If an angel were to appear to me in a dream, as an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him it is alright to marry that pregnant girl, Mary, he had been seeing, I think I know how I would react.
If an angel were to swoop in through my window, as the angel Gabriel swooped into Mary’s room, to announce that she would give birth to a son, who would be the Son of God, I have an idea of how I would react.
If angels were to appear in the sky over the fields where I tend my sheep, as they did to the shepherds on that first Christmas to sing of the birth of Jesus, I suspect I can predict how I would react.
In each case, I am almost certain that I would find some time to sit down by myself, or with some help (maybe professional help!) to understand what had happened to me, to understand what I had heard, to understand what God might be doing in the world and in my life.
I say this with some certainty, because although I have never had an angelic encounter that I know of, I have been confronted with the need to try to discern what God is doing in my life and in the world, I have found myself trying to figure out what God wants me to do, how God wants me to act, and, most fundamentally, who God wants me to… and I have noticed that one of my first reactions is to try to make some sense of the situation: to try to understand. I am, after all, a rational person living in a (more or less) rational age. I have been taught that knowledge is power – and I value that lesson. I have seen and known in my life the great benefit of taking the time to understand things, ideas, and people that are not at first easy to comprehend. The impulse to understand is not only predictable, it is welcome in my life, and in the world around me.
And so I feel confident in asserting that if I were Joseph, and I had decided that the pregnancy of my young fiancée – whom I had not known in the biblical sense - was just cause for me to “put her away privily” (as the King James Version so memorably puts it). And if I had a dream in which an angel instructed me not to be afraid to marry her because the child she was carrying was from the Holy Spirit: a son, whom we should name Jesus because he would save people from their sins… first thing in the morning I would call my analyst! And as I laid back on the couch in his office, I would begin to try to understand what was going on in my head and in my heart, and maybe, just maybe, I would try to understand what was going on in the mind of God… if I possibly could.
Perhaps you would react the same way. It is a perfectly normal reaction to events around us – and in many ways, it is the reaction that makes us who we are (homo sapiens: knowing man), this drive to understand. And that desire has wrought a great deal of wonderful science, music, art, and literature, among other things.
Making sense of things, reflecting on them and finding meaning, is the great gift of humanity: something to be celebrated, nurtured, and encouraged. This gift comes, I have no doubt, from God, who made us in his own image, and who must delight when we begin to understand dimensions of ourselves and the world around us that are far beyond the grasp of any of his other creatures. So with the angels, I am sure it comes as no surprise to God that I would set out to understand all the implications of the visitation, the meaning of their message.
But I would struggle in my mission to understand.
If I were Joseph, I would stumble first, I suspect, on the fundamental unfairness of laying such a burden on Mary, and on me, since both of us are basically ill-suited to the task of bringing a savior into the world.
If I were Mary, I would, as Saint Luke tells us she did, “ponder these things in my heart.” But I fear my pondering would give me restless nights, not peaceful ones, as I tried to imagine a future for this mystery baby now growing, unbidden, inside my womb.
If I were a shepherd, I think I would stop trying to make sense of the angelic message as soon as I arrived at the manger and saw the hopelessness of the situation. I would write the whole thing off as a function of the wine I had been sharing with my fellow shepherds that night.
Under any circumstances, I believe I would struggle with trying to understand the angels’ message of the coming of Christ. And I know from my own life how frustrating the struggle to understand can be. I know what it feels like to pray repeatedly to God to ask him to help me just to understand why he is doing such and such a thing, why he let such and such a thing happen, why he won’t fix such and such a problem, why he made me the way I am…if only I could understand, I so often feel certain, then I could get on with life, then I would let go of my anger or my grief or my confusion, and I could begin to do the right thing.
But sometimes we have to learn that God is not asking us to understand something, that he is not presenting an event or a reality, or whatever to us as an exercise in understanding to be dissected with our minds, comprehended, and preserved in formaldehyde to be referenced whenever we need it. Certainly, God is not presenting the birth of his Son to us this way, just as he did not present the news of the birth of his Son to Joseph, or to Mary, or to the shepherds this way.
Sometimes, rather than understanding, what God requires of us is acceptance.
The angelic visits to Mary and Joseph did not require understanding, there was no time for it. These were not seminars that spelled out the logic of God’s action, only announcements that claimed congruence with the voice of the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son!” There was no contract to be initialed and signed, indicating that Mary and Joseph understood what had been told to them, and were accepting full responsibility for whatever should happen next, and the angels could not, under any circumstances, be considered liable for what might happen in the lives of these two people as a result of the news that they’d delivered. There was not even time to consult with their own families – and to do so, would surely have led them to different conclusions – as soon as Joseph awakes from sleep and recalls his dream, his mind is made up: he takes Mary as his wife and accepts the child that she is bearing in her womb.
The Scriptures suggest that now and then, as Jesus grew up, his parents gained some understanding of who he was, and what his life meant. And we take it by implication, since Mary was there at his Cross when he died, that she was granted some understanding of the meaning of his death and his resurrection. But before she was given to understand, she had to accept Jesus, accept what God had in mind, even if she could not understand it.
And the same holds true for each of us. There is so much of the world that we can understand. But many of the most painful, difficult questions we will encounter in our lives – questions of life and death – will evade our understanding, even as they interpose themselves in our prayers with the taunting question, “Why? Why? Why?”
To that question, and answer is not always given. And it is vexing that the angels are not dispatched more often to ease the burden of acceptance with their wonderfulness. Perhaps angelic visitations have slowed to such a trickle because of our dogged insistence to be in control of our lives and the world around us. We have become so good at enacting the fantasy that we are in control that more often than not we believe this is the truth. It is only when things go veering out of control – in sickness, disaster, economic collapse, or in the face of death – that we are forced to confront the limits of our control, and our utter dependence on God. And we do everything we can to avoid such situations.
I’d venture to say that the poor young first-century couple who found angels visiting them in their dreams and in their prayers had less conviction about their own ability to control their lives or the world around them. They’d have had precious little experience of successfully asserting control in their lives, so maybe it was easier for them to assent to the angels’ instructions. And for all I know they had neither the inclination nor the facility to reflect much on the meaning of the angels’ message. But like all of us, they had before them the opportunity either to accept what God was doing or to reject it and do things their own way. Had they insisted on understanding what was going on, then I guess we might still be waiting for God’s Son to be born.
But Mary and Joseph heard the message of the angels; they must have seen what it meant for them: confusion, difficulty, pain, and sorrow, but not without joy… and they accepted what God had in mind for them. And the angels rejoiced, and soon we will join them their song!
May God give us all not only minds to inquire and understand, but hearts to accept his divine will, and the birth of his Son, and may our acceptance of God’s will and of his Son give the angels cause for singing.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
19 December 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia