The Glory Around You

Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds.  By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)
Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds. By Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910)

There are two ways of not seeing something.  One way is for the object in question to be so far away that our eyes can’t distinguish it from the surrounding environment.  This is what happens when we try to look for distant stars and galaxies with the naked eye.  We can squint as hard as we like but, without the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, we still won’t be able to see the millions of galaxies that surround us in every direction.  They’re just too far away.

The other way of not seeing something is for the object in question to be so close up that there’s no way for us to see all of it at once.  Such is the case with our own galaxy.  We are part of it.  It’s all around us.  If someone were to ask you where our galaxy is, you wouldn’t be wrong at all to say, “it’s right here” without pointing to anything in particular.

When it comes to thinking about invisible things like the reality of God, most modern philosophers have argued for the first option: God, if there is a God, is simply too distant from our everyday reality to be seen or experienced directly.  From one point of view, this was a most useful idea.  It helped modern thinkers to move beyond the old mythical and superstitious ideas about God as “the old man in the sky” inherited from their ancient and medieval ancestors.  This was a good thing.  It needed to happen, especially once science began to debunk so many of the old superstitions.  In place of “the old man in the sky,” modern people began to think of God as a kind of cosmic clockmaker: a rational mind which was responsible for the machine-like order we observe in creation.  The Creator, according to this way of thinking, designed the laws of nature, built the universe, set it in motion, and then sat back to run under its own steam.  Compared to ancient mythologies, this idea of God seems very plausible, rational, and consistent with the discoveries of science.

On the other hand, this way of thinking has also made God seem more remote and distant from the concerns of everyday life.  God, according to the modern mind, doesn’t exist in this universe.  Some would say that God doesn’t even care about us or creation.  “The clockmaker may have got everything started,” so they say, “but hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”  The clockmaker idea of God might be more rational and less superstitious than “the old man in the sky,” but it doesn’t inspire our hearts toward worship and devotion.  The clockmaker God is little more than a mental concept that can be either accepted or rejected without consequence.  It didn’t take long for modern philosophers to dismiss the clockmaker concept itself as irrelevant and unnecessary.  Like the distant galaxies, such a God was simply too far away to be seen or experienced by human beings.

In recent years, those of us who still feel drawn toward worship have come to realize that both the “old man in the sky” and the “clockmaker” ideas of God are wholly inadequate.  Neither one captures the essence of what we mean when we use the word “God.”  In contrast to the modern thinkers who say that God is too far away to be seen, we say that God is close: so close, in fact, as to be all around us… too close and too big to be fully seen and understood by any one person.  The Bible tells us that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God.  God is like our own Milky Way galaxy: if someone were to ask, “Where is God?” it makes perfect sense to say, “Right here!  All around us!  We exist in God!”

For me, this idea of God being all around us, too close to be fully seen, is expressed most beautifully in the story of Christmas.  That story begins in a fairly mundane way: with regular, working class people being pushed around by the powers that be.  This has been the story of humankind in every age of history.  In this case, the Roman emperor wanted an accurate count of the population in occupied territories for tax purposes, so people Mary and Joseph were shuffled around like cattle and treated like animals to the extent that they even ended up sleeping and giving birth in a stable like animals.  Likewise, we see shepherds working the night shift.  Two thousand years of nostalgia and Christmas pageants have romanticized the shepherding profession, but it was a despised and disgusting job in the first century.  No one liked shepherds, no one trusted them, and everyone saw them as little better than the animals they tended.  Yet, it was to this band of ragamuffins that the angels came.  No outsider or passer-by could have known that the pathetic, mundane scene playing itself out before them was one of the most significant and miraculous moments in all of human history.  Even the key players themselves were shocked and amazed as “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and the heavens themselves seemed to break out in song.

The God that Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds encountered that night was neither “the old man in the sky” nor “the clockmaker.”  Theirs was an incarnate deity who “took on flesh and dwelt among” them.  They experienced this God in “the glory” that “shone around them.”  Contrary to the conclusions of modern philosophers, their God was too close to be seen, not too far away.

God is here.  God is all around us.  I can’t point to one place, or time, or thing and say “this and this alone is God” because the God I believe in can’t be so easily contained or limited.  We “live, and move, and have our being” in God, whose glory can be seen, shining all around us, if only we have the eyes to see it.  Like so many mystics and sages before us, we can see the glory of God shining in the wonders of creation, in the discoveries of scientists, in the guidance of teachers, in the healing of medical professionals, in the courage of those who risk their lives for others, and in the compassion of those who help the suffering.

The glory of the Lord is shining around us tonight, no less than it did for those shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, if only we have eyes to see it.  The poet Girard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and St. Augustine of Hippo reminded us that “God is closer to us than our own hearts.”

The task of the believer in all this is to take these momentary flashes of glory and learn to see them, not as random, isolated events, but as parts of a whole, individual threads in a great tapestry, woven through the ages.  That’s what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing that night when it says in the text that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  She didn’t let her moment of glory just pass her by, she grabbed hold of it and kept it with her.

