“Comfort.Give comfort to my people.“
My Dear Friends in Christ,
This is the desire of God’s heart made known to Israel through Isaiah. Remember last week, as we began our message on Angels, we began with the cry of the prophet Isaiah who was writing at a stormy time: Judah was in very bad shape, under attack, threatened with destruction by a very powerful foreign enemy. Their situation seemed dark and utterly hopeless. More, God seemed impossibly far from them. Where was God and how could God let all of this happen to them? Could God have abandoned them?
So Last week, we heard Isaiah cry out to God, cry out for God to intervene in a way even bigger than before, when God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and then through the desert to settle them gently in the promised land, a land they were now threatened to lose because of their sinfulness. This week, we hear of God’s response, a desire to comfort his people, to provide for them, to shelter them, to lead them beyond their suffering and to give them hope.
And so we continue to look at how God intervenes, at how God provides comfort for his people: angels. Last week to begin our message series , we underscored the basics. Angels play a key role in the story of the Bible. In the Scriptures from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation there are more than three hundred direct references to angels and many of them take place in the Christmas story. The Christmas story is filled with angels, thousands of them. Angels sent to Zechariah and to Mary and to Joseph and to the shepherds and to Simeon and to Anna and to the Wise Men from afar.
Angels are created by God, like human beings, but not human beings. They’re not people, nor are they people who have died, you don’t die and become an angel. No, angels are not people like you or I, but they are persons, which is to say, they’re individuals: each angel is distinct with an individual intellect and free will. They are also spirits, pure spirits, but they can put on a body, they can take on physical attributes, as we see in Scripture, in order to fulfill some mission or task.
Today, let’s focus on the service of angels; what angels do. As I mentioned last week, I know a number of you were thinking, “Why is he talking about angels? With all of the stuff going on in our world, why talk about angels?” Certainly, I understand that reaction and the instinct to overlook, even ignore, what many reduce to mere fantasy. Hopefully, today’s homily will give you greater insight that God intervenes in our world, in our lives, by sending angels. God sends angels in dark times, to people who are confused or afraid, those unclear about what God’s asking or whether or not they have the strength to do it. It matters in the long run because angels help us to know God better. The truth and reality about angels helps us grow in awareness of and appreciation for the truth and reality that is God.
First, let’s begin with an unintended consequence of the service of Angels: Fear! Did you ever notice that whenever an angel appears, the first thing the angel has to do is to calm the one having the vision?? Even if we just look at the Christmas story, we see fear in the face of angels:
To Zechariah even as he was serving in the Temple: There appeared the angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him… Then the angel said to him. Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.
To Mary: The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women. But Mary was greatly troubled. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God.”
Then to Joseph with the greeting Fear not, Joseph, son of David, to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is the work of the holy Spirit.
Then to the shepherds at Bethlehem, first one angel and then a whole multitude: The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear…Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy…And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
While angels often appear fierce and formidable, what inspire even more fear is what becomes apparent: the distance between God’s ways and our ways. Angels, when encountered, reveal the vast difference, the great chasm of divide between God’s ways and ours. Even a glimpse of it is terrifying.
But that’s not the whole nor the end of the story. The God who leads the angel armies, the God who created these fierce and formidable creatures, this God goes before us, commanding this army to do the same. Angels, their existence and the stories we hear in Scripture are reminders to us that God does not leave us all alone and unaided. Not at all. And especially in dark times.
As we did last week, we’re going to use passages from the prophet Isaiah to start this reflection. Comfort, give comfort to my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem… proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. Comfort and hope are gifts of God that God seeks to share with his people. Remember last week? Isaiah made it perfectly clear that Israel was in this bind because of their own sinfulness. But God still wants to offer comfort, hope, forgiveness, strength, consolation, peace. And often God uses angels to distribute these gifts: comforting us and giving us hope. Throughout scripture we are told stories of angels offering comfort. Angels comfort the prophet Elijah when he was depressed and discouraged. Angels comforted Daniel when he was frightened and alone. Angels comforted Jesus after his temptation in the desert, when he was alone and vulnerable. Angels are instruments of God’s comfort and care, of consolation and support.
Further from Isaiah: A voice cries out… prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Angels serve God by helping us to prepare the way for God to work. Angels support us in our spiritual walk and encourage us to move out of our way the obstacles in life that keeps us from following God’s will for our lives. Angels help us to make progress in the spiritual life. God gives us angels to help us grow closer but there are many obstacles in our way. Angels go ahead of Moses on the mission God gave him in Egypt. Angels lead Joshua and the Israelites into the Promised Land. Angels provide instruction to the leaders of the early Church in the confusing time following the Resurrection: telling them to stop gaping after the Ascension and get to work, opening prison doors, breaking chains, clarifying confusion for Cornelius, Peter, and others. Angels help us to move, and can also help us to move out of our way obstacles that prevent us from moving where God wants us to go.
