You probably didn’t notice, but on Thursday night at the congregational potluck at Flemming and Kay’s, I snuck away from the table. I did that so I could go back into their living room one more time to have a look at a piece of art they have hanging there. I don’t know where it’s from, but the piece looks vaguely Scandinavian to me. It’s a wooden wall hanging, of an angel. Do you know the one I mean? It looks like it was made with a jig-saw or a scroll saw or something like that. A tall angel, thin as a monk, hands clasped together, wings unfurling like sails. Right over the couch.
I love that piece. In fact, when no one was around I took a photo of it, so I could look at it some more.
This week I’ve been trying to draw it. “An angel can’t be that hard,” I thought, looking at the lines. After all, everything is pretty straight: wings, head, long gown, two feet sticking out. How hard can that be to draw, right?
It turns out I keep getting the proportions all crooked. My first attempt was too short. Then a bit too wide. In the end, I realized that I kept making the angel look more and more like a real person.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way, says Matthew. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace (ie. stoning, very likely), planned to dismiss her quietly. In other words, Joseph may have been ashamed and publicly humiliated, but he still wanted to spare Mary’s life, a far sight better than many men behave under similar situations even now, in the 21st century.
But just when he had resolved to do this, writes Matthew, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream…
Oh…. right. Angels. Who are angels? Messengers. And what do angels do? Apparently, according to Matthew, they screw up our plans. They do that even when our plans are well thought out, good plans, made by good (or as the Bible says, ‘righteous’) people. Angels do one thing in the Bible consistently: they intervene. They mess with us.
In my classes at Concordia, I have a little shtick I do with the students in my Intro to the New Testament or Intro to the Bible classes. “If ever you should be visited by an angel,” I tell my students, “I’ll tell you exactly what will happen and what you should do.” I usually say this with a big grin and they smile back at me, the joke being that we all know this will never happen.
But some part of me wonders if my ‘are you kidding?’ attitude toward angels is tempting fate. Who are angels? They’re messengers. Maybe sometimes it’s not that angels don’t visit us. Maybe sometimes, as with Joseph, they come in dreams, or in situations. And maybe sometimes it’s that we don’t recognize the kinds of ways that a loving, caring God actually might interfere in our lives.
I remember being in the metro once, just minding my own business, when a man dressed in old clothes, with bad teeth, came shuffling right up to me, out of all the people waiting for the subway, and said to me, very loudly, and pointing: “you just gotta relax, man. Take it easy. Whatever it is, it’s not so important!” Then he walked away again. I was a bit in shock. It was easy to see who the man was: he was a street person. That was clear. If I’d reached out, which I didn’t….but if I had, my fingers would have touched flesh and blood. I could smell him.
So he WASN’T an angel. He was some homeless guy.
Or was he? Certainly the message was absolutely the right one for me, at that moment. He nailed me, this man. I DID need to relax. That day I was stressed about all kinds of things. Now you could say that the man was crazy, he saw me looking stressed and somehow that set off some script in his head that made him come up to me. All that would explain the event just fine.
OR: you could say that some angels are flesh and blood, and this flesh and blood street-person was a messenger. And that too, would, I believe, be true.
When the angel appeared in the dream to Joseph, it said what ALL angels, ALL the time, say in the Bible. It said “Do not be afraid.” But then it went on, very importantly, to prescribe an action: do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.”
Events were about to go one way, and because of the intervention of this story, events went another way. Baby Jesus did not grow up a street urchin to a beggar mother, which Mary might have had to become – if Joseph had, as it says “put her aside quietly”. Nor, to put it bluntly, did baby Jesus die in utero in a hail of stones, which might have happened if Joseph had been less of a man. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, child of Mary and Joseph. According to Matthew, all because of an angel.
When and if the direction of our lives needs changing, perhaps those persons we find at the crossroads are not just friends, but are standing in, as angels always do, for the love and wisdom of God.
You can’t get to Christmas, at least in the church, without angels. “Angels we have heard on high” we’ll sing. “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining…fall on your knees, o hear the angel voices………all the Christmas carols we’ll sing say the same thing. The point is that the Bible speaks consistently of a God who is not just “out there” somewhere, but who gets in, close inside where we live, as close as Mary’s room or Joseph’s dream, where our hearts and minds, our ambitions and our sadnesses, our fears and our hopes and our embarrassments lie. That’s where we need, sometimes, to be spoken to.
So to come back to my dilemma with drawing the Rasmussen’s angel: I’ve tried several times this week, and I think I finally have it right. But the human-looking angels weren’t so bad either. They tell of another truth, which is that God can send all kinds of messengers our way. If someone has come into your life and brought love, maybe that person is acting as an angel. If someone has come into your life and brought you challenges, maybe that person is an angel of another sort.
There might be someone in your life right now that you could draw as an angel.
The one thing I hadn’t done right for the first few versions of the Rasmussen’s angel was to draw the wings as they are on the hanging. My wings were too small, and too tame. On the original, the wings are huge, fanning up over the angel’s head almost like flames of fire. It points to another truth: that however cute we might picture them, real angels, if I can use that term, will be outside our control. Their message, after all, is from God.
When Joseph awoke from sleep, it says, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. As we approach Christmas, may we remember to open our ears and eyes, to what messages – and what messengers – might be coming to us in these days.