Angels crowd the Advent story, and their presence culminates in the throng of angels who appear to the shepherds on the hill outside Bethlehem. The angelic presences pushing in on the ordinary world come first to the priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and then to the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Finally, they appear with the message that God’s son has been born to the humble shepherds.
The story is told in the classic words of the King James Version:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And 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, goodwill toward men.”
The presence of the angels in Advent is the presence of the supernatural pressing in on the natural. At the coming of Christ the veil between the seen and the unseen worlds is tissue thin. That which is invisible presses in upon those who can only see the visible. As God takes human flesh it is as if the whole divine realm becomes more present in this physical dimension.
Have you ever wondered why messengers from heaven so often appear to shepherds? Not only did the Christmas angels come to shepherds, but the Hebrew people were a nomadic herding tribe. Moses was a shepherd when God appeared at the burning bush. The great king David was a shepherd boy, and at Laus, La Salette, Lourdes and Fatima Mary appeared to shepherd children. The supernatural appearances come to humble peasants for a good reason. Humble workers are, on the one hand, likely to accept a supernatural appearance, and on the other hand, they are unlikely to fabricate a wild story. They’re down to earth, simple, honest and straightforward people — likely to believe in the supernatural but also unlikely to deceive.
The combination of angels and shepherds brings alive the wonder of Christ’s birth, and the symbolism of the shepherds and the wise men add to the levels of meaning and mystery. As his ancestor David was the shepherd king, the child in the stable will prove to be both the Good Shepherd and the King in God’s kingdom. So the angels herald his birth to the shepherds, and through the guiding star the kings make their way to pay him homage. As princes and peasants come together, they prove that the child is the Lord of both the highest and the lowest of humanity.
The angels of Christmas night also remind us of the role of the angels. They are God’s messengers and bring the message of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, and through them to the whole human race, but they are also agents of praise. The angelic role is to give everlasting praise, honor and glory to God. When the shepherds see the angels, they hear a hint of heaven and get a glimpse of glory. Their hearts lift in praise and wonder as they experience the stupendous sight of heaven being opened for a moment as God comes down to dwell among mankind.
As the shepherds take action and hurry to worship the newborn king, they remind us of an important takeaway from the story. Every glimpse of glory and spiritual uplift brings with it the call to action. The angels praise God, but they also serve God. They worship him, but they also render him service. They glorify him and they bear his message to the world. Likewise, following their example, at this Christmas season we turn out hearts in worship and praise, but we rise from Christmas Mass with an even greater determination to bring the angelic message of peace and goodwill to the world through both our lips and our lives.