Finally, at least for our purposes, from Isaiah: Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Angels serve God by revealing the glory of God. Angels reveal to the shepherds at Christmas the glory of God born as poor baby in a manger beneath a star but the universal savior for all people. Angels reveal the glory of God to the disciples at Easter telling them that he is not in the empty tomb among the things of death but alive and coming to them, despite their sinfulness and abandonment. Angels will also reveal the glory of God at the end of time as foreshadowed by the Book of Revelation. It’s God’s plan to reveal his glory and angels are part of the delivery system. Darkness and doubt and weakness and pain, and so much else in our world are no part of his plan, and his glory is the antidote to it.
This is exactly what we celebrate at Christmas: the dawn of his glory and grace breaking into our world. So, all of this sounds great right, but you can’t help asking “So what?” If angels are a resource, an assistance and a support for us, how do we access them? Saying it doesn’t make it so. What do you want me to do? Well, the easiest way to do it is to take it and make it personally. If you grew up Catholic you’ve probably heard about those angels who are called Guardian Angels. It is an idea based on words of Christ himself: See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew18.10) That every individual soul has a guardian angel is a great way of approaching angels and a great way of understanding your inherent dignity before God. You can talk to your angel, you can ask your angel to help you in your prayer, especially if you struggle with prayer, you can ask your angel to help you in anything and everything. You can even ask your angel direct questions. You can also start acting like your guardian angel. Angels are different from us but they are not distant. You can do certain things, some things that angels do, as a way of growing as a disciple of Christ.
Angels bring God’s comfort. You can comfort and support those around you, especially now at this Christmas season, there is quite a lot of comfort in demand. Think especially of those who are alone and lonely, those who are mourning, who have lost a loved one and are facing a first, or another holiday with an empty place at the table. Angels prepare the way and remove obstacles for God to be at work. What obstacles are in the way of your relationship with God? What’s keeping you from hearing God’s word or seeing God’s work? In this Advent season, maybe you can work on some habitual sin or inherently selfish mode of behavior. Starting with the sacrament of Reconciliation? I’ve been bored lately, and you know I hate to be bored. Maybe you can give up something unneeded or unnecessary; some expense or luxury to allow God to do something for someone else instead. Angels reveal God’s glory, bringing grace and light into the darkness of our world. Perhaps, you can put aside a little of your ego and your pride and lighten up instead. Perhaps you can reach out to another and simply spend time with them, time often the greatest challenge and most costly commodity in these days before Christmas.
And perhaps you can do all of these on Christmas Eve. More than any other night of the year, people approach Christmas Eve looking for… well, they may know not what. Ultimately, though, they’re looking for God, for the comfort and hope that God can give, the way forward God can provide, the light God seeks to bring into our world. And, like the angels, you can help make that happen. We may not be able to be together, but we can reach out to others and invite them to watch and to celebrate online with us and with you. Gather your household and watch together as a family. At the same time you can Zoom with someone who may be alone. Or call them and share God’s comfort, help them to grow closer to God and know how close God seeks to be to them; reveal God’s glory by thinking of them and sharing with them. Maybe you can think of someone NOW. Begin NOW to cultivate the comfort of God so it can come more naturally on Christmas Eve. We may not be able to do it in person, but we can still serve others.
Did you know that there’s actually a hierarchy to the angels in heaven? Oh, but it’s not what you may expect. The hierarchy of heaven is based on service, the heart of everything that angels are and do. And in the hierarchy of heaven, the higher angels, the ones with the greatest abilities, the ones with the most impact, the ones with the widest reach serve the others. The higher angels serve the lower angels, the ones closer to God are the servants of the ones further away from God. That’s the way it is in heaven. In fact, it was the refusal to serve that led to all that trouble that Scripture calls the fall. When the Bible refers to Demons and devils, it’s just talking about angels who refused to serve. They were too proud to serve. Their pride got in the way and weighed them down. So they’re fallen angels. Meanwhile, the heavenly hosts are lacking completely in pride, and in their lack of pride they willingly joyously undertake service. In fact, it has sometimes been said, Angels can fly because they always take themselves lightly.
Angels are all around us all the time, nearer than you think, and a lot more useful than you probably imagine.