Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The Terror of Angels
I remember reading a story when I was young about a magical sword that had the disturbing power to tell you the truth about yourself. It was a science fiction novel, The Sword of Shannara, and all the way through the story the hero travels distant lands to try and get a hold of this magical sword in order to defeat the Warlock King and his evil minions.
T owards the end of the story, the hero finds the magical sword – not yet knowing what sort of magical sword it is – and crumples as he tries to hold it in defence. The hero was a young man, brave and pure hearted, who was virtually sinless in the story but the sword revealed all of his mistakes and wrongoings to his mind the moment he picked it up. He was almost crushed by the weight of his imperfection. Ultimately in the story, the hero was able to confront the evil of the Warlock King, who was himself destroyed by the magical sword and its truth.
I always found this to be such a compelling and imaginative tale because most stories are about how terrifying evil is and how scary monsters are. This story was about how scary we are, how terrrifying it would be to be confronted with the evil inside of each of us. I thought long and hard as a boy about what this magical sword would reveal to me if I were to hold it in my hands. I wondered if I was strong enough, as a 12yr. old, to be able to stand up against evil with full awareness of my own corruption.
I mean, could you face the truth about yourself? Or would you be terrified?
Truth is terrifying, but what makes it so?
You’ve heard the old adage about whether or not you could withstand the shame of having all of your family and friends sit in a room and watch of video projection of your unmitigated thoughts in real time? (I think I I’d rather face Adolph Hitler than have my grandmother or my mother-in-law watch all of the ways in which I think like a complete jerk)
Well, I started asking myself these kinds of questions once again when I noticed a strange trend in the bible. It seems to me that almost every time somone in the bible meets an angel or has an encounter with God, their first response is terror. In fact, God tells his people 106 times in the bible not to be afraid which is so weird because of all the things I imagine happening when I meet God, I so rarely imagine fear being one of them
In Luke chapter 2.8-20 we see one of these encounters happen when the angel of the lord appears to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ. “There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger." At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises: Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him. As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed. Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they'd been told!”
Have you wondered why the angel chose to appear to shepherds? Shepherds were poor, simple, marginalized folk for whom news of the Messiah would have indeed been good news. Humble servants who look after sheep hardly seem the appropriate heralds for the king of the universe, right? But I think God was demonstrating to us once again how the very ordinary people are the ones who most often host the Holy - how it is in ordinary places, like fields, with ordinary people, like shepherds or mechanics, that God chooses to appear in an extraordinary way.
Extraordinary ways like the appearance of angels.
We know angels, by the way, are celestial, heavenly, beings which in-and-of-itself is a bit frightening; but, with a little historical study and some research into the use of words in the bible we also know that angels came in a variety of forms, many of which were absolutely terrifying.
For example, we often think of angels as kind-of looking like cupid, but in reality one of the order of angels, the seraphim, don’t look anything like a cute naked baby at all. Now, when some of you hear the word “seraph” you might think of this guy from The Matrix, but some of you might know from certain Old Testament passages that the seraphim are angels with 6 wings clothed in fire. Futher, the word “seraph” actually means, “fiery, flying serpent”, which is sometimes used extracanonicaly to speak about Lucifer who Jewish mystical literature identifies as the chief worshipping angel. Seraphim were the host of angels surrounding and worshipping God with whom devout Jews would’ve been familiar.
So now, instead of cute naked baby, we get an angel that looks a little more like a giant alien or monster, which is pretty terrifying. To be accurate, most of the time angels are listed in the bible they are said to come “in the form of a man”, but I think it’s probably very likely that something of their true nature shone through and that’s where the terror comes from. It was a moment akin to the story I mentioned earlier, where the shepherds were confronted with truth.
Angels are terrifying, then, because of their nature. The terrifying part of them is their glory, their representation of God’s own holiness. It is truly His holiness that is frightening.
Holiness is a terrible thing to behold because it makes us so aware of own own Unholiness.
