December 30, 2007
Angels of Presence
by Julianne Stokstad
I collect crèches and greatly enjoy moving the figures to follow the story. The story is a journey. The Wise Men bring up the last of the story. They begin far away and move to the center of action when we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men. These guys come from far away in the East, following the star. They are the astronomers and models of science in the ancient times: wise from studying both nature and the ancient testimonies. They are rich and powerful and they freaked out King Herod, the one holding political power, with their story of the coming Messiah. After leaving him, they followed the star until they found Jesus and they knelt down and offered him, this little baby, their precious gifts. Then having been warned in a dream, they went home another way.
Dreams were very important ways God communicated to humans in ancient times. Angels are another. Our Christmas story wouldn't be the same at all without dreams or angels. Take the silent Joseph: it is written, "An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.' Another angel appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him to flee to Egypt to escape Herod. What would our Christmas story be without the angels appear so often. It was an angel who appeared to Mary telling her of the holy nature of her pregnancy. Angels appeared to the shepherds, telling them of the holy birth. The angels sang the first praise, Glory to God in the highest! Angels appear at the tomb of Jesus after his death.
Angels and dreams are some of the ways in which God communicates to us. Both are messages from God. There is a great deal of interest in angels each year at this time. If the Bible and someone as theologically reputable as St. Augustine said they are nearly omnipresent, then we need to pay a little attention to them as well. We find angels as divine messengers in many different religions- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, even Zoroastrianism. I've heard many stories from people about angels. Just this week, I got a call from Sybil who told me another angel story. She was at her son's house for Christmas and had a wonderful time. All the family was there, including her granddaughter and her new husband. As they were saying goodbye, Sybil heard a man's voice telling her not to hug them goodbye. She looked around, she didn't recognize the voice, but she didn't hug those folks goodbye. In reflection she felt it was a special blessing to her. She understood it as telling her she is special to God, especially close to him on Christmas. This angel told her that we indeed have a wonderful God.
Not only angels but also dreams can bring us to a closer awareness of God. I've been told that most of us are so well armored with rationality that it is only in our dreams that God can break through. Let me tell you about a dream I had a number of years ago. In this dream I was walking in a forest, and heard a bird call. It was a golden-crowned sparrow, (whistle a trill of three plaintive descending notes). As I do in life, when I heard that call, I looked up to try to spot the bird. Instead of the little sparrow, I saw some large white cranes and as they flew up into the sun, I knew they were the Holy Spirit. How did I know? I knew because when I saw these birds, I was flooded with a sense of calm and peace beyond anything I normally experience. To this day, I feel that when I think of this dream.
I perceive the presence of God often in nature. I know many of you also have this experience. Birds particularly seem to carry special messages of the divine. Perhaps it is because they are winged, they seem like messengers from beyond. Whether you think of the common black turkey vulture with their featherless red heads soaring in a thermal or a red-tailed hawk soaring and calling and coming to rest in your tree, or the humming birds hovering at the feeder, birds make our hearts leap and give us a thrill and a pause to look beyond whatever it is we are normally caught up in.
In fact, anything that makes us stop and pause and look beyond the narrow confines of our current focus is something that brings us closer to our wonderful God. Remembering the stories of old, help me to see again the wonder and awe our ancestors knew and what it was that grounded their faith. Christmas is of course a time like that. As I told the children, being grateful is a wonderful way to connect with God.
Hearing stories of others also helps us to remember that there is more to life than what we think. In reading the January 2008 "Sun" magazine, the lead article is an interview with Miriam Greenspan. In it she writes of such an experience. At the time of this experience she was a self described agnostic, a social activist and a humanist, not a spiritual person. Being a person of Jewish descent, she did not attend any religious services. Of this particular day, she wrote "I remember looking in the mirror on the morning of Aaron's burial and thinking, I am going to bury my son today. There was an absolute clarity to this. So much of the time our consciousness is not grounded in reality but at that moment I was able to accept reality. Then, at the cemetery, when we buried Aaron, I heard this clear voice that said, you are looking in the wrong place. I had been looking down at the casket and when I heard the voice, I raised my eyes. And, looking up I saw Aaron's spirit which I can only describe as a magnificent radiance---like the energy I'd seen in his eyes, only magnified. And the message was that he was OK. I was flooded with a sense of peace. It is hard to describe because we have no language for these kinds of experiences of spirit. I wouldn't wish this kind of grief on anyone, yet at the same time, experiencing a baby's death in your arms and then seeing his spirit leaves you profoundly changed: I became a more grateful person. "
There are many ways God reaches out to us to break through our stubbornness. Think of the ways you have felt the presence of God. What was it that brought the message to you?
In fact, after all this talk about messengers, I want to make clear that the main point is not the messenger, but the presence of God, our Creator. As the prophet Isaiah said, "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them." This time of year, especially after we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ, we remember the glorious message of Christmas. We remember the angels praising God and singing "Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace to all on earth."
The work of Christmas, like the work of raising a child, is in the every day living and nurturing of the new life. Jesus was born in a poor stable, into poverty and into dangerous and threatening times. It was the light of God that came into the chaos of human life. Let us remember what the angels told; it is in praising God with grateful humble hearts. Angels, birds, stories, the very gift of authentic presence, all these bring us to a closer place with God. Keeping our hearts in the right place helps us to keep our priorities straight. For all these beautiful ways in which God reaches out to us, I give thanks and praise. May you recognize the power of giving thanks and praise. Amen
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