A few years ago, as I got ready for Christmas, I went around asking people, “You know, what does an angel really look like?”
I’m sure if I asked each one of you, either you’d say:
1) “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen one,” or else you’d say,
2) “Well, everybody knows that! Angels wears long white robes and have wings and a halo.”
The Bible doesn’t really say what angels look like. You’d think that they might have given at least some details. But it doesn’t say.
When artists represent angels, the standard picture is of a human-like figure with a robe and wings. In Psalm 8:5, it says that we human beings were created “just a little lower than the angels.” Maybe that’s why artists make angels look human.
Maybe we picture angels with wings because they fly up to Heaven. Or maybe we wan to to suggest the idea that angels have more freedom than we have – angels don’t worry about how to make their living, or where their next meal is coming from. They seem to be able to zip around from one place to the other pretty easily.
One of the other things that artists usually do when they make pictures of angels, is they portray them as filled with light. There always seems to be a special glow or radiance whenever an angel is around. That idea, of course, comes from the idea that God is filled with light, or that God is light, and the closer we get to God, the brighter and clearer everything becomes.
Of course, other people say that angels are really invisible. That’s because their real job is to let God shine through them. So we don’t see angels most of the time.
Angels are supposed to be very beautiful, and angels are also somewhat terrifying. At least, that’s the way it always seems in the Bible. There is something which is both attractive and scary about angels. Maybe they’re so completely different and amazing that ordinary people are scared of them. That almost seems like a paradox, to have something be both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
But of course, there are lots ways of understanding or picturing an angel, not just picturing them as someone in a white robe with wings and a harp.
C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian writers of the 20th century, wrote a series of books in which he pictured angels as bodiless, weightless and invisible – but totally alive! The angels Lewis wrote about aren’t so much invisible. He said they just move at a different speed than we do. The things we do are at such a different speed that angels can barely notice us; the things that angels are involved with are done at such a different speed that we can barely imagine them.
C.S. Lewis’ vision of the universe is very different from the one we tend to have. We think of outer space as being empty and cold. Space is infinite, terrifying and threatening. Lewis says that space, from the angels’ point of view, is filled with light. Space is a place of infinite freedom, filled with movement and music. The stars and planets are all a part of a great dance and a great song which goes on forever.
One of my other favorite Christian writers, Madeleine L’Engle, has an entirely different vision of angels. The angels in Madeleine L’Engle’s books are more like something you’d find in the Old Testament in the books of Daniel or Ezekiel.
Madeleine L’Engle’s vision of what an angel looks like is something made up almost entirely of wings and eyes. The wings, of course, suggest movement, the ability to go anywhere and be anywhere, and the wings of her angels are constantly in motion. The eyes, of course, suggest vision, and the ability to see everywhere in the universe.
There’s a marvelous part in Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door, where she talks about being caught up into the heart of one of these angelic creatures. She says that it’s a wild, passionate, timeless, ageless, kind of feeling in an angel’s heart – it’s filled with flame and life.
There’s another section where she says that the angels are always singing, all the time, which is another common idea about angels. But she says that the angels only know one song, and that song is: “Glory, glory, glory . . .!”
Anyway. All this is kind of a prelude or introduction, because today we’re about to meet an angel. As we read along, try to imagine yourself in the story, as if the angel were speaking to you, or as if you were the angel.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered at his delay in the And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”
And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
And the angel departed from her.
– Luke 1:5-38
You can do a lot of things with that story.
You can believe it, or you can disbelieve it. You can ask a lot of silly questions about it, like: “Well, what did the angel really look like?” or, “Was Mary really a virgin?” or, “Isn’t this whole business kind of strange and unlikely?”
And I’m not going to try to answer any of those questions. You can treat it as fact, or fiction, whichever way your mind and your heart tell you.
I don’t insist that people believe in angels. I’ve never seen an angel, myself. The Bible only talks about them a little bit. In some ways, it would make the world less complicated if there was just the world, and God, and us, without cluttering things up by adding lots of angels or invisible beings all over the place.
But either way, if angels don’t exist, then I don’t think that just believing in them will make them exist. And if angels do exist, and we don’t believe in them, then I think that somehow God is big enough to be able to handle our doubts. I don’t know. Maybe God’ll send me an angel some day, and maybe I’ll be in shape to notice.
What I’d like to focus on, instead, is the content of the messages which Gabriel brought in this gospel reading.
The first message was to Zacharias, the priest who Gabriel met in the Temple. And, you know, you almost get the feeling that Zacharias himself didn’t believe in angels, before all this happened.
Even though he was a priest, even though he was the son and grandson of many priests, even though he believed in God, even though he knew that marvelous things are supposed to happen, you almost get the feeling that Zacharias himself didn’t believe.
He thought that prayer was important, and he thought that worship was important. Being selected to go in and burn the incense in the Temple was a really special honor. It was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for him.
But you don’t get the feeling that Zacharias actually expected anything to happen that day, when he went in to do his priestly duty. Maybe he felt honored, maybe he felt excited, maybe he felt holy – but he sure didn’t expect to see an angel!
