24th December 2023
Whether on cards or in cribs and carols, angels and Christmas are linked.
Along with very many people, I see angels as not just a phenomenon of the past, but one of the present.
I believe angels act today.
Of course, given that there are so many varying beliefs in angels, I need to say that my angels are the traditional Christian ones as described in the Bible.
There we find that, contrary to much modern belief, angels are not creatures who were once human, but instead are created supernatural beings, superior in power to human beings but inferior in not being made in the image of God.
That angels play a major part in the Christmas story in the Bible is hardly surprising in view of the fact that the birth of Jesus Christ - God with us - is the biggest event in history.
Let me list some of the typical experiences that are commonly assumed to be encounters with angels.
The nurse in the hospital who turns up at some dark moment with words of comfort and encouragement but whom no one can later identify. This happened to my cousin.
The unknown figure who, at some car breakdown on a lonely road, appears out of nowhere, gets the car working and then is suddenly gone.
The individual who snatches a wandering toddler out of the path of an oncoming car but who, when the grateful parents turn to express their tearful gratitude, has vanished.
The silent character in the supermarket checkout queue who, when the pensioner ahead of them hasn't the money for their essential groceries, leans forward, pays the bill in cash and then is somehow out of sight.
The anonymous person who suddenly turns up at some literal (or even metaphorical) crossroads in life, offers firm and wise advice and then just disappears.
Of course, it's hard to be certain whether such appearances are 'authentically' angels.
Some of them may just be 'angel-like individuals' - helpful, generous people with a desire for anonymity and the ability to arrive and leave a scene smartly.
Nevertheless, not only do I believe that authentic, biblical angels do turn up today, I think there is far more angelic activity than we recognise.
I note that the letter to the Hebrews (13:2 NIV) refers to those who 'have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it'.
The word angel comes from the Greek angelos, a messenger or a courier sent by a powerful individual, and that's helpful.
Angels are not random interventions in life but the purposeful appearances of God's messengers.
In thinking about angels, five things strike me.
Angels are surprising messengers of God.
In the Bible we see that while angelic appearances mostly occur at great points in the history of God's people, their arrival is always unexpected.
And it's the same today.
To us - but obviously not to God - angelic encounters are utterly unpredictable.
We can neither anticipate, demand or control them; angels are under God's authority not ours.
Angels are supportive messengers of God.
They assist, encourage and protect God's people and often occur in crises.
Yet they also warn and deter.
Many people have been prevented from committing a crime or some destructive deed because a mysterious 'someone' has interrupted their plans.
This happened to a friend of mine.
Angels are serious messengers of God.
They are often depicted in art in such a beautiful and sentimental way that we might imagine their role was merely decorative.
Yet in the Bible, angels have a serious, solemn and holy character to the extent that those who encounter them are terrified.
Indeed, many people who've had seemingly authentic encounters with angels today have found themselves shaken by the event.
As messengers sent directly from God, angels must be taken seriously.
Angels are servant messengers of God.
For all their power, there is a humility to angels: they wear no superhero suits, take no credit, have no sense of pride and never linger. Any glory they have is reflected from God, their Master.
Indeed, the Christmas story tells us that what angels would prefer to talk about is not themselves, but God's grace to the world in Jesus Christ.
So we should pay attention to any seemingly authentic encounter with angels. God is trying to get our attention. Let's listen!
Yet there is a fifth thing that I learn from angels: they are stirring messengers of God. They set a challenging example for us.
So, this Christmas - and beyond it - why not take on an 'angel role'?
Act in some joyful, spontaneous, surprising act of goodness and grace.
Pay someone's bill, visit a lonely person, stop and speak with a homeless person, offer a total stranger a helping hand.
Give your time, your money, your energy to help others without any expectation of reward or thanks.
And when you've done your act of grace, quietly and anonymously disappear into the shadows.
This Christmas, forget being a secret Santa; be an anonymous angel!
is an Evangelist, minister, speaker, broadcaster and writer.
He has been in ministry for four decades.
He has spoken in towns, cities and universities in 69 countries.
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