Decoding the Christmas messages of angels
Decoding the Christmas messages of angels
By Elisabeth Smith
To understand how we think of angels from day to day, just recall one of the famous quotes from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings,” little Zuzu Bailey says in the classic Christmas film.
Angels are everywhere in our culture — in film, sculpture, paintings and on the gifts we give to celebrate our Catholic sacraments and holidays. But our perception of these heavenly beings is not always in line with Scripture.
So, this Christmas season, Father William J. Lechnar, Pastor of Holy Family Parish, Seward, poses a simple question: What is an angel?
“This is an important theological concept that some might not know,” Father Lechnar said. “The answer lies in the translation of the Greek word άγγελος or ángelos, which means ‘messenger.’
“People talk about cherubim, seraphim and archangels — all ‘levels’ of angels. But we must understand that angels are not ensouled, like us. They are spirited beings created by God, and their title is the most important thing: They are His messengers.”
As we celebrate the birth of our savior this Christmas, we reflect on the powerful messages that angels shared with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds to ensure they understood the miracle of the infant Jesus.
In this excerpt from Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel speaks to Mary and shares in God’s will of the Immaculate Conception, the role Jesus would play in the world, and eases her fears about the future. The start of the Hail Mary prayer derives from this chapter, with Gabriel saying “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” His message ultimately inspires Mary’s faith and comfort as she prepares to carry her son.
Father Lechnar shares how this message, and sense of the angels, still inspires the faithful today with a mix of mysticism and historic truth.
Tradition holds that the Holy House where events of the Annunciation unfolded was moved “by angels” from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy, in 1294 after a miraculous rescue as the Crusaders were driven out of Palestine. The reality is that a noble Byzantine family, the Angeli family, rescued the home’s materials from anti-Christian invaders and had them transported to Italy to build a shrine.
“People wonder, ‘Was the house flying through the air like the ‘Wizard of Oz’?’” Lechnar said. “No. Historians have discovered the house was moved by the Angeli family, which translates as ‘angels’ in Greek and Latin. For centuries, people thought that there was something more mystical happening, but it was based on truth — a generous family’s last name.
“This shows how people long to connect the mystical with the sacred. But when you go into that house, it’s palpable. You can feel something sacred about that space. You can feel in your heart, that moment of the Incarnation.”
Angels appearing to the Shepherds in the field
Luke shares more revelations from angels in this second chapter, where the angel of the Lord visits shepherds in the field, and they initially fear him.
He calms them, shares the joyful news of the birth of our Savior and tells them how to find the child. The angel is then joined by an “army” of his heavenly brethren, and the shepherds are inspired to find the Christ child and spread news of the miracle of his birth.
Father Lechnar says this is an important moment in the Bible because it reveals a key element of God’s plan.
“In the New Testament, we see angels introducing the Messiah to the world through a group of shepherds, who were among the poorest and most rejected members of society,” he said. “Mary and Joseph were also considered among the lowest class. And we think, ‘That doesn’t make sense. Why would the best news of all time be given to the illiterate and impoverished?’ But that’s how God works. He revealed that everyone is important, and He goes in the direction we least expect. Because it is His plan, not ours.”
The escape to Egypt
After the birth of Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel shares how the angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream, telling him to flee with Mary and the baby to Egypt so they could escape the threat of King Herod. Herod has heard news of the Christ child and aimed to kill him out of worry he would be dethroned. After the Holy Family escapes, the angel guides them from further threats until they safely settle in Nazareth.
Father Lechnar notes this is not the first time an angel appears to Joseph in the Gospels. In Mt 1:18-25, Joseph momentarily considers the option of quietly leaving Mary due to her pregnancy, so that he would be following the law but also might avoid shaming her. The angel of the Lord also appeared to Joseph in a dream in this instance, telling him that Mary experienced an Immaculate Conception and would give birth to the Son of God, instructing Joseph to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus. Both times Joseph obeyed.
Father Lechnar believes his actions are inspiration for the faith we must embrace today.
“What an example of a pro-life image involving an angel!” he marveled. “Jesus was spared because Joseph was following the instructions of an angel in a dream. We might think he was crazy, because he had faith even when it didn’t make sense. But that very faith is what makes all the difference.”