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The Angels in Bethlehem

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Surely, the most dramatic appearance of the angels in Sacred Scripture occurred on Christmas morning. St. Luke, at once the evangelist of Mary, the evangelist of the Holy Spirit, and the evangelist of the angels, had just finished describing the birth of the Savior. Christ was born in silence, but Christ’s birth was to be known to the whole world. We are told by St. Luke, “Mary brought forth her first born son, wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, for there was no room for them at the inn.” Silence, obscurity, and no publicity, however, though the world all around not only did not know the Messiah, whom the Jews had been awaiting for two thousand years, not only did they not know, they did not care.

At this point, the providence of God intervened. Not just the most important event in human history took place, but the event for which history exists. But nobody knew, except for Mary and Joseph, what had taken place. God had to intervene. He did so. He sent in sequence, first one angel and then a multitude of the heavenly host to announce to the world the birth of the Savior.

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this divine intervention. What is important in the eyes of God, what a platitude this can be, is usually insignificant, even meaningless, in the eyes of men. So it was here. God intervened. The world had to know what occurred.

What the angels told the shepherds in just a few words is a synthesis of our whole Christian faith. To understand their message is to understand what Christianity is about.

As we have been doing, our sequence will be first to read the narrative from the gospel of St. Luke and see what he says about the angelic visitation to the shepherds; then briefly explain its theological significance. As we have been saying, to believe is not enough, we are to understand what we believe. As Christ later on explained in the parable of the sower, the good seed falls on four kinds of ground, but only the fourth produces any yield. Jesus explained that the seed which was snatched up by the birds were those who had the faith but failed to understand and therefore, for failing to understand, the evil spirit came along and stole the faith from their hearts. Finally and most importantly, we will apply what the angels told the shepherds and, through them, are telling us – how we should take to heart and live what the shepherds were told on the morning of Christ’s birth.

Near the stable where the Christ child was born, there were shepherds living in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night:

And the angel of the Lord stood by them. And the glory of God shone round about them. And they feared exceedingly. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people. For today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord. This shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.”

It took divine intervention; it took God to take action to make known the birth of His divine Son as man.

It was not coincidental but most providential that shepherds were on the same locality where the infant Jesus was born. Nor was it coincidental that they were poor shepherds who actually lived, hear it, day and night in the open fields. We might say they were homeless people. They lived with their families in portable tents, moving the tents to more fertile places for their sheep to feed.

As is customary in scripture, when angels are sent by God to communicate a message, both in the Old and in the New Law, they appear as human beings. Remember Raphael telling Tobias and Tobit, “I seemed to be taking your food and drink, but I have food and drink that is not yours.”

On this occasion, one angel suddenly appeared, standing among the shepherds. How kind of God, there would be a host of angels, but the shepherd, the moment the angel appeared, the shepherds became exceedingly frightened. Had a whole host of angels appeared, the shepherds may have died of fright. Then the whole place where they stood became bright with a heavenly brilliance. The angel then began to talk to them. What by now we know was a commonplace, the angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” On the contrary, the shepherds should rejoice. Why? Because the angel was bringing to the shepherds good news of great joy. How crucially important it is to know that the greatest event in human history, greater, the Fathers of the Church tell us, than the creation of the world. And the world was lost in its own bewitchment, oblivious of the majestic event that had just taken place. For twenty centuries now, this “good news,” we understand as the Gospel. This Gospel is intended to be a source of great joy, not only to the shepherds, nor only to the people in Bethlehem, but to the whole world. It is almost two thousand years since Jesus was born in Bethlehem and there are almost six billion people in the world. The number of believing Roman Catholics number about one billion, and among those, not all even professed Catholics are living good Christian lives.

What is the good news? The good news is the birth of the Savior of the world. And the Savior is at once Christ the Messiah and God, the Lord of the Universe.

What do we mean when we say the word “Christ?” We mean exactly what the Jews meant by Messiah. In English it means the “anointed one.” What do we mean? We mean that God anointed human nature with His own divinity. God became a speechless child.

The angels went on to explain to the shepherds how to identify the Christ child. They would recognize Him because He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, which the Greek of St. Luke tells us, He was wrapped in rags. Again they would recognize the Savior because He would be lying in a manger. Once again, the original Greek tells us, He was lying in a trough. Could God have been more inventive with impressing our minds with the only true value--the only true value is invisible. It is not what the world calls good.

No sooner had the angel delivered his message to the shepherds than a multitude of angels, countless thousands we may believe, appeared to the shepherds. The angelic hosts began to praise God in melodious song while saying, “Glory to God in the highest, Gloria in excelsis Deo; and on earth peace to men of good will, et in terra pax ominibus bone voluntatis.

What does it mean to praise God? To praise God means to honor God, to venerate God, to adore God. It means to recognize God’s existence and believe in Him as the Creator of the universe and the uncreated Being, who is infinitely holy, infinitely wise, almighty in power, and whose name is Love.

