Learning from the Angels

Christmas, the Nativity of the Lord

It can be an alarming experience to encounter an angel. Their presence is typically veiled to us but once revealed to our human perception angels radiate such mightiness, holiness, and otherworldliness, that often the first thing they say upon appearing is: “Do not be afraid.” So it was on the first Christmas night in the fields outside the little town of Bethlehem where the shepherds kept watch over their flock.

A heavenly angel appeared to them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and the shepherds were utterly terrified. But the herald angel said, “Do not be afraid… I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. …Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” The angel then gave them a sign to look for, to know that they had found the newborn king: “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Suddenly, a whole multitude of angels appeared, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” When the angels departed the shepherds were seemingly alone once more in the dark and quiet field.

Like the gospel two weeks ago about St. John the Baptist’s preaching, what strikes me about the angels’ proclamation is what the shepherds are not told to do. The Holy Family was very poor, but the shepherds are not told to bring them coins. The cave-stable in which Jesus laid was probably dirty like a barn, but the shepherds are not told to bring him a broom or clean blankets. Jesus’ parents had had a long day, but the shepherds are not told to bring them a meal. Any of these things would have been good gifts, but none of them were the most important thing. The angels invited the shepherds to bring themselves to Jesus; to approach him, see him, know him, love him, honor him; to come and encounter him, to come and adore him. This is the greatest gift.

Jesus Christ had only just been born on earth but the angels had already met the eternal Son of God in heaven. Through him all things were made, including the angels. The angels knew him from the start of their existence and in highest heaven they adored him constantly beholding his unveiled glory. In this, the angels seem to have an advantage compared to us. We see God’s creations, but they see the Craftsman. We see his effects, but they see the Source. We see his works which reflect his glory, but they see his glory directly. At Jesus’ birth, we see the Godhead veiled in flesh, lying in the manger. At his Holy Mass, we see Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, veiled in the appearances of bread and wine. Every good and beautiful thing you have ever enjoyed has its existence from him who is the most real, the most delightful, the greatest and best of all. And yet, for us human beings, God is easy to overlook.

If an angel had not visited the shepherds they would not have realized that they were within walking distance of their Savior, Messiah, and Lord. But once the angels had proclaimed the message and went away from them to heaven, the shepherds turned and said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us!” The shepherds left in haste, but imagine if… they had chosen not to go. The shepherds could have chosen not to go into Bethlehem. Nobody was forcing them to visit the Holy Family. They could have ignored Jesus and stayed away from him. Many people do.

The angels, in their beginning, once faced a choice like this themselves: would they love and adore and serve the Lord or would they disregard him, rejecting him and his reign? Would they love him or not? Would they worship God or themselves? The spirits who chose well are called the angels. The spirits who chose badly are called the demons. Ever since that decisive decision, the angels have loved and worshipped the Lord and been rightly ordered and thriving in his will, while the demons who refused to love and worship him have been disordered and depraved through and through.

Worship and love are linked. We worship what we love most, and that impacts our relationships to other things for good or ill. Imagine a child on Christmas morning who excitedly unwraps a new and coveted toy which, for a while, they love more than anything on earth. Will they remember to thank Mom and Dad who gifted it, or be too distracted to show gratitude? Will they be willing to share the toy with their brothers and sisters, or resent and fight against anyone who wants it? Will they draw closer to their family, or isolate to be alone with their most precious possession? Will they be delighted by that toy forever, or feel disappointment when it does not provide happiness unending? As adults, our coveted toys, our disordered loves, take different forms but lead to similar results. To love God as our greatest good and worship him with thanksgiving, praise, and openness to grace, are essential for us to love him and people and things like we should.

For the first Christmas, the angels’ gift to Jesus Christ was worship: “Glory to God in the highest!” And the angels’ gift to the human race was an invitation for us to do the same. As God’s messenger to you this sacred day, I invite and urge you to return to this church soon to faithfully encounter and adore your Savior, Christ, and Lord.

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