In the same way, if we want to become the kind of people who can see the glory of God shining around us, then we need to start paying attention.  We need to find those little moments of joy, wonder, peace, and compassion in a day and remember them.  Maybe for you it’s the silvery beauty of snow on tree branches or the golden light of an Adirondack sunset.  Maybe it’s as insignificant as someone generously giving you the right of way instead of cutting you off in traffic.  Wherever you see these little moments of glory, don’t let them escape before you give thanks for them.  If you find it helpful for you, try keeping a daily journal of thanksgiving where you keep a record of these little happenings.  Develop this into a habit and I think you might be surprised at how easy it eventually becomes for you to call these moments to mind.  If that journal idea isn’t exactly your style, don’t worry about it.  Find whatever works for you, but find something.  Don’t let this life pass you by without seeing the glory around you.  Like Mary did: treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.  As you do this, may the glory of the incarnate mystery of God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being,” shine around you and become ever more real to you.

On Angels

Scene from 'Wings of Desire' (1987). Directed by Wim Wenders.

Here is my first Christmas Eve sermon at my new congregation in Boonville, NY.  The text is Luke 2:1-20.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

What is the first thing you say when you meet an angel?

(Screams loudly)

Most of us are used to what I call the “Hallmark” version of angels: chubby babies with little wings.  These “angels” can be found all over cartoons and greeting cards during this time of year.  Most people are probably also familiar with the lithe and glowing figures that float on clouds and play harps.  This is where we probably get our idea of the word “angelic” from.

But did you notice the first words out of the angel’s mouth in tonight’s gospel reading?  “Do not be afraid”!  In fact, this is the third time an angel shows up in Luke’s gospel and each time, the angel says to a human, “Do not be afraid”.  Why is that?

I think it would make more sense if we understood what an “angel” was to ancient Jews.  When angels appear in the Bible, they’re anything but cute.  In fact, they’re quite fearsome.  They’re described as huge creatures with multiple sets of wings.  They have faces like lions and eagles and oxen and humans.  Lightning flashes around them.  Sometimes they carry massive swords.  Some of them are on fire.  When you think about it like that, it’s easier to understand why the shepherds in tonight’s reading felt more than a little intimidated!

But these angels haven’t come to dole out wrath and judgment.  They have a message to deliver.  In fact, that’s what the word “angel” literally means: “Messenger”.  In verse 10, we read that this particular messenger has come to announce “good news of great joy for all the people”.  And, of course, the angel is talking about the birth of the baby Jesus, who, for Christians, is more than just our favorite philosopher/action hero.  For us, Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means, “God with us”.

Christians believe that God became present to us through Jesus in a unique way.  We don’t claim to know how this happened.  We can’t explain it logically.  All we can do is experience the mystery and try our best to share our experience with others.

That’s what faith is.  Faith is not a dogmatic arrogance that claims to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  Faith simply means keeping an open mind toward our experience of the mystery of God’s presence with us.  As a messenger, the angel in tonight’s reading is pointing the shepherds (and us) toward that mystery.

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an actual angel for certain.  I’ve never seen those fearsome, flaming creatures lighting up the heavens with the brilliance of their song: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”  I believe they exist, but I’ve never seen one.  However, I have seen other “messengers” that point me toward the mystery of the divine presence in my life.

I think of creation itself as a kind of messenger (“angel”) that points us toward faith.  Over our heads every night is another kind of “heavenly host” (I’m thinking of the stars themselves).  If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we can hear their song just as clearly as the shepherds heard the angels’ song on the first Christmas Eve.  Psalm 19 tells us:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice* goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

One of the Jewish prophets tells us that, not only the stars, but the Earth itself sings a hymn of praise.  This prophet wrote, “the mountains and the hills… shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  When we look at the splendor of creation around us, we can choose to see it as a random collection of atoms and electrochemical reactions or we can choose to see it as the holy handiwork of a loving being who has given it depth and meaning.  Then, I think, we will begin to hear the song of the Earth and the cosmos, singing us back toward the divine mystery that we call God.

Another place where I sometimes think I see messengers (“angels”) is in the people I meet.  God seems to take special delight at getting humans involved in the process of making this world a better place.  I can’t even think of how many times, when I’ve felt down, some friend came along with a word or gesture of affection and support that gave me the strength to keep going through a difficult time.  That’s an experience that most of us have had at some point or another.  In that moment, I think those people can be messengers (“angels”) to us, pointing us back toward faith, hope, and love.  The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament  advises us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

I remember one such encounter that happened when I was in college.  I was on my way to class one morning when I crossed paths with a young woman on the sidewalk.  We both looked up at the same time and I said, “Good morning”, intending to walk on.  But to my surprise, she stopped and began talking to me!  She told me all about how excited she was to get a letter from a child she sponsored in Latin America.  She was so nice, our short conversation made my day.  A little while later, I remembered that verse from Hebrews, “some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  I had never seen her around campus before.  Could that have been…?  Maybe!

As it turns out, I bumped into her again a few months later and we became friends.  Her name is Cathy and she is very much a human being.  However, our brief meeting on the sidewalk that morning left my mind just a little bit more open to the ways in which God might surprise me in the midst of my everyday life.  To this day, I jokingly refer to Cathy as my “guardian angel”.

As we gather together in this church tonight, we are celebrating the mystery of the divine presence in song, in story, and in candlelight.  These rituals are good because they can help us to sense the presence of this mystery in a concentrated form.  But the real power of Christmas lies in what we take with us into the rest of our year.  As you go out into this Christmas season, I want to invite you to keep an open mind about God.  Pay attention to the love of the people in your life and the beauty of the world around you.  Try to see these things as messengers, angels leading you to embrace the presence of that divine mystery in your life.  As you do so, I pray that you will be able to hear and join in the song of the angels, the saints, the heavens, and the earth: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”