Thursday, December 20, 2012

Celebrating the messenger…

My dog Fawkes has a nemesis. An honest-to-goodness nemesis. I feel bad about it, don’t encourage it. We’re trying to stop it. I just don’t know how to keep Fawkes from barking and clawing, lunging and freaking out whenever the post office delivery person comes to our door. Indeed, when she’s still across the street, Fawkes’ ears perk up. She runs to the front foyer and her psycho puppy personality emerges like an angry Hulk. I’ve apologized to this person many times. I’ll probably do it again. Because this cuddly, crazy canine of mine just doesn’t realize the postal worker’s only a messenger, not a nemesis, bearing tidings of Christmas cards, utility bills and unsolicited credit card applications.

It reminds me of the angel encounters in the Bible’s Christmas stories. Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, shepherds, all meet heavenly beings in the beginning of Luke and Matthew. Perhaps you knew this already, but if not, here’s some Biblical trivia- The Greek word for angel also means “messenger”. Helpfully distinguishing those characters from other not-quite-human spiritual creatures the ancients imagined surrounding us. Considering some of those other beings were thought devious demons, causes for psychosis or disease, it’s a useful distinction to call spirits like Gabriel, “messengers” or “angels”. Helps Luke’s ancient readers breathe easy. “They’re on our side. Phew!”

Of course, for human characters in Jesus’ Birth stories, the angels’ good intentions weren’t immediately apparent. All they knew initially was that, suddenly, something supernatural was talking…to them! Thus, the typical reaction is shock, dread, panic, fear; poor humans worrying, “Is this phantom friendly? Or might it be a nemesis?!”

Fortunately, the stories hint that neither Mary nor Joseph growled at the angels like Fawkes at the mail carrier. Still, the message the heavenly messengers often begin with is, “Do not fear!” After all, these humans had good reason to be skeptical of their presence. And not just because of their supposed spiritual competition from less than holy sources. It’s that most of us don’t encounter God’s messengers very often.

Which pulls me back to modern times, and contemporary skepticism of such stories. Polls reveal that most Americans believe in the reality of angels. They’re less certain about demons- thankfully!- but winged messengers are welcome. By contrast, surveys of main-line Biblical scholars, I’d bet, would yield starkly different results. Many read these stories as ancient legends, teaching deep truths that transcend fact. Personally, I like what Hamlet, after “seeing” his father’s ghost, says to a skeptical buddy- “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies, Horatio!” That’s to say, I’m open to honoring the possibility of angelic-like experiences. Maybe. What I don’t do, though, is build the foundation of my faith on their alleged factuality.

So let me tell you what I do build the foundation of my faith upon. Jesus. The messenger. Not Jesus-the-Angel, but Jesus, God’s revelation, God’s message to Christians. Now, that may sound like a Sunday School cop-out (always answer Jesus!), but the point runs deep. I mean, Christians have forever argued over what Jesus means. What’s his role in our lives? What’s his function in God’s plan? Around Christmas, I feel it’s important to ponder those questions again. After all, we’re celebrating his birth. But why does that matter?

My answer: I believe Jesus reveals- to Christians- the fullest picture of God we know. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists had other messengers; God reveals Godself in many ways! But for Christians, that little Bethlehem babe shows what’s most important to us about God. That God’s strength includes the vulnerability of childbirth. That God’s salvation includes outcast shepherds, voiceless carpenters, ‘foreign’ Zoroastrian wise men. That God’s love can’t be stopped by violent Herod’s paranoia, nor even by Christ’s eventual, unjust execution by Herod’s successor. Therefore, I have faith that God’s love includes me. And you. And all this world’s continued injustice and beauty, sin and possibility.

So join me this Christmas in celebrating God’s messengers. Not just angels or postal carriers, patient with my dog as they are. But the ultimate revelation of God’s unyielding love. The unconquered Son- Jesus.

Grace and Peace,

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