Now, I think it's important to say that there is nothing more important, more glorious, more demanding of our attention in all of time than this business of Christmas. And I hope I don't have to say that I don't mean the secularized spin that fills the airwaves and spills out of the marketplace. But, still, if we peel back the layers of centuries of traditions and legends and magical stories, we have to admit the strangeness.
(Perspectives about angelic beings swing two ways in the current climate, divided between materialists who must be shown evidence before they will believe and romantics who will believe anything that satisfies their preferred conclusions. Wherever you are, I hope you faithfully believe the Bible to be inerrant, that references to angelic appearances are accurate and truthful, and that you hold only the Bible's views on such mysteries and the heavenly realm so that you are not led into fanciful doctrines and useless traditions.)
The angels were active and conspicuous throughout the events of the Christmas narrative. In particular, Gabriel was charged to be God's special messenger to Mary and Zechariah. An angel announced the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy to Joseph, and then one (could have been the same, could have been a different being) appeared to him later in a dream when it was time to flee from Herod's assassins. And, of course, an angel made a solo proclamation of the birth of a king to the shepherds, followed by a shining army of beings, filling the sky, numbered, some say, in the thousands, singing and proclaiming glory to God, almost as if they couldn't contain their joy and happiness one moment longer.
But these weren't the first angelic appearances associated with the Incarnation of the Messiah.
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Gabriel visited Daniel during the Babylonian captivity. Daniel was praying, confessing the sins of the people, and pleading for the Lord to turn away from his anger and intervene for the sake of his name. In this humble posture, the angel Gabriel "came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, 'O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision'" (Daniel 9:21b-23), which promised "the coming of an anointed one, a prince" (9:25).
Visitations from angels announcing the coming of a Prince, a Savior, the Son of the Most High fit nicely into the storybook magic of a childhood Christmas memory, and provide great material for Christmas pageants and Christmas eve services, but what relevance could they have for 21st century, thinking Christians who have been marinating in determinism and secularized scientific methodology for most of their lives? The answer? It all comes down to love and hospitality -- two towering virtues associated with Christmas.
Disciples of the Biblical Jesus find relevance and confidence in a belief in angels and angelic appearances in the letter to the Hebrews where the writer exhorts the reader to "Let brotherly love continue", and then explains, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware" (Hebrews 13:1-2).
Christmas is lovely and warm and comfortable when we shelter within the traditional trappings and surround ourselves with familiar people. But that's not what happened at the first Christmas. Jesus, the God man, took on the unfamiliar skin of humankind. Mary bore the Son of God in her womb, though she had never known a man. Joseph the carpenter, who just wanted a quiet little life with his new wife, found himself fleeing his homeland. The aged and barren Elizabeth and Zechariah became inexperienced parents.
The essence of Christmas is in going outside the camp, where there are strangers, where Jesus resided and where he sought his own, bearing his reproach (Hebrews 13:13), and gathering in the redeemed from the highways and the byways, forsaking the familiar landscape and seeking the lasting city that is to come. Have we sought to entertain strangers, people unlike us in appearance or culture or tradition, but spiritual brethren in heart and soul? Are we ready to take on the reproach of the world for the sake of Christ and his gospel?
This Christmas, embrace the oddity, that which causes angels to desire to look into the incarnation of redemption. Go outside the camp, yearn for the lasting city, echo the joyful songs of the angels, make your home welcome to strangers, and to the King, the one born on Christmas day.