HOMILY at the MASS of the DAY for CHRISTMAS (C) 2018
When did you last meet an angel or hear an angel’s voice?
I know that these days priests are supposed to be witty at Christmas, but actually this is a serious question and maybe we could spend a few minutes thinking quietly about the answer. But then there might be a risk to roast Christmas lunches and the joyous festive Sprouts, so perhaps we won’t hold things up too much! But maybe walking the dog later on, or whilst out on the boxing day perambulation, please have a think about it.
So I repeat the question. Have you met or heard an angel recently? After all, in Bishop Phillips Brooks hymn at the Offertory, we shall soon be singing that we hear them, even though we do have to wait until the last verse! Not to mention the final hymn, which again encourages us to listen out for the herald angels. In fact, every single hymn that we sing this morning has a mention of angels in it.
It has to be said that angels feature pretty large in the Christmas story. One reassured the shepherds who were full of fear, and many sang of God’s glory and peace shared with human kind – who are God’s friends, so the words go. Of course there’s Mary’s meeting with the Angel Gabriel, who tells her that she is to be the Mother of Jesus. And then reassures her also that to God all things are possible. She is then the handmaid of the Lord.
So who or what are the angels upon whom so much seems to depend in the Christmas story?
You can, of course, find plenty of answers in that source of all 21st century wisdom, Google. But I do not advise you to try this method! There is a great deal there that varies from complete and utter nonsense, some of it harmful nonsense, to at best the seriously misleading.
Without wishing for a moment to restrict God’s ability to create a whole army of spiritual beings which we humans do not normally encounter in the realms of the senses, I think that the biblical use of angel or angels is a beautiful picture, a shorthand way of saying something about the ways in which messages from God come.
I think that the Bible uses these pictures to talk about situations or people who act as vehicles of God’s messages. And they come in the most unlikely of shapes and forms. Celtic spirituality often refers to thin places where heaven and earth, where God and humanity come very close. Celts traditionally held that heaven and earth were only three feet apart but in a ‘thin place’ this was much less.
What we are about now, of course, the worship of the Eucharist is perhaps the thinnest place of all on earth. Which is one reason why, at every Eucharist, we speak of joining with ‘angels and archangels’ to praise the thrice-Holy Lord of heaven and earth.
So whatever the shepherds saw or heard in their thin place it brought them to Bethlehem and to a new born babe in a manger for his cradle. They were aware, too, that this babe brought rejoicing in heaven, angels singing of peace on earth and God’s good will towards humanity.
Hearing the angels, of course, is another matter, as is recognising them as messengers of God. Though we should really be ready for them. The birth of – in John’s words from today’s Gospel reading – the Word of God made flesh in Jesus, should alert us to the fact that absolutely no thing or no person is incapable of conveying a message from God. God is always and everywhere very close to us indeed. And that is a message of the kind of joy that takes away all fear.
The three archangels traditionally are named as Gabriel, Michael and Raphael – and are associated with likeness to God, strength of God and healing of God. So when we find in a situation or through a person the strength to overcome our fear, we are – like the shepherds, and indeed like Blessed Mary – hearing an angel.
Thinking back over our lives, there will be many such ‘thin moments’ when we are taken out of ourselves in this way – enabled, strengthened, healed by words from another or by the powerful presence of some situation. It is easy, though, to let these moments slip us by. In the words of another Christmas Carol by an American Unitarian minister who campaigned so tirelessly for human rights and the abolition of slavery, Edmund Sears, man at war with man hears not the love-song which [the angels] bring.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us says John in today’s Gospel. This is my Body, this is my Blood says Jesus to us of the Bread and Wine of every Eucharist. So when we come to receive holy communion, we come with reverence and awe and rightly so to receive the Lord of life.
That same reverence and awe, however, because of what we celebrate here and now today, should extend to all our relations one with another. Because then we shall indeed discover the thin places – in the shape of one another. And find that the answer to the question I posed at the beginning is yes – we are truly surrounded by angels. Messengers of God’s love, power and healing surrounding and embracing us. Above all, the King of the Angels, the one Christ, the Angel of the New Covenant whose birth we rejoice in today, and in whose life we share in baptism and holy communion.
I wish you much joy and peace in your Christmas celebrations. And may you hear the angels singing – particularly in the voices and presence of those around you!