Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The message of an angel (Christmas homily)

If I asked you to close your eyes right now, 
and tell me exactly how many angels 
are visible in this church, what might you guess?

I went around earlier and counted seventeen.
You have to look closely at the windows and the artwork.
I may well have missed some.

You might know that for each Mass for Christmas--
tonight and tomorrow--the readings are all different. 
But did you know that angels 
are mentioned in each set of readings?

We don’t talk about angels much, 
which is appropriate; 
because angels never talk about themselves! 

In the Old Testament, an angel would appear, 
and the way the text describes it, 
it’s not clear if Abraham or Hagar or Jacob 
was speaking to an angel--or to God himself. 
There’s a very good reason for that. 
“Angel” means messenger; 
and an angel has no other message but what God sends.

So it’s like when your friend calls you on the phone.
Technically, you’re speaking to the telephone; but who says that? 
We say instead, we spoke to our friend. 
The phone simply bears the message.

And the message of angels is always good. 
Not always easy or pleasant. 
But they always bring the truth.
Some mornings my alarm clock sounds pretty harsh. 
But I need it!

You may have noticed that when angels appear, 
their first words almost always are, “Do not be afraid.”

When the archangel Gabriel came to Mary, 
he said, “Do not be afraid.” 
Again with Joseph: “Do not be afraid.” 
And with the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.”

Why are we afraid? What are we afraid of?

Sometimes the holiness and truth of God frightens us. 
If you come over to my house on the wrong day, 
I may keep the lights turned low, because the house isn’t tidy!
When we are in the presence of God, 
our lives don’t show so well in his light.

But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid”! 
Isaiah promised those who walked in darkness 
have seen a great light.
And we can enter into that light--
the light of God’s Holy Spirit--
and be changed, if we want.
God offers us that light to be purified by it.

This is what happens in the sacrament of confession:
One of the most misunderstood of God’s gifts!
“Do not be afraid”; yet fear keeps so many 
from enjoying the beautiful light of God’s mercy.

Let me ask again: why are we afraid?

Are we afraid of hell? We should be; 
but angels come to block that path.
Are we afraid of heaven? I think sometimes we are!
As Pope Benedict said, 
sometimes we are afraid of God, 
because we think God will take something away from us. 
Something we cherish, some part of our lives.

But the truth is, God seeks not to take from us 
what gives life depth--but what keeps us in the shallows. 
What holds us back from giving these things up
isn’t that our wrath or our greed or ego or lust 
Are really making us happy; 
but that other voices say, you can’t live without me! 
You’ve tried and failed, so many times! 
Hope is an illusion!

But the angel of the Lord says: “Do not be afraid!”

We’re afraid for one more reason. Angels aren’t us.

The images we paint of angels are misleading. 
Scripture never describes pleasant, fair-haired figures 
with flowing robes and feathery wings.

No, Scripture refers to “thrones and dominions” 
and “cherubim and seraphim”--
“creatures” with multiple wings--
and covered with eyes!--
and often shrouded in fire.

When the Ezekiel describes cherubim, he often says, 
“I saw something like”; 
meaning, they were hard to describe.

We’re not angels, and angels aren’t us. 
As good as they are, they are literally “unearthly.”

I imagine meeting an angel 
might be something like meeting a ghost. 

This is the profound sadness of what humanity’s first sin, 
and all that came after, has done to us.

Right after Adam and Eve turned from God, 
they hide--and God calls out, “Where are you?” 
God knew where they were; but did they know? 
God did not lose humanity; 
humanity lost God and so lost itself.

How sad, then, that when God sends messengers to find man, 
Instead of the greeting of friends, the words are, “Don’t be afraid!”

And so, the final messenger God chose 
wasn’t an angel--but himself;
born as a child, just like us.

Who can be afraid of a small child?

When God became man, what we are,
although God is still God, 
still holy and pure, still all-powerful, 
filling us with awe,
Still, God as one of us gives us courage to come near.

When angels would visit, it was a mixed blessing.
People were no doubt relieved when they left; 
yet they’d ask: where is God? 
Does he see? Does he care?
When God comes, born a child like us, 
we need no longer ask; we know where God is! 
We know he sees; because we see the face of God!
And we are not afraid!

1 comment:

Jackie Parkes said...

Wonderful post Fr..would you mind updating to my new blog Catholic Orthodoxy

(Old blog Heart Speaks Unto Heart)