I met a woman named Maria once, when I was in Juarez, Mexico working at an orphanage. Motivated by her extreme love for children, Maria gave every single penny she had to found an orphanage, L’Agua de Neuva Vida, in Juarez where my good friends Mark and Pansy Benny were the directors for several years. When I was in town, Maria heard that the group I was with had come to visit the orphanage and asked that we come to meet her. Honored, I climbed into our truck and drove with our group to see this amazing woman of faith.
She lived in a dump.
She literly made her home in the city’s dump and lived among the trash because she had given everything she owned to begin the orphanage.
As we began to talk with Maria, she shared with us that she was very sick and needed an operation that was going to cost thousands of dollars without which she would die. It just so happened that an offer had been made from a government organization to buy the orphanage in just that same amount of money. Mark, despite what it would mean for he and pansy and for the children living there, offered to accept the offer and sell the orphanage but Maria wouldn’t have it. She said the most important thing was for the children to have a home and she was willing to die to give them that.
As we left this remarkable woman she pulled on my hand and brought me close to her. There, she kissed me on the mouth – this elderly, diseased, holy woman kissed me as we parted.
That kiss wrecked my day
I was torn between the anxiety of illness and the incredible sense of transferance that I felt. That night I dreamed that with that kiss this woman had somehow imparted to me some of her goodness. I couldn’t take it. It bothered me for days because she was so amazing, so wonderfully good, but all I could think about what whether or not I’d need dialysis because of possible fluid transfer. My own corruption sickened me, as if I’d missed the truly holy moment in the middle of that city dump in order to focus on whether or not I’d need shots back home.
That was when I realized how terrifying holiness really is.
Holiness is frightening because it reveals to us that we really aren’t all that holy. It’s like the closer we get to light, the more we’re able to see our imperfections. So, when we get close to people like Maria, we see how crummy we truly are, and when we get close to God we realize more and more just how much of a debt we owe to the God who has forgiven us.
It’s those moments where we look into our proverbial truth-telling sword and know for sure where we stand.
And it’s scary
It’s scary to think that we’re not better. I mean, I spend most of my time trying to better myself, and not even just get better at behavior, I try and be more generous with my thoughts, gentler with my opinions and certianly with the expression of my opinions, I try and be more kind and considerate. But I’m reminded how far off I am.
What about you? How are you doing? Who are you becoming? If you don’t change a thing about the way you’re living your life right now, who will you become in ten years? A quitter? A deadbeat? Someone who takes their spouse for granted, or whose kids don’t talk to them? Who will you be in your job if you don’t better yourself? What kind of father will you be if you don’t make any more effort than you do now?
This is the problem of holiness, the absolute terror of goodness – that we don’t measure up. Of course, this is also the good news of Christmas! None of us are good enough, so Christ makes up the difference. It is His love for humanity that allows us to be present with God’s great holiness and not be destroyed by the truth of our inadequacies and our sin. It is Love that permits us to go on living
This is the Love that not only He has for us, but that begins to live in us as we follow Him. It is His Love that causes us to be transformed, and teaches us to Love our neighbor. It is His love that compels us to Love the world
Love the world!! Save the Earth!
This kind of great passion is typified by the tradition of the Lamed Vov. The Lamed Vov are 36 Just Men who through their deep love and devotion help the world go forward. No one knows who they are. They don’t even know who they are. They’re like the guys whom Jesus rewards at the last judgment for doing all these good things that they can’t remember doing – they have no memory of clothing poor, or feeding starving, they just do it, and this is what I think is required of us: a spirituality of engagement.
We partner with God in the redemption of the world because holiness is defined primarily in what we do to make everyday holy. So as we think of Christmas, of the immense love that God has for the whole earth, we must also think of how we can participate more in that love. We must be willing to embrace the terror of holiness, to be able to be confronted with God’s incredible nature, be ashamed of our own sin, and still find the freedom in Christ to love the world recklessly
It’s all about love.
It’s about loving the world.
It’s about dying women in city dump’s giving new life to orphans. It’s about holding up a sword of truth in defiance of evil. It’s about you and I partnering with our creator to love more, to give more, and to die more.
Figure out what Christmas means by living it, not just by hearing it.