Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Angel of Incarnation

I preached this homily on Christmas Day, 2004. Our Christmas morning service is very small and quiet, and often attended by people struggling with loss, people for whom the holiday is difficult. It's the closest we come to a Blue Christmas service, which is why this isn't a conventionally joyous Christmas homily. (Tomorrow, I'll post a much lighter one I preached in 2003.) Several of our long-time parishioners died in 2004; you'll see their names near the end.

I'm still very fond of this piece, and I still keep, in my study, both of the angels I talk about here. One of our cats likes to jump on top of my bookcase and sniff around the base of the ceramic angel, but so far, both angel and cat have stayed safe. Since my 2004 visit to Biloxi, the George Ohr Museum has been renamed the Ohr O'Keefe Museum of Art. They're rebuilding after Katrina, and have found their own angels of incarnation.

The Gospel -- for those of you who don't have it memorized from having watched A Charlie Brown Christmas when you were a kid -- is Luke 2:1-20.

* * *

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

This is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. I never went to church as a child, but I knew this story by heart, because every year I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on television. And every year, when Linus read these lines during the school Christmas play -– and later, when he and Charlie Brown and Lucy and the rest of the gang sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” –- chills went up my spine. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is still one of my favorite Christmas carols, simply because it moved me so much when I was a child.

As a little girl, I uncritically believed the Christmas imagery I saw all around me. I pictured the shepherds as slightly bigger kids than I was, hanging out on a grassy lawn somewhere -– possibly playing frisbee -– while surrounded by cute, fluffy animals. As a sheltered suburban child, I imagined sheep to be rather like large, friendly dogs, like the lambs at the petting zoo who ate food out of my hand. And of course, the angels were beautiful and smiling.

Here’s an angel I drew one Christmas when I was eight or nine. My mother carved the picture on this woodblock, which we then used to make Christmas cards. This angel has long eyelashes, a goofy happy-face smile, and wings that look like elephant ears. This angel doesn’t have a care in the world, and neither did I, at that age. I loved Christmas.

But as I’ve gotten older, Christmas has become more complicated for me. I’m now much more aware of the suffering in this story. First-century shepherds were social outcasts, dirty and poor and marginalized, and Joseph and Mary were turned away everywhere they went. The fact that God sends good news first to the poor is one of the things I love about this story as an adult, but it can’t help but remind me that the poor and rejected are still with us. And because this is a story about birth, it’s also a story about death, about mortality. Mary risked death in labor, as all women did then, as many women still do. Some commentaries on this story claim that shepherds would only have kept night-time watch during lambing season, which -- in addition to shifting Christ’s birth from winter to spring -- means that they and Mary were engaged in the same exhausting, biological business of bringing new life into the world. This is a story about labor, about hard work and pain, blood and afterbirth.

And then there’s the angel. He terrifies the shepherds and tells them to “fear not,” which are the first words of nearly every angel in the Bible. Angels are evidently not serene, beatific presences. They scare everyone who encounters them. Shepherds were tough customers, used to protecting their flocks from wolves. It would take some doing, to terrify a shepherd. Because I know this, I’ve become allergic to commercialized Christmas angels, to cuddly cherubs and sentimental seraphim.

But last month I found this angel in the gift shop of the George Ohr Museum, a pottery museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, while I was visiting my father for Thanksgiving. This angel, wearing a quizzical expression and covered with wounds and bruises, fascinated me: I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He made me think immediately of the angel who wrestled with Jacob, and whom I’ve always imagined must have sustained his own scars in the process. I carried him around the store with me for at least half an hour, while a woman who was buying everything else in the shop told me that if I didn’t buy him, she would. I finally caved in and handed over my credit card, fretting about how I’d get the angel -- and his fragile, brittle wings -- home safely on the plane. When I got back to my father’s house and unwrapped my new purchase, Dad’s lady-friend peered at the sculpture and said, “That angel looks kind of scary.”

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly.”

The museum shopkeeper had told me that the artist, a woman named Dina O’Sullivan, was Director of Education at the museum. I found her e-mail address on the museum’s webpage and sent her a note, asking her if there was a story behind the angel’s creation. She wrote back almost immediately; she told me that she’s Jewish, and that for her, the angel symbolizes all the stories of struggle in the Hebrew Bible. So my instinct about the Jacob story was confirmed.

