That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others’the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
My grandmother would set up her olive-wood nativity’the one she had picked up in a West Bank tourist trap—on the hutch next to the kitchen table. On the shelf above the manger, she would set six porcelain angels, each with a soft face, flowing wings, and either a harp or a trumpet. They looked like the house band for the Baby Jesus background soundtrack.
That’s the image I think most of us have when we read the scripture above: benevolent celestial beings traveling from heaven to be, well . . . benevolent. But what if there’s more happening here?
In his commentary on the gospel of John, Ben Witherington says, “The Son did not arrive here by descending through the Milky Way galaxy and turning left at Earth’s moon . . . Heaven must be seen as a parallel and presumably non-material dimension of reality, not part of the material universe.”
In other words, heaven is not some fixed point in outer space, but a dimension on the other side of the veil from our world. Sometimes we forget there is an unseen spiritual reality to our Christmas story. After all, when it comes to the War on Christmas, our battle is “not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
That’s why the angels are here. Think about all they’ve seen between both worlds from the beginning of the story until this moment. Some of what the angels were a part of include:
Being at creation where, “all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:4–7).
Fighting the war in heaven where, “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels” (Rev. 12:7).
Watching Adam and Eve fall, and then after they were banished, “God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:24).
Witnessing the broken-heartedness of Hagar when she was mistreated by Abraham and Sarah, then coming to her rescue and saying, “Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying . . . [and] will make a great nation from his descendants” (Gen. 21:17–18).
Passing over the land of Egypt, bringing death to, “all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt,” resulting in, “loud wailing . . . heard throughout the land of Egypt [because] there was not a single house where someone had not died” (Exod. 12:29–30).
Worshiping in the throne room of heaven when Isaiah approached, confessed his sin and the sin of his people, and then God asked, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8).
Answering Daniel’s prayers by fighting demonic forces in an epic three-week battle: “Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer. But for twenty-one days the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia blocked my way. Then Michael, one of the archangels, came to help me, and I left him there with the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Dan. 10:12–13).
They’ve been waiting for this moment, and their celebration crashed through the veil between worlds like revelers bursting through the walls of a New Year’s house party. They’re not sweetly singing on high; they’re seriously partying down below.
The appearance of the angels is not a peaceful interlude, but good news revelry. The very ones who have been in the battles from both sides now know the game has changed forever. For all they’ve seen, the darkness and violence they’ve been a part of now has a Prince of Peace.
Of course this is good news bringing great joy to all people. If they’re excited, we should be excited. That’s why we need twelve days of Christmas to celebrate!
So come, let us adore him.
Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 58.
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