Aha! It’s angel music season again—the season when we give them access, when we attend their recitals and write reviews; the season when we won’t be forgetful to entertain angels, lest we fail to play host to some stranger unawares. Isn’t that what Hebrews 13:2 speaks about?
Cherubs, then, all over the house. Cherubs atop our Christmas pines; cherubs—clasped palms—upon our front doors, anchored in holly; cherubs on guard at the creche in the yard, their synthetic imitations filling up the countryside, insistent on blessing your reluctant neighborhood. Cherubs cute and by the handful, never mind the vastness of the difference between them and cherubim—the ancient thing. Outrageous marvel: we now control our better angels by the host, and as easily as we do pine forests.
It’s part of the Christmas miracle: our houses sprout trees, and their owners harness rosy-jowled, winged trinkets onto their branches. Cheeky cherubs for decoration, now readily confused with heathen cupids, glow among the rhythmic blinks of variegated lights, savoring the music of their own season as it wafts through rooms, homes, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Our worse angels we feed to the trash, ordering new ones that will cooperate better when we set them dangling.
And yes, you do remember rightly, that on yesterdays millenia ago, angels were no way as simply handled, manipulated, and controlled. Even when they were rendering “Joy to the World” they were striking dread into the souls of their audience. Angels once made dread-full songsters!
Looking through the Bible, you may be challenged to draw the correct conclusion about angels and music. Their fame as songsters attaches in great part to their breakout Bethlehem performance back around the birth of the first of our past two millennia. The individuals who told it report being confronted by a huge crowd of them, calculated to overwhelm; a mighty army that suddenly showed up, tore away the darkness of a quiet night, and shattered the meek serenity of its mood.
At first there was only one. But people informed about angels, say, Samson’s mother, Samson’s simple father, Assyria’s King Sennacherib, the Roman brigade at Jesus’ tomb,1 people who know anything about angels will understand both the shepherds’ horrible fright and the holy kindness that staged the night’s concert. First, the sight of a single angel terrified the audience (Luke 2:9); then the kindness of his declamation, powerful as it was, helped calm their nerves somewhat (verses 10-12); then the full chorus of the celestial choir, impossible to be restrained any longer, burst into view, belting out lyrics about glory to God (verses 13, 14) to the jarring consternation and indescribable rapture of the sheep watchers so vastly outnumbered and thoroughly shaken, and never to be the same again after the night of the angel concert.
Rank and file, even below, in their society’s standing, neither their lack of status nor the utter unlikeliness of their account has suppressed the story. Indeed, once the shepherds had recovered enough from the shock of their unprecedented encounter with a horde from glory, they knew immediately what they would do next: they would go and confirm what the singers had said—that the Lord Messiah born that night, was lying in a feeding trough in town.
Neither their lack of status nor the utter unlikeliness of their account has suppressed the story .
They went—“straight to Bethlehem,” moving “in a hurry”; they saw—“Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger”; and they conquered—blessed the ages with the story they told and retold ever after (Luke 2:15, 16). Beyond the cow barn visit that unrepeatable night they had no agenda but returning to their sheep-minding duties. But even as they did, and long after they had, the story of angels singing was on their lips; the angels’ songs were in their hearts; and the dedication to its propagation drove their lives: they could not stop praising the God who had wrought the miracle of the babe in the manger who was Christ, the Lord, and who had gifted them the thrill of hearing angels sing. They bore their testimony everywhere they went. It was impossible to silence them. And it was impossible to look down or away, to yawn and shrug shoulders, to be any way distracted when they told you their story.
Their riveting credibility was not their stature in the ranks of the literati. They were not, nor would they in future, be numbered among the leadership, Judea’s men of responsibility, scholar scribes, the Sadducean priesthood, or their frenemies, the Torah-devouring Pharisees. The Sadducees commanded the heights of status; the Pharisees draped themselves in unparalleled and highly persuadable religious credibility. The shepherds minded sheep, for which they were looked down upon. Their unusual story, incredible in all its dimensions, was not persuasive because of their status or its fantasy—hearing angels, seeing angels, seeing a great army of angels, taking instructions from angels, finding a baby in a barn based on angel guidance, finding God Messiah in a barn having been directed there by angels.
Indeed, all things considered, being shepherds and selected by God to experience and tell the story may well have been their narrative’s least-credible dimension. Not because they were shepherds, but because they claimed to have attended an angel concert. Samson’s mother can tell of an angel’s “very awesome” appearance, and recall Samson’s father’s fear, “We will surely die”; Sennacherib can sorrow for his 185,000 slaughtered soldiers, and the Roman guard at Jesus’ tomb, if disposed to candor, may admit that at the sight of one they “became like dead men.” However caring angels may be, they frighten people. Add Daniel to your list: “I was frightened and fell on my face” (Dan. 8:17). Or Zacharias: “troubled when he sawthe angel, and fear gripped him” (Luke 1:12). But angelic choral music? That seems another matter.
It should not be. Angel caring and fright inspiring are natural elements of any heavenly angel’s day (and night) job: they frighten us because sin has degraded our morals and distorted our receptors. We do not naturally know right (Jer. 10:23; 2 Cor. 4:4), cannot hear right on our own (Ps. 53:3), and cannot stand pure, unmodified right (Ex. 33:18-23). But God, for love, comes anyway, muting His glory—as fire in desert shrubbery (Ex. 3:1, 2), a presence behind the second veil (Ex. 25:17-22; 26:31-33), in a tent of human flesh (John 1:14)—any way that lets Him come without destroying us instantly.
And His angels strive for our sake unrelentingly. Their resumé indicates that they are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). Read of their solicitude toward an exhausted man—one of God’s spokespersons: they prepare food for him, and awaken him to quench his hunger (1 Kings 19:7); they awaken another one to set him free (Acts 12:1-17); they show up in dreams to give lifesaving instructions (Matt. 2:13), or give the “All clear!” when a threat has passed (verses 19, 20). They are so completely identified with their Master’s business that He is comfortable wearing their title Himself in pre-Incarnation theophanies, appearing as a created being before He is born to Mary: to encourage runaway slave woman Hagar (Gen. 16); to surprise Abraham and soon-to-be-pregnant Sarah (Gen. 18).
“Angel” means “messenger.” And maybe that’s the catch here. When Trinidadians say they are going to “make a message” they mean that they’ve got something to do, maybe to purchase something at the store. Angel message makers are messengers on assignment. And all assi
gnments are not created equal. Feeding hungry ministers, liberating jailed preachers—those are repeat assignments. Announcing the birth of Messiah God is not. And treating it as such would not do justice to their message. This was the big deal, the prime assignment, with implications of new life for lost sinners, resembling no other charge ever given them, except perhaps at God’s first creation of life and humanity here on earth. And on that occasion they had sung (Job 38:7).
Bethlehem was time to sing again, of God come to earth to give humans life again, and restore us all to heaven again, where angels sing in season and out, more like a year-round matter (e.g., Rev. 5:11-13; 7:11, 12). No more trite human manipulations, nor any more exhausted prophets to feed; no more need to frighten shepherds or soldiers; and where, because of their unrelenting service to God for our salvation, they may now listen to us echo their Bethlehem chorus at last, sharing our own as we “sing the song of Moses and the Lamb by and by, and dwell with Jesus evermore.”2
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review.