunt Mary always phoned up his father this time of year and said, "John, you' ve got to come put up the damn angel." When Mary died, she left the Damn Angel to Bev, Bernie' s wife, in her will. I have a damn angel of my own that lives on the top of my tree, and I always poke myself in the eye with a branch getting her up there, but she' s got to be there.
When Scott Babcock was a newborn baby, his grandmother gave him a Christmas angel with tin foil wings that has adorned his Christmas tree for 65 years. The angel was such a fixture that in his teenaged years he gave her a name Agnes. Scott was being funny, but it' s an excellent name for an angel, actually, deriving from the Greek for "chaste" or "sacred". All the wear and tear took its toll on Agnes over the years, and she eventually had to be repaired with a cardboard toilet paper roll installed up her dress, and now she' s just a head, but she' s still the #1 Angel in the Babcock household.
It' s good for us to keep our imperfect angels around, as they remind us of the imperfect angels of our nature. One minute we' re living into our calling as bringers of light and love, and the next we' re cutting someone off in traffic, yelling at the dry cleaner, or defending our child' s less-than-angelic behavior in school. With the same hand that gives the waitress an especially generous holiday tip, or holds a frightened hand in the hospital, we slam down the phone on the telemarketer or throw our cigarette butt out on the street as though the Earth was our own private ashtray. It' s no wonder that the second most important item on any angel' s job description is to guard and protect us. Most of all, we need to be guarded and protected from ourselves.
I remember the beautiful movie "Wings of Desire," a German film shot in black-and-white by Wim Wenders. The film is about an angel, Damiel, who longs to experience life as a human being. He is one of the trench-coated angels who fly around Berlin listening to the tortured thoughts of human beings, and trying to comfort them as invisible presences of love and compassion. The angel Damiel speaks about why he longs to live as one of us:
"It's great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people. But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I'd like to feel there's some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I'd like to be able to say: 'Now! Now! and Now!' And no longer say: 'Since always' and 'Forever.'
"Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper... To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to *suspect*, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say 'Ah!' and 'Oh!' and 'Hey!' instead of 'Yes' and 'Amen'."
m no angel far from it, but I think I understand Damiel'
s frustration. As an angel, he'
s just unable to offer comfort as a visible presence, to do those simple things that human beings do for each other that angels can only whisper in our ears. He wants to know what it feels like to be embodied, incarnate -- not just to overhear thoughts but to share the struggle of being alive in the world, but to share the meaningful pain of wrestling with things as they are versus things as we know they could be.
Maybe we are luckier than the angels. They make pronouncements, but we have the hands and bodies to make real what they proclaim. They hover above, we live among. They invite, but we get to respond.
This is the work of Christmas, my friends.
This is the work of Christmas: to respond to the angels' invitation as best we can in our human ways, to bring earth and heaven a little closer together. May we be ready to take our part in their glad tidings.
In the words of that beautiful carol,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Send it back. Send it back.