I cradled the angel, swaddled in bubble-wrap, on my lap during the long, bumpy plane ride home, and then I started doing research. According to one tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was Gabriel, the same angel who appeared to tell Mary that both she and her cousin Elizabeth were -- impossibly -- pregnant. It makes perfect sense to me that Gabriel would also be the angel who appeared to the exhausted, anxious shepherds as they mid-wived their lambs. And Gabriel, in many of the sources I read, is called “the angel of incarnation and consolation.”

Incarnation and consolation, mortality and comfort: they’re two sides of the same coin. Incarnation is the miracle of God become naked, vulnerable human flesh, of God growing a body. But bodies are fragile, and need to be comforted. Hearing this story two thousand years after it happened, we know how it ends. We know that the God who was born a mortal baby to an outcast mother will die the humiliating death of a criminal. We know that he will be bruised and wounded. We know that this is a story about labor, about hard work and pain. The ultimate comfort, Christ’s resurrection, will come only after the incarnational agony of Good Friday.

As I grow older, there are days when I think that resurrection is the only thing that makes incarnation bearable. Our embodiment inevitably subjects us to loss. I miss Vern and Del and Eleanor this year, and I know all of you do, too; we trust in their resurrection, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve, that we don’t need comfort. We rejoice whenever a baby is born, but we also know that all babies, as they grow, will meet trouble, will be bruised and wounded. We long to spare those we love from suffering: we yearn to swaddle them in bubble-wrap and hold them in our laps to protect them from turbulence, and sometimes we are able to do this, for a little while. We do everything we can to keep what we love from breaking. But Lent and Good Friday await all of us, as surely as Easter does.

And so we need Gabriel, the angel of incarnation and consolation. He appears to us in the darkness of our most difficult labors, as we bring forth new life and as we face death. He tells us, “Look, I’m scarred too; I’m wounded, too. I’ve struggled all night with fierce enemies who refused to release me. I’ve sat with women as they labored in childbirth. I am the angel of everything that is bruised and broken but stubbornly survives, and I am here to tell you that for every pain there is also joy, joy at the end of everything, joy and the peace that passes all understanding. God is with us; Emmanuel has come. From now on, you will not suffer anything that your Lord has not also suffered. You are no longer alone, no longer poor and outcast: you are the Lord’s beloved. Today everlasting life has been born, and today death has died.

“Do not be afraid; for see --I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”


  1. I guess I'm a bit of a hard case, thinking that we should live the way Jesus tells us not on the promise of heaven but because that's the way he tells us to live; because (to quote Mr Punch) 'That's the way to do it'; because God has shared the suffering of humans and has told us the best, the only way. If there's the presence of God at the end of it that's fine (which I do believe), and if there's eternal darkness then I'll have lived as good a life as I can while I'm here. That's the way it works for me. Others may disagree, using the intelligence and experience they've been given.

    Our creator has suffered with us. Powerful, powerful words when we are so often told differently by those who believe they know better than God. After all, he was tortured to death by those he had come to save and still he said 'Love'. If it was good enough for him...

    May we all have blessed Christmases and may the peace of the Lord be with us all, whoever we are, wherever we are.

  2. Merry Christmas, Susan! Beautiful homily! May the angel of the Lord watch over us all tonight as we celebrate the birth of His son.

    Peace! Hope! and Joy!

  3. Merry Christmas, Susan! I hope you and yours are well!


  4. This is a beautiful homily. Thank you for sharing it.

    Funny how that sad little Christmas tree pictured at the top of your post made my heart catch in my throat a little. I guess I imprinted on the Charlie Brown Christmas special as a kid, too. (Note to self: tell the Tivo to record it next year. Probably worth watching again.)

    I love the story of the second angel, the one made from clay, with his bruises and his scars. It's only been a few weeks since we read the story of Jacob's wrestle with the angel, as we do in synagogue every year as Chanukah approaches, so I already had that particular wrestle -- the wrestle after which my religious community is named; we call ourselves the house of Israel, the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God -- on my mind.

    I wish you a good Christmas -- merry or contemplative, whatever it is you need most.

  5. Thank you, all!

    Rachel: So far, it's been a mix of merry and contemplative, in about the right proportions! Thank you for the good wishes. May all of us find light and love this season!


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