Old surplices and cotta’s make good angel costumes. They can have burn holes and stains from years of use, they can have wax from candles dripping and or purple splotches from wine splashed. They can be yellowed with time or pink with mistaken washing, and yet they will still make excellent angel costumes. Such common costuming of angels is honestly not Biblical, but the light garment, tinsel halo and wings are hard to cast aside. We can add biblical swords and even simulated fire, but we have to stay away from the kind of alien like costume that demands the first line the angels always sing, BE NOT AFRAID.
Holly was clever, inquisitive and outgoing. That year she was so excited. It was the first year she got to be an angel. The wings and halos and fairy fluff of dreams. Secondly, she was excited because she had managed to grab the most yellow old cottas. Frankly I think this one was a laundry mistake. It shone, it glowed lemon, much more than it shrank back in tones of aged parchment. Holly rushed up to me and announced how she had secured the golden one, and it was the very best.
As we prepared for the pageant, I reminded every pageant critter that when they were ready in their costumes,they were to come and find me to receive their bell. ‘Merry Christmas Holly!’ and I placed the bell over her head. I was giving out bells and finding shepherd headwear with frantic haste, like some of you may have experienced in the last few days. This proud golden angel, asked me one question. ‘Ms Jane, why do you give us bells?’ I was barely listening, busy and harried with preparations. I offered a snarky and silly answer, ‘so I know where to find you.’ She nodded her head and she backed out of the pageant critter crowd. A few moments later she cleared her throat and said loudly, ‘Alright everybody.’ At which point I lifted my head and listened to hear what she might declare. ‘Ms. Jane wants us to wear the bell so she knows where to find us! So don’t lose your bell!’
If you dressed someone up in cardboard illustrations of a smart phone text message screen, you might come close to the definition of an angel. It is active living messaging. Not just words on a screen or in the air, but a shape and a light and a strange encounter with living communication. We don’t really have an angelology in the Episcopal church. Important councils and creeds make no statements about angels. If you turn to the small print Historical Documents section of the prayerbook you will not find the word anywhere. Nor will you find it in the Catechism. We sing of them, we name them in scripture, we dress children up as them, but we have never seemed moved as a church to say anything definitive about them. Which may be wise and suit you just fine. Maybe strange goings on and incomprehensible things are exactly the sort of thing you sincerely doubt, or would rather not think about. Or maybe angels tickle that sense that there is more than the objective observable universe, but have no words for it, so you just don’t try. Or maybe you have never sensed anything mysterious and magical and spiritual, or maybe you simply hope that there really is more.
Augustine of Hippo instructs us that 'Angel' is the name of their duty and calling, but it is not what they are. According to scripture their chores include praising God, watching God’s people, and being instruments of judgement. However, primarily, they are mysterious heralds of God's desire. A different order of being, and what they are according to Augustine, is more like shapes of God’s spirit. The angels are manifestations of God’s dreams, intention and energy. So strange and other are they that it is difficult to say anything definitive at all. Yet at two of the largest festivals of the church, there they are. Standing at the Empty Tomb, and appearing to Mary, and to Joseph,and lowly shepherds near Bethlehem.
Angels are a powerful symbol for all the dimensions of God’s universe about which we have no real idea. The venerable Rowan Williams invites us to consider angels more seriously. He says ‘anything that puts our human destiny a bit more into perspective is not a waste of time.’ He continues, ‘the world we experience is complicated and in many ways seems dark and dangerous. These angels are a shorthand description of everything that is around the corner from our perception; everything that is beyond our understanding of the universe - including the universal song of praise that surrounds us always’. (Slightly paraphrased. From Tokens of Faith)
You may have heard that sweet and trivial notion that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. I wish that it were that easy. That we could multiply the messages of peace and goodwill, that we could increase the living words of justice, that we could make a festival of jubilee just by the ringing of bells. We are surrounded by things we do not understand, but this dream of God isn’t so manipulate-able. The actions of tyrants and the confusions of friends and family, these crush such fantasies.
Yet, just around the corner from our limited senses, we are surrounded by choruses of Gods spirited communication, we are surrounded with living words that glow with God’s dream of peace. Peace from terrors and release from fears. The truth that real peace comes not from earthly things and governmental power nor spending sprees. Peace comes through God in human heart and voice, comes through this boy, this child. A living word, made flesh, not only a shape of word and spirit but truly made of everyday skin and bones and cries and muck. Peace comes not by distance from every day and mysterious things, but through it.
We live in a universe that is vast and amazing and terrifying and we have only begun to comprehend it. Where are we? How does God know where we are? Where we are is proclaimed in thought and word and deed, it is shown in the light of what our Christian practice is. This is a song that is sung never alone, always surrounded by the communion of saints, always accompanied by the angel choruses that sing Comfort, Bravery and Peace. We are called to sing with them, to glow with them, to be a living message of the gift realized in the life of Jesus the Christ.
Ms. Jane, why do you give us bells? I give out bells so that you know where you are. You are at the stable, you are one of the cast of millions, you are in second hand costumes and you are with a hopeful chorus singing the story of God’s people. Jesus is born, embodied holy Word of God throughout all ages. Healing, justice, food for the hungry and shelter for the lost. Where are we? We are summoned to the cradle, and sent out again. A message that stays with the messenger, is no message at all.
Do Not Be Afraid! The world is dark and dangerous, yet Do Not Become Your Fears! Enter the mystery of the angelic throng, be astonished and be a living message of the Christmas wonder. For I am bringing you Good News of great joy for all people! To you is born this day in the city of David a savior, the Messiah, the Lord! Merry Christmas!
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
5.30pm Christmas Eve Liturgy
Christmas Lessons (form uno)
I did earnestly intend to record this, and it was good. However the crucial step in recording, press record, didn't occur. Blessings, see ya next time!