God's greatest miracles often go unnoticed unless there are messengers and angels to announce them. God's gifts of peace, and justice and reconciliation are hidden in the ordinariness and ugliness of human history; there must be angels to point them out.
Perhaps that's one of the important lessons of Christmas, for all ages. This year, the Christmas moon and stars look down on a scene that looks very ordinary and, in many places, very ugly. There are colorful lights, the exchanging of gifts, holiday meals, the singing of carols - but there are also cries of hunger, the darkness of war, the emptiness of loss, the exchange of gunfire. There seems to be very few signs of peace, good will and God's glory.
The miracle of Christ's coming in our flesh, of God's taking on our humanity and making it holy seems very hidden indeed. There must be voices that will shatter the darkness and dispel the despair. There must be messengers to reassure suffering people everywhere that God is with us, that peace is possible, that justice is attainable.
Perhaps that is what the “angels” in our Scriptures really signify.
Mary's presence in the Advent experience makes our fears and anguish comprehensible; the uncertainty of life is overcome by the sure hope of God's coming to those who are waiting. The angel makes the announcement, Mary accepts, and then, we are told, "the angel left her." No guidance is given; questions are left unanswered and we can assume that Mary is more confused than ever. And yet Mary comes to symbolize God's coming into our hearts with his transforming presence. Longing for the light eventually brings the light. Faith opens into trust, and trust is not disappointed because the love of God is poured forth into the hearts of the brokenhearted.
The shepherds, we are told, were keeping "night watch" over their flocks when the angels came to announce the good news of salvation. That's what it can feel like, being a believer in today's world... darkness all around and the call to duty, to watch and protect what is vulnerable and valuable. We search for and practice: peace in an increasingly hostile world; forgiveness when others hold grudges; simplicity while all around us there is spending and accumulating; concern for the needy whom society marginalizes and government policies neglect; frugality while our nation uses resources as if there were no tomorrow. We keep "night watch."
We who believe the miracle of Christmas must be the messengers. We must announce God's presence and the Saving Word of Jesus to the sick and lonely and suffering people around us. We do this by our words, our acts and our lives. It is our sense of wonder and awe of the miracle of Christmas. It is the song of our love and compassion for others day in the ordinary circumstances of everyday that announce: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom God's favor rests!" Then, and only then, will the rest of the world know how remarkable Christmas really is!
But just being "messengers" isn't enough. Someone once said: "If you want to keep Christ in Christmas: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and unwanted, care for the ill and the elderly and love your enemies..."
If we don't take hold of our time and attitude, even the holy can pass us by. We can miss the true message of what we confront in the stable at Bethlehem: a human becomes divine, spirit becomes flesh, time becomes eternity, salvation became nigh.
The spirit of Advent and Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best that life can become. Through our faith and courage, we can help each other to put away our fears, to move from darkness to light, to begin to hear again the words of life. We can reach out to support - by the strength of our love and concern - those whose hands are feeble; whose knees are weak. Through our witness to God's love, so many who are crippled by doubt and despair might be able to walk again with courage and energy and new life.
Christmas challenges us to turn upside down and inside out where we look for the sacred: in the mess of the stable, in events that can go horribly wrong, in the lowliest of people, in people of different cultures, in the love of a man and a woman and their baby.
My prayers for you and your families throughout this special Christmas season and all throughout your journey of faith. Together we rejoice in our God, who calls us to be the modern-day heralds of the Good News, who shares in our humanity, who calls us to Himself, who brings us a different kind of Peace.
"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."
- Howard Thurman