The account given in Luke’s gospel of the proclamation of Jesus’ birth by the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem is often preached on and makes it into several carols. But I have not really come across, apart from hints in some of the work by Dallas Willard, the actual mechanics of the appearance. I believe it gives us important insights into the nature of heaven – as do all angelic appearances – and therefore into our place within the general scheme of biblical cosmology. Here is the relevant scripture:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Key words to understand are the two mentions of the word appeared (v9, v13) and left them and gone into heaven (v15). Two different words are used for appeared but both are frequently translated “suddenly…there stood/appeared/was” This gives the impression not of arrival but of revelation. There is nowhere in the text the sense of a car screeching to a halt and angels piling out to give their message. There is the sense of a window appearing into the heavens and angels being there. It gives the strong impression of two co-existent spheres of activity, one seen, the other unseen. The verb for the appearance of the first angel means “to stand on” or “stand by”, whilst that for the host of singing angels is “came to be (together with)” and the word for suddenly (exaiphnes) is inserted here.
It was essentially, a flashmob from heaven, and to help us understand, there are any number of great Youtube videos of flashmobs appearing in everyday places. A parallel of a shepherds’ hillside becoming a heavenly court might be a railway station becoming a concert hall. The act of singing or dancing transforms the arena of human activity from, say, one of commerce or public service, to one of beauty and art. I particularly like this one from Stuttgart. This one from Toronto is very well known but still powerful as proclamation of the good news.
I love the idea that where we are, and all that we do, lies within the ambit of the heavenly. Many writers, and not just Christian ones, have written about what the Celtic Christian tradition calls thin places, where the breakout of God’s love and joy and peace, or wrath and judgment is more likely, more possible, more visible, than at other places. It is common to human experience, and we need to honour it as such. We have virtually no means of knowing how God will reveal himself, or to whom.
At a time such as the end of a highly stressful term for many of us at Christ the Sower, is it not reasonable to expect our God to draw closer than at other times to those we care about? If advent means anything for those who do not yet know God’s affection and grace in their lives, surely it is this: that at the very point of their stresses and cares, God stands.