I saw an angel the other night. Now interestingly enough, in the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, the only two books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, there’s no mention of many of the characters that we take for granted, like the donkey that Mary rode all the way to Bethlehem, or the innkeeper that grumpily told them they could sleep in the stable or the cattle they shared it with. The Bible stories don’t even tell us anything about the background of the main characters, we don’t know for example anything about Mary’s family even though popular imagination decided right back in the second century that her mum was called Anna and her dad was Joachim, and people invented all sorts of stories about how poor Anna reacted to Mary’s good news. The Bible stories themselves give us just the bare bones of the story and all through history people have used their imaginations to fill in the blanks, and I suppose that’s fair enough because when you think about it what we really want to ask about this story is what it’s got to do with us.
But you’ll want to know about this angel I saw. Because the one thing that both Luke and Matthew do give us in their stories of Jesus’ birth is angels, and the angels are there at every turn of the story to tell people what it means and what it’s got to do with them, and most of all to tell people not to be afraid because this is good news. Which I always thought was a bit crazy since nobody would have been afraid in the first place if it hadn’t have been for the angels suddenly appearing from nowhere in a blaze of light to tell them not to be.
Actually, forget all the cute popular depictions of angels, fluffy white wings and angelic expressions. In the Old Testament, where they take this sort of thing fairly seriously, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel angels are described as being like flying serpents with six wings. When Ezekiel claps eyes on one he assumes quite reasonably that he’s going to die. Then in other parts of the Old Testament, angels just look like regular human beings. For example in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, there’s the story of Abraham who entertains three mystery dinner guests only to discover later that they had been messengers of God, which is basically what the Greek word, angelos, means. In the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, we’re warned, be kind to strangers because you never know if they’re going to turn out to be God’s angels.
So angels are one of the constants of the story, and one reason for that, I guess, is that they are a sort of narrative voice, like the character in a kids’ pantomime who every now and then turns and addresses the audience directly. ‘Psst! You wanna know what it all means? I’ll tell you what it means …’ We get the general amazement of it, that the God who made the whole universe, all 14 billion light years in every direction of it, the Spirit that underlies matter and energy and coaxes the inanimate building blocks of creation into more and more complex molecules, amino acids, self-replicating cells and after billions of years, reflective and creative organisms who know deep down that the meaning of their existence is love - that after all that, God chooses to share our physical existence. We get the whiz-bang ‘wow!’ of it, we get the paradox of it and we get that it’s not a problem to be solved, or a riddle to be explained or a doctrine to be expounded, but a mystery to be entered into and before which the appropriate thing is to be silent.
But angels are essential or else the mystery just becomes remote and opaque instead of being, as the deepest mysteries are meant to be, marvellous and personal and translucent. The angel says to us, ‘this matters – to you. And the reason that every year it stirs something so deep inside you that you follow it here in the middle of the night is because deep down you know that it changes something and that the universe pivots on it.’ Partly it’s because we know that this most ordinary of human mysteries is anything but - a young woman having a baby in circumstances that are difficult if not unfortunately that uncommon. And in the story of this birth we remember our own stories, and the stories of those we love - the waters breaking right at the most inopportune time, the frantic search for the car keys, the first drawing of a breath and the cry that tears your heart in two with helpless love. At this simple and direct level, tonight’s story reminds us that the deepest human experiences, the ones that define us and hold us together, the most spiritual human experiences involve shared flesh and blood. That the shortest line between earth and heaven now runs through the centre of the human heart. What moves us to recognise our own humanity is allowing ourselves to recognise and respond to the basic human needs of another.
So why angels, if it’s that simple? Maybe it’s because we human beings are too tricky, we distrust the blindingly obvious. We have to embroider, to cover it up with fancy logic and theology and so we forget that if the birth of Jesus is a message of love from God to the world then it’s first and foremost a message that we don’t have to be rocket scientists to actually understand, a message that speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself we actually need to have the angels popping out in a pyrotechnic blaze and say to us, ‘this is it! This is what is actually important!’.
So, as I said, I saw an angel. I’m pretty sure he didn’t realise he was an angel, he was probably just doing his best to build a bridge of understanding within our local community. It was on Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight, and to tell the truth our parish children looked more like angels with their pretty dresses and wings, and they acted the story of Jesus’ birth with a seriousness that showed they knew they were representing a divine mystery. And then when we had all sung ourselves hoarse and burned our fingers with candle wax - that was when I saw the angel. This angel was Imam Burhan, of the Turkish mosque on Welshpool Road, and the City of Canning had asked him to tell us why the birth of Jesus mattered.
I don’t know how well Imam Burhan knows the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, but I was reminded when he spoke that in John’s Gospel it says that when God’s Word takes on human flesh and blood and lives among us, that turns on the lights for all human beings, everywhere. And Imam Burhan said that the birth of Jesus mattered because it was about hope. Imam Burhan told us what hope means in a world where competitiveness and suspicion divide us, where human beings want to do good but end up locked into patterns of distrust, what hope means in a world where some people have more than they need while others die for the basic necessities, what hope means in a world where we know that the planet we depend on needs us to care for it but we can’t trust each other enough to take the first step. He reminded us that human beings can’t live without hope, and he told us that the birth of Jesus is the hope of God’s presence with us that that we most especially need when we’ve lost our bearings and are looking for pathways toward an uncertain future.
And 1500 people fell silent while the angel told us about the hope that the birth of Jesus gives us. And then, because actually I left out the most important thing about angels, they don’t just tell us the message, in a mysterious way they are the message – then the angel wanted to have his photo taken with me, and so we stood there together, my friend Selim and I, Muslim and Christian, with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the astronomers – and that, it seemed to me, was what it was all about.