When I was growing up, it didn’t feel like the house was ready for Christmas until Mom hung the angel mobile in the front window. It was a simple. home-made decoration, a gold-painted wooden hoop from which dangled small red felt angels. Mom had made it either before I was born, or early enough in my life that it felt like it had always existed. In its place over the front window seat, it would sparkle in the setting sun, and any small air movement—a breeze from an opened door, or the central heating coming up through the floor grate—would set the angels dancing.
I’ve always loved the idea of angels, perhaps encouraged by my early memories of my childhood home. Although angels appear in stories throughout the Bible and serve various functions, our understanding of what angels are and what they look like is probably rooted in the nativity stories and in their portrayal in western European art. Most often, they are portrayed in the form of a beautiful human figure in sumptuous robes, with enormous, feathered wings. Mary is often portrayed calmly reading as Gabriel shows up, which always strikes me as odd. Wouldn’t you freak out if a glittering supernatural being showed up in your bedroom? I know I would.
One of my favorite paintings puts a slightly different spin on Gabriel and Mary. In The Annunciation, by 19th-century African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, the artist envisions Mary as a humble Middle Eastern teenager, and the angel Gabriel as a beam of light appearing in her bedroom. She looks like she just woke up, and she’s calm, but looks a little afraid. That fear is why the very first thing the angels say to the people they encounter is “Do not be afraid.”
In the nativity stories of the gospels according to Luke and Matthew, the angels are important messengers of God. They bring news that is life-changing (Gabriel’s message to Mary), joyful (the news of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds), just (the message to Joseph to take Mary as his wife), and dangerous (the message to the Magi to flee Herod’s wrath). Without the angels, the stories of Jesus’s birth would not have the drama and energy that they do.
This Advent season, we’ll be exploring the meaning and messages of the angels in the nativity stories. Each week from December 3-January 7, we’ll explore a different angel message from the nativity stories and what it means for our lives today. And on December 17, we’ll hear the angel stories told through song as the choir presents their cantata during morning worship. For information about our Advent and Christmas services click here. I do hope you can join us, and encourage you to invite your family and friends.
Blessings of the season,