He never expected whatever it was that he saw – whether it was a humanlike figure with a robe and wings, glowing with light, or a fantastic creature like Madeleine L’Engle’s being of eyes and wings and passion and fire, or something else we can’t even imagine. Whatever it was that Zacharias saw, it wasn’t anything he expected.
And then the angel said, “Don’t let me scare you!”
Well, of course he was scared. He must have been terrified! I don’t know if angels are beautiful or scary to look at. Maybe both. But the utterly unexpected is always scary.
And then the angel said that Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, a child who they would name John, who would grow up and become the person we know as John the Baptist. I won’t go into all of the details of the prophecy, but it’s clear that this child was going to be somebody special.
When I’ve looked at this passage before, I’ve always been impressed by something in Gabriel’s message. The angel said: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of the
Lord . . .”
There’s an ambiguity about that line for me; you can take it a couple of ways. It could mean that Gabriel was a very senior, special angel, one who had the right or privilege of standing before God, instead of kneeling or bowing down all the time.
Or it could mean that Gabriel, as an angel, could be many places at once. That is, Gabriel could be right there, talking to Zacharias, and at the same time Gabriel could also be somewhere else, standing in the very presence of God, right in that same moment. I always find that ambiguity intriguing.
Anyway, Gabriel said that Zacharias and Elizabeth were going to have a son, even though they were both just about ready to collect Social Security. And Gabriel didn’t talk about this as a possibility, or even as something that would happen in the future. Gabriel stated it as if it were already an accomplished fact. That’s what a prophecy is.
And Zacharias’ response wasn’t simply to say Yes or No. He didn’t just accept or reject what the angel said. Instead, he questioned whether God could do it at all.
And it was because of that, that Zacharias was struck dumb until the baby was actually born. I don’t know if it was a punishment. Maybe it was simply a case of, “Because you did not answer today, you will have nothing to say, until you see it happen.”
A little while later, the angel Gabriel was sent to a young woman, to Mary, the cousin of Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth. Maybe the angel had learned not to present such a frightening appearance, or maybe Gabriel was trying to calm her down, because the first thing Gabriel said this time was, “Peace be with you!”
I know that in the old King James version, it says, “Hail!” But I looked it up in the original, and what it really says is, “Peace be with you!” If Mary spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic, what the angel would have said to her was, “Shalom . . .!” That is the greeting of the angel to Mary. Peace is the first word of the Annunciation.
And of course Mary, like Zacharias, was confused and scared. So would you or I be, if an angel appeared unexpectedly to us.
And so the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary; God loves you very much . . .” The first word is peace; the second word is love. God called to her by name, and God told her that she didn’t have to be afraid. That’s part of the message of Advent and Christmas, too – “Don’t be afraid, God loves you very much . . .”
And then Gabriel went on to tell her, in much the same way that the angel had earlier spoken to Zacharias, that because of God, there would be a child, a child who by ordinary expectations would never have even been born.
And then the angel explained, in a way that’s probably as clear as we are ever going to be able to understand, how the whole thing was going to take place.
And then the angel waited. Gabriel, the messenger of God, the one who stood in the very presence of God, had to wait on the answer of a scared, confused young woman. In famous paintings that I’ve seen of this event, there’s the feeling that the whole world is waiting on the answer that Mary will give. The whole world can go one way, or another, depending on what she says next.
And where Zacharias had doubted, where Zacharias had questioned God’s ability to do what Gabriel foretold, Mary’s response was different. Mary accepted. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to do whatever the Lord wants. May everything you have said come true.”
And after that the angel went away, in whatever way that angels go. Maybe they flutter out the window. Maybe they just disappear, or fade away. If an angel is someone who has one foot in this world and one foot in heaven, maybe the angel just stepped back. It doesn’t say.
But what’s clear is that Mary’s answer was the one that God needed. God needed Mary to say Yes.
It’s as though every time God says something, or does something, there’s a blank space, or an empty line at the end. Every time we read one of these stories about God coming into the world, there’s a response needed. It’s as though every story in the Bible has written at the end of it, “R.S.V.P.”
I don’t know how God would announce the birth of Christ in the world today, if God were to do it all over again. Maybe the story would be just the same – maybe Mary would be someone we know and recognize, from our own neighborhood. Or maybe she would be from some Third World country, or speak a different language than Hebrew, or be of a different race.
I think that the greeting God sends is timeless. God says, “Peace be with you, you to whom special grace has been given; the Lord is with you.”
That message is for all of us. It doesn’t just come to Mary, it comes to every one of us. The peace of knowing that God is there, the peace of Christ, the peace that is meant for the whole world, is offered to us.
And then, just as it was for Mary, the message for us is: “Do not be afraid; God loves you very dearly . . .”
The gift that Christ brings is not only peace, but freedom from fear, and the assurance of God’s love.
And whenever God speaks, just as with Mary, there are always promises. Maybe not the birth of a son, for us, but certainly the birth of a Savior. That promise is always there for us, too.
And then, God waits. Messages from God always end, “R.S.V.P.” Respond, if you please. Please answer. Not just during Advent, not just at Christmas, but always. God gives us a Savior, and then God waits – to see what our answer will be.