By Father Casey
“Why are you trying to ruin angels?”
This was the question posed to me last week at the entrance to the Advent Festival. It was a reasonable question, I suppose, as a giant eye ball surrounded by an array of feathers, each featuring a smaller eye, was probably not what anyone was expecting to encounter at the doors to a room themed on angels. “I mean, are you trying to scare the children?”
Let me say, for the record, that no, I’m not trying to ruin angels. After passing through those intimidating doors to Roper Hall (which, by the way, were inspired by the vision of angels in Ezekiel 10:12), participants of the Advent Festival were greeted by angels with fabulously beautiful wings, as a harpist filled a misty room smelling of incense with ethereal music.
Our hope this Advent (and pre-Advent) is not to frighten children, but rather to expand our understanding of these mystical creatures beyond the porcelain dolls featured in so much popular culture, who have more in common with fairy princesses than anything featured in Scripture. Not that angels are always scary or bizarre – they aren’t. As we’ll discuss this Sunday in the first class of the series, sometimes angels are fearsome, and other times they are gentle. Sometimes they are intimidating, and other times they are indistinguishable from an ordinary person.
But they are not pets or playthings. They are servants of God, who seem to interact with people in pivotal moments of our lives and of salvation history. And even if they can have a sense of humor (see Numbers 22), they are about serious and consequential things. Angels have an edginess, you could say, which is why they’re a perfect symbol for Advent.
In much the same way popular culture has dipped angels in sugar and put them behind glass, the season of Advent can easily become little more than the glittery shopping season leading to Christmas. But Advent, as we know it, is edgy. It is a time to reflect on our deepest longing for the world to be made right – “for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:24).” It is an invitation to acknowledge how desperately the world needs redemption, and how far we are from what we are intended to be. In Advent, we thank God that Christ has already come into the world, but we also admit our yearning for the fulness of salvation of break upon us.
This is why the Scripture readings this time of year have an edginess. In particular, the lessons from the prophets are far from sentimental or sweet. Last week, before hearing those timeless words about justice rolling, we heard Amos declare on behalf of God: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” God, it would seem, isn’t impressed by showiness that tries to distract attention from cruelty and oppression. And this weekend we will hear a sobering vision from the prophet Zephaniah, who warns that the “Day of the Lord” will be one of judgment, darkness, and distress. God, the prophet says, is not happy with an unjust world.
These words sound absurd and out-of-place to those who want everything to be “merry and bright” this time of year. They seem like Halloween decorations still left in the yard, when it should be nothing but smiling Santas. But to those of us who are paying attention, who are honestly reckoning with a weary and sin-sick world, an edgy Advent feels right. For what we long for most is not a pretty Christmas, but the salvation of Christ.
And not for us only, though we surely yearn for God to heal our own messy and broken lives. We long for salvation in Gaza and Israel and Ukraine; in migrant caravans filled with seekers of opportunity; in melting icecaps and burning forests; in neglected communities trapped in poverty; in the great halls of governance, mired in dysfunction; and in every quiet room where someone sits in despair.
This longing for God to tear open the heavens and come down is the very heart of Advent. It is why we embrace being out-of-step with the shrill cheer of popular culture, and why we celebrate angels with many eyes, who are harbingers of redemption. For our hope is not in how happy we seem, or how perfect we appear, but in the One who surprised the world long ago by arriving as a poor child, and who promises to return, with hosts of angels, to draw all things to their perfect end.
Father Casey +