The Other, Better Angels

A version of this Christmas reflection appeared in the Christian Courier this month.

If we can’t get angels, there is nothing anyone on the planet wants more for Christmas this year than a vaccine for the coronavirus. We see it is on the way, but we must be patient. A global pandemic can’t be subdued in a day, and the case numbers continue to rise. This is our first COVID Christmas, and hopefully, by God’s mercy, our last.

We’ve had distressing recessions in my time, and I recall in high school cleaning up a mess in the Holland Marsh after a tornado, but overall I must confess I have lived a sheltered life and I have never been immediately threatened or even inconvenienced by any sort of natural or social catastrophe (car accidents are another story, however). We read our children stories of occupied Europe during World War II to remind us that families can live in a time when life hangs by a thread, when the stakes are high. This past year has been a novel experience of vulnerability, inconvenience, and government measures intended to mitigate a looming public health threat.

Others have felt the effects of this transnational catastrophe much more acutely: mental illness, job loss, and death. It has been life shattering. This year has also seen excruciating social tensions in our oversized neighbour to the south. On top of a botched response to the pandemic, they’ve had racial violence and riots, and one of the most raucous and contested elections I have ever witnessed. Canadians get nervous when America rumbles, especially as some of the behaviour seems so extremely polarized and disturbingly bizarre. It is hard to understand.

Angels suggest a key to another world. Photo by Fernando Venzano on Unsplash

Better Angels

All this noise distracts from our own Canadian troubles, not to mention planetary perils like climate change.

In the midst of all this mayhem, what might Christmas mean this year?

Christmas can be blue and sad, perhaps especially this year. That’s understandable, and may not need fixing. Our congregation held a “Blue Christmas” service to give space for those feelings. A moment to express our losses.

Typically, Christmas is about comfort and joy, and more accurately, about tidings of comfort and joy that come from angels. Now I note that our culture has either sentimentalized angels—portraying them as cute and harmless, or sexualized them, rendering them as enticing and alluring. In the Bible, the first thing they usually say is “Be not afraid!” and so I would imagine they are neither endearing or enticing but rather imposing and arresting.

In this painting by Henry Tanner (1897), the angel is portrayed as a bolt of light. Mary is not terrified, but she is certainly unsure, tentative, and a little inquisitive about the appearance.

There has been talk in the U.S. about turning to “the better angels of our nature” in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, charities, books, films, songs, and even a beer of late have been named after the phrase “Better Angels.” It’s hope at work.

Waiting in the Night

Angels are the King’s messengers, and they didn’t rescue anyone that first Advent. They are heralds, sent to announce big changes that everyone needs to know about. They chant the divine report: Help is on the way. The distressed are going to be happy about this. Just you wait.

What happened after their grand broadcast? No army swooped into town. No lightning came and disintegrated the Roman overlords. No, there wasn’t a sudden rescue for Israel. This was the news: a baby was born in a backwater town, a child of promise. He was hope in a feeding trough. Still, they had years to wait for this King to rally his peace corps.

As I write today, it is dark outside, and I’m preparing a eulogy for a colleague’s funeral, a death unrelated to COVID. Rudy Wiebe was a gentleman and a scholar, a saint of the church, a sinner who seemed to be in touch with his better angels. He still had much good to do, but his body could not match his aspirations. He taught over 4300 students through the years, but only fifty people could come to his funeral. We all wait to see him again, and we wait for something more.

Angels come to those keeping watch out in the field at night, whispering hope of radical change. Things will be different soon. For all people. Not just Jews. The church, as a herald of the kingdom, can itself be a better angel that bears witness to such good news. The message, as always, is “Wait. The King has come, and he will come again. Be patient.”

There is happiness in gifts, good food, family connections, and bright lights. I hope you can enjoy such festivities within the limits of our pandemic. More importantly, however, may the warm glow of the Great Joy for All People bring light to your dark place, knowing we wait for the return of the King, who is greater than any vaccine. He will make all things right again. Get ready.

Hark! The herald angels sing!

“Angel and shepherds” by FlickrDelusions is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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