Editor's Note: In honor of the advent season, this month's column addresses commonly asked questions about the angels associated with Jesus' birth.
- How many times did angels appear?
- What did the angels have in common?
- What did Mary's angel look like?
- What did the shepherds' first angel look like?
- What did the angels sing to the shepherds?
- What message did the shepherds hear from the angels?
- How did Joseph's angel appear to him?
- How often did Mary see angels?
The angels appeared five times. The two most well-known appearances are:
- The angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and giving the message that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38).
- The angel Gabriel appearing to the shepherds and bringing the news that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. A multitude of heavenly hosts then joined in proclaiming, "Glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:8-20).
- Luke begins his account of the Christmas story by writing that Zechariah the priest received news of his wife's pregnancy from Angel Gabriel. To make certain that his readers understood this was an important part of the Christmas story, Luke explains that the child would be named John (later known as the Baptist) and he would prepare the way for Jesus. Elizabeth, Zechariah's wife, was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:11-25).
- After the Magi's visit, an angel warned Joseph that Herod was trying to kill the baby Jesus. The angel instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (Matthew 2: 13).
- After the death of Herod an angel told Joseph to return to Israel with Mary and Jesus (Matthew 2:19).
The word, "angel" is derived from the Hebrew and Greek words which mean "messenger." In all five accounts, the angels that are a part of the Christmas story were delivering a message.
What did the angel that appeared to Mary look like?
The Bible does not tell us. The text simply says that Mary was greatly troubled at Gabriel’s greeting but not his appearance (Luke 1:29). The earliest Christian paintings depicted Gabriel in the form of a man during the annunciation. Hundreds of years later, artists began to paint him as an angel with wings.
The angel is not described, but it must have been a being clothed in celestial light. The Bible says, "The glory of the Lord shone around them, and the shepherds were terrified" (Luke 2:9). When the multitude of heavenly hosts filled the sky, the heavens must have been filled with a spectacular light show.
Did the angels that later appeared to the shepherds sing?
"Hark the Herald angels sing..." are the lyrics to a beloved carol. But do angels really sing? Luke 2:13 portrays the heavenly hosts "praising God and saying" (King James Version). The New International version says "praising God proclaiming." In fact when the Bible quotes the words of an angel, the New Testament Greek always uses the introductory words "saying." This doesn’t mean angels never sing. The Apostle John heard the angels sing in Revelation 14:3. He wrote, "and the angels sang a new song, saying," but he introduces the words "they sang" with "saying." On that first Christmas the heavenly hosts could have been a verse-speaking choir. More likely it was a great anthem of joyful praise. Angels have a lot of experience doing that. In fact, according to Job, the angels sang for joy at the creation of the world (Job 38:7).
What was the meaning of the message the shepherds heard from the angels?
The familiar King James translation of Luke 2:14 was "peace, good will toward men." The King James translators were using the best available Greek text at the time based on a Greek manuscript which used the word eudokia (a nominative noun). Now scholars have discovered earlier Greek manuscripts that all have an extra s added to eudokia changing it to eudokias, a genitive noun. The New International Version correctly uses this new insight and translates the angel’s anthem of praise as "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
How did the angel appear to Joseph?
The angel appeared to Joseph in a dream three times. The Bible does not tell us why Mary was awake when Gabriel appeared to her, just that the angels always came to Joseph in dreams.
How often did Mary see angels?
There is no account in the Bible that Mary ever saw an angel again. By faith she had to face the difficult events surrounding her pregnancy such as the journey to Bethlehem and the search for a room. It must have been a tremendous joy for Mary when the shepherds arrived and said the angels announced the news about the birth of Jesus.