Secrets, I recall from the days when I used to work on Capital Hill, are part of the currency of Washington. Some secrets are guarded carefully, others are widely known. Knowing how to keep a secret here is almost as important as knowing when to reveal a secret. The keeping and telling of secrets is a powerful business.
God has many secrets. Among God’s secrets there are big ones, like what is the number of the planets and the stars, and there are little secrets like what has been happening to all the honeybees. There are even nano secrets like how to understand the wave-particle duality of matter. And there are confounding secrets like the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. There are secrets at the bottom of the sea, still too dark and cold for us to lay eyes on, and secrets locked in the earth, still too hot and deep to access. God has woven many secrets into our minds and bodies that science has yet to discover. And of course there are many secrets of the heart. And there remain secrets about what God is doing in the world: about the status of earth in the universe, about the limits of time and space. God has many secrets. Some he allows to be found out, and some he guards jealously.
God’s secrets are, of course, objects of great curiosity and inquiry and there are those who would stop at nothing to wrest God’s secrets from his bosom. For God, too, the keeping and telling of secrets is a powerful business. And so God recruited the angels (themselves a secret order of his creation) to be the guardians of his secrets, to dwell someplace between heaven and earth, between God’s throne and the rest of the universe, forever vigilant for the forces that would steal God’s secrets if they could.
Of course, just like in Washington, among the angels, proximity to God’s secrets brings a certain knowledge of them, too. And God allows the angels to know many, if not all, of his secrets and their meaning. And because the angels already know many of the secrets of God, and already exist in a habitat someplace between heaven and earth, between God’s throne and the rest of the universe, they are convenient messengers of the secrets of God, ready to be dispatched whenever God chooses to reveal a secret.
So it is that the angels convince Jacob that he is merely dreaming when they bring to him the memory of the secret once given to Abraham: that his offspring would be blessed, and that they would be his people, and he would be their God. This is a secret that God wants out of the bag, leaked again to Jacob with the deliberate intention that it should spread.
But for a long time the greatest of God’s secrets, hidden deep in his heart, was the secret of his Son: unseen among the details revealed in the various creation stories of Genesis; obscured by the wings of the Spirit hovering over the face of the waters; a top-secret Word pronounced among the syllables of all the “let there be”s; present but unrecognized from before the beginning of time – God’s deepest, most beautiful, and most mysterious secret.
The secret of Jesus is the secret that unleashes the angels in a new and marvelous way, piercing the veil between heaven and earth like a meteor shower. Having kept the secret so long, how the angels must have rejoiced to be allowed at last to bring it to earth.
Gabriel the archangel, of course, was first, bringing the word to Mary of that holy thing that would be born of her: that God would work in secret through her. But we hear throughout the Christmas story the songs of angel choruses too delighted to keep the stillness of that silent night, too exuberant to prevent the shepherds from hearing their song.
The angels, silenced for a while, as Jesus grew, are on the scene with him again as he begins his ministry of teaching and preaching that will lead him to the Cross. They minister to him after his temptation in the desert to repeat in his ears the secrets he has always known: that the way of the Cross lies ahead, his passion, death, and also his resurrection.
Was it angels who tore the curtain of the Temple in two at the dark hour of Christ’s death, unveiling again the secret significance of this moment, and beginning to uncover the way of salvation?
There were angels waiting in his empty tomb when the women came, to give them the first look at the secret about to be unleashed: that he is risen!
We learn from the Revelation to Saint John the Divine that angels are the soldiers of God who will lead the advance in the last days before the establishment of his kingdom, once and for all. Michael the Archangel provokes this unfolding with his defeat of the ancient foe. And angel after angel then delivers to the cosmos the instruments that advance the cause of God’s righteousness, and bring about the desire of his heart: the dawning of the new heaven, the new Jerusalem where all things are made new, and where the river of the water of life flows through the middle of the street of the city.
Meanwhile, back on earth, we live in an age that can hardly tolerate secrets. We find it hard to put our trust in God, partly because of his secrets. We find it hard to imagine why God cannot trust us with all his secrets, why he would keep anything from us. And because we prefer to think of angels like fairies who sprinkle happy-dust on children, we often miss their ministrations to us when the secrets of God are whispered again in our own ears. As with Jacob, these secrets are not necessarily things we have never heard before, but secrets that clearly need to be re-told and re-heard.
There is the effusive secret of Emanuel, God-with-us – that reminder that Jesus was born, that God sent his Son to live among us, as one of us, to know our suffering, and to let his be known, so that all people might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
Whenever we catch a glimpse of a reminder of God’s holy presence with us, we can assume the presence of angels: at the bedside of a mother with her newborn child; in the wilderness where beauty stretches out before us; at the groaning board of plenty we enjoy so easily in many of our lives; at the bedside of a dying parent given the dignity of a happy, peaceful death…
…we can be assured of God’s angels bringing to us the secret of God’s presence.
But of course the angels remember, too, the secrets of the Cross that we so easily forget: that it is foolishness to so many, but to us it is the power of God. And so isn’t it the work of angels when we find the strength to endure the challenges God sets before us; to not give up in the face of a hard diagnosis; to work to forgive him, since you said you were together till death do you part; to take your drunken self to that meeting and admit at last that you can’t live like this but have no power to find a new way to live…
… couldn’t it be the angels who join us on the way to help carry our crosses, as even Jesus was given help?
And the angels know the secrets of life and death. They see past the mist of time that obscures the light of the next life from our eyes, which is to say that they know what hope is, which is why they so often begin their message with these words: Fear not! The angels know the secrets of the passage from this life to the next, which we can only ever guess at, but they allow us to guess for our own sakes, and because there is nothing lost in imagining the details of path that is real but we will only ever travel once. And when we finally give up on the anxieties of clinging to life in this world, it’s the angels who whisper subliminally that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.
But most poignant for the church is the ministry of angels in places like this: here in the midst of a busy and troubled city – just like my own parish in the midst of another busy and troubled city. For if the angels really are the keepers and revealers of God’s secrets, then we have reason to believe that their ministry is intense whenever we gather in our twos and threes or more for the sublime secrecy of the Blessed Sacrament to be shown to us. The secret of God’s presence in Jesus’ life and in his death. The secret of God’s salvation in Christ’s resurrection. And the secret hope that God will at last establish his reign of justice and peace when his kingdom at last has come. (Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.)
And the beautiful secret of a night like tonight is that it has nothing to do with winged fairies sprinkling happy-dust on everyone; it is that the angels bring us again the secrets that God so much wants us to remember: That he is here. That he loves us. That he died for us. And that his kingdom will be established, and that justice and peace will be known. All of this transmitted with a scarp of bread and a sip of wine.
And if the weather is too still and sticky for us to feel the breeze from the angels’ wings, and if our own boisterous Sanctus should drown out their eternal song, and if the cloud of our incense seems to over-power the gentle fragrance of theirs, then it is only because in our self-centered and self-important way, we have become adept at missing the evidence of the angels’ ministry altogether. Which hardly matters, as long as we are open to hearing again their wonderful secret:
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Saint Paul’s Church, K Street, Washington, DC