What does it mean to praise God? He is the being on whom everything else depends. To praise God means to believe that except for God, nothing would exist. Everything has come into existence through the power of God. Oh how we need to read St. John of the Cross. For centuries he has been called the ‘theologian of nothingness.’ How well he knew that except for God, Who exists by His own divine nature, the essence of God is to exist, everything else, everyone else, including us, was nothing, absolutely nihil, except for the loving omnipotence of God who put this nothingness into existence. And as St. John of the Cross makes clear, except for this same almighty love, everything except God would cease to exist by a simple act of the divine free will. All He would have to do is withdraw His omnipotence and the world would be where it was before it was made, nothing. Libraries are filled with the praises of men, some heroes, some criminals, but how little is said about the praises of God.

What does it mean to praise God? It means to submit to the will of God, at no matter what cost to our own will. It means to love God out of gratitude for His ineffable love of us and, indeed, love Him because He is God.

What do the angels mean when they promised peace on earth among men of good will? They promised peace of heart to those whose wills are good because they are conformed to the will of God.

Now it could be a litany of implications. No human wisdom can fully explain all the consequences of the angelic message in our own lives. As we keep repeating, every angelic message in Sacred Scripture is a message for the whole human race. Every angelic message is meant for all time.

We begin. The shepherds were told not to be afraid. What does it mean to be afraid? To fear means to dread some future evil that we dread will befall us. Desire is the hope of obtaining some future good. The angel is telling us not to be afraid. Why not? Because we have received the good news which is the Gospel, which divinely intended purpose is to bring us joy.

What is the joy that the Gospel is going to bring us? It is the joy of believing that God so loves us that He became, not just a man, but a speechless infant out of love for us. It is the joy of knowing that we sinners have been reconciled by an offended God.

But this joy that the angel promised is not just for us alone, it is meant to be “for all the people.” We have a duty to share our faith with others. Sharing this faith is the principal gift of charity that we can practice towards those whom God puts into our lives. What greater gift has God given us than our Christian faith? What greater joy can we pass onto others than to share with them the treasury of revealed wisdom that God has given us?

The angel told the shepherds that “a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.” We can never appreciate too much or thank God too often for His becoming man, indeed a speechless babe, which is what infant means. Why did He do this? In order to save us from the consequences of our sins. But once again, God became man to save the whole human race from the dreadful consequences of their sins. Yet, what a crucial yet this is, those will be saved who believe in what the shepherds were told. We must believe in God’s unspeakable love in becoming man so He might be able to die for us on the Cross. Christ is indeed our Savior but we must be repenters for our sins. Even the infinite God cannot reconcile sinners unless they are repentant.

The angel gave the shepherds a means of identifying the infant Savior. They would find Him covered with rags and lying in a trough from which the animals ate their food. How we need to remind ourselves that when God became man, He was born in a barn. When later in His public ministry, Christ told us that he came to preach the Gospel to the poor, He meant this literally. Certainly we should be poor in spirit. We should be detached in heart from whatever material possessions we may have. But Christ wanted to teach us what we, in a so-called developed country, need to learn. What do we need to learn? That we are not made for this world. Everything we have of material possessions, money and a home, clothes and dishes, furniture and books, an automobile and places of entertainment, in a word, everything which people consider important, all of this is meaningless, except as a means of drawing closer to God. Whatever else the poverty of Bethlehem should teach us, it is an examination of conscience based on Christ’s words: “It is very hard for the rich man to enter heaven.”

The most memorable angelic declaration on Christmas morning was what the multitude of the heavenly host sang. The theme of their song is a reason why God became man.

They tell us to give glory to God. How we need to hear this in a world that is glorifying everyone except God. We give glory to God by telling Him that He alone is the Maker of the universe, that He alone is our final destiny. We glorify God by praising Him for the graces He has given us and for the promise of the heaven that awaits us. We glorify God by humiliating ourselves in His presence. We glorify God by telling Him, “You alone are holy, you alone are Lord, you alone are the purpose of our existence and the destiny of our hope.”

The angelic host promises peace on earth, but a peace that is conditional. What is the condition? The condition is a good will on our part. Our will is good when we accept God’s will in our lives, no matter how painful it may be. We accept God’s will in our lives, no matter what price we may have to pay. The reward that awaits us here on earth is deep interior peace of soul, and the promise of everlasting peace in the life to come.

How many people are deceived into thinking they can have peace by doing their own will. That is a demonic lie. Christ the Prince of peace assures us that our serenity of spirit depends on our conformity to His divine will.

Mary, Mother of Christ and our Mother, obtain for us something of your detachment from the things of this world. Ask Jesus to give us the grace to praise God, no matter what demands He makes on us. Ask Him to give us that peace which the angels promised on Christmas morning by changing our self-will to a will that is always humbly submissive to the will of your Divine Son. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #10, Tuesday 2/27/96, 2:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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