Paying attention to angels in Advent

November 29th, 2022

As we move into Advent, we talked more with Rev. Susan Robb about her seasonal study, The Angels of Christmas, and how God continues to reach out to us through messengers, friends and strangers alike. Check out our conversation below, and Susan's excellent group study resources, and discover more about how angels' messages proclaiming glad tidings of great joy can be good news in this moment here and now.

Cameron: Your exciting new study for Advent this year, The Angels of Christmas, is driven by a beautiful affirmation: "God still reaches out to us through messengers, whether they’re heavenly or purely human, complete strangers or people we know well.” I cannot tell you how comforting it is to be reminded that God is still reaching out to us, through friends and strangers alike. I’m curious what you would say are some of the particular ‘gifts’ we discover in paying attention not just to the message of Advent, but its messengers? 

Susan: That’s a great question, Cameron. As you reminded us, God does still reach out to speak to us. And that is the message that was being conveyed to the hearers of the nativity stories is Jesus’ day as well. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. So, these angels, that appear to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, were God’s messengers. They, as Gabriel tells us, “stand in the presence of God.” Thus, their messages came from the heart of God. Their messages had similar or parallel stories in the Old Testament, reminding their hearers that God is still speaking and still faithful. And so it is true today as well. 

In Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, who finds himself struck mute after being told he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, are going have a son (who will be John the Baptist), we discover the gift of silence in Advent in order to contemplate what God has done and is doing in our lives. And out of that time of contemplation, we, like Zechariah, become equipped to find our voice to in turn become God’s prophetic messengers to the world.

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Gabriel’s message to Mary offers us the gift of knowing that we, like Mary, are favored by God. We are favored to be called to provide space within us to nurture the Christ Child born in and to us. We are given the gift of knowing, as Mary did, that God is with us guiding and encouraging us as we live out that call. 

As the angels appears to the dreaming Joseph, we are offered the gift of believing the unbelievable when we listen to and follow the messages of the angels. We are also given the gift of courage to act in order to protect the Christ child who has been born to us and to the world. 

We receive a special gift from the messages of the angels that appeared to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. As we hear again the angels’ heralding the birth of the one who came to bring light into the darkness of our lives. We are given the gift of seeing how these humble shepherds, who are strangers to the holy family, become messengers in their own right when they find Mary, Joseph, and the baby, and share the joy of what had been announced to them. To a young couple who had a less than perfect first Christmas (who wants to deliver their baby in a barn?) the shepherds bring the gift of joy and affirmation. The shepherds are so excited about what they have heard, that they can’t help but share the good news with all they encounter! Thus, we are given the gift of knowing that we too can become messengers of the good news we receive. We become angels to others. 

Cameron: I wonder if you've had a moment like this in your life and ministry recently, where a stranger especially became a messenger from God to you.

Susan: I’ve had innumerable moments when I felt as if another person had been sent as an angel to me. Some were mountaintop moments and some were small ones that brought just what was needed at the time. During the height of Covid, I, like so many other ministers, preached sermons and taught all Bible study classes solely through livestream or Zoom. It became disheartening to not be able to know who was on the other side of the camera lens or see or read others’ faces. I began to wonder if I was making a difference at all during this time. 

The church I was serving offered a midweek morning prayer service, where congregants could come (wearing masks, of course), sit several pews apart, and experience some time of contemplation, comfort, and peace. Near the end of the service, a woman on the front row waved, signaling for me to come closer to her. She asked if I would pray for her daughter, who was having some serious complications in her pregnancy. As this woman told me about her daughter, she wept, and I prayed. Later, when I was teaching the trial content of this book study through Zoom, I asked my group this question: Who has been an angel to you? One woman on the screen said, you were an angel to me. I was the one in the prayer service that asked for you to pray for my daughter, I was new to Dallas, had been watching you online, and was so pleased to see you in person at the church. Your prayer gave me such comfort and peace. The moment she said those words, she became my angel. An angel that brought the encouragement I needed in a disheartening time. We were angels to each other.  

Cameron: As we look toward Advent this year—and after two years of very strange Advents—what do the angels of Christmas have to tell us and show us that can be good news in this particular time? 

Susan: We have indeed had two years of very strange Advents. We’ve lived through Advents where we were isolated from one another; from our families, communities, and communities of faith. We’ve lived through two years of what some deem the most politically divisive era in our history, and this Advent the world is holding its collective breath, watching to see how the actions of a Herod-like figure will play out on the global stage. It appears that we are, as the prophet Isaiah said, “living in a land of deep darkness.” 

However, the angels of Christmas have a great deal of good news to share with us. The angels remind us that for those who live in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined. We saw this light shining brightly, even in the midst of our challenges. We participated in or saw those who publicly supported and applauded healthcare workers. We wore masks to protect the most vulnerable. We saw the church mobilize in countless ways to spread and protect the love of Christ in the world even when we couldn’t be in the church building together.

The messages of the angels remind us that Emmanuel, God with us, is always with us, shining light into the darkness, and that someone may be depending on you to provide the presence of God’s angels. The angels’ messages want us to see that, long after the Herods of the world have come and gone, God will still be present, speaking, guiding, providing assurance and protection through the Son and through his messengers, whether they be celestial or human.  

Cameron: What do you think we should take from Advent’s angels with us into the new year, as our churches yearn for hope for what’s next? 

Susan: As we lift our candles high on Christmas Eve, we take with us, not only the hope, but the certainty of the messages of the angels, that the Lord has been born to us. The Lord is near. God in Jesus Christ is always with us. I love what Alfred Delp once said, that we, like Advent’s angels, are to “walk through these…days as an announcing messenger,” for “so many need their courage strengthened, so many are… in need of consolation.” He clung to the promise of the “radiant fulfillment to come,” saying, “It is…only just announced and foretold. But it is happening. This is today. And tomorrow the angels will tell what has happened with loud rejoicing voice, and we shall know and be glad, if we have believed and trusted in [the Angels of] Advent.”

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