Four archangels are named in Jewish and Christian tradition. First is Michael, whose name is a challenge: Mee-ka-el translates "Who is like God?" Uriel is next, meaning "God is light" - not a little candle flame but a great blinding light, like that of lightning, of thunder, of the heavens ripped wide open. Then Gabriel, "strong man of God," wrestles with the likes of Jacob in the field and with father-to-be Zechariah in the valley of his soul. Last is Raphael, "God heals."
They aren't gentle, these biblical angels. They aren't sugar-sweet and dimpled. Not whimsical, not pastel, not soft. One of these winged creatures still guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden. He stands there not simply sternly but with a sword, flashing and brilliant with a burning flame so none of us mere mortals can enter and make our way toward the tree of life.
Several angels appeared to the prophet Isaiah in the temple times of the Old Testament. They, too, were flaming creatures and fearsome, with six wings apiece. They weren't singing but shouting so that Isaiah cried out and the temple shook and was filled with their smoke.
You may think you'd like to see an angel, but you actually wouldn't. Ezekiel saw angelic creatures and they had four fierce faces, four strong wings, hands like a human's and burning coals of fire spitting out lightening from the center of their beings (Ezekiel 1:5-14).
The angel Michael is best known for being the leader of the heavenly army. He defeated the great, red dragon found in the book of Revelation, just before seven lower angels are commanded to go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God - bowls of blood, of earthquakes and of fire (Revelation 12:7-9).
No, no you should not want to meet an angel. They are too bright, too fierce, too wild for men and women to stand. And what's more, their bodies glow with the reflected light of God - a light hot like the sun, too hot for ordinary mortals. Much too dangerous for the likes of you and me.
But what if you were a shepherd, living in the fields around Bethlehem and working the night shift, a little cold that night, a little wild-looking yourself, with your hair uncut, your beard rough, your nails stained with dirt, your sheep huddled around you for warmth? You would have been sleeping, as those on call do, with ears open in case a wolf or human thief should be on the prowl. In that case you'd be up in a flash, feeling for the knife in your cloak to defend your flock with your life.
If you were a shepherd that night near Bethlehem, you would not have been asked if you wanted to see an angel. Just suddenly - one appeared!
We don't really know which one it was: Michael, the challenger? Uriel, God is light? Gabriel, the strong man of God? Or Raphael, God heals? But one angel, suddenly, stood before the shepherds. They were wide awake in a flash, every muscle tensed, the hair on their neck on end!
The funny thing is, the angel might actually have been there all the time. It could be, it could be that we are surrounded by angels much more than we'd really care to know about. This one just appeared, standing, on sturdy legs, and shining with the brightness that is part of those who spend much of their time in the actual presence of God.
And the shepherds were not delighted to see him. No, Luke 2:9 says clearly, "they were terrified." The protective curtain between heaven and earth had been lifted. No, actually, it had been ripped in two, and these shepherds - these mind-your-own-business, a little bit grungy, regular guys - were shocked to their deepest core. Because now they knew: Heaven exists. God is. It's all true.
When an angel appears, you see, it's nearly always to lead you somewhere you would never, ever, on your own have thought to go. The angel appears to Moses, and he is called to go to Egypt, the country where he is a wanted man.
The angel appears to Isaiah, and he is sent to tell the people of Ephraim that they will be shattered.
The angel appears to Mary, and now she will be known as the Mother of the Son of God, a shocking and dangerous title to bear.
And so when the angel suddenly appears to the shepherds, the first words out of the angel's mouth has to be "Do not be afraid." Otherwise these shepherds might keel over, not be able to stand. Their fast-beating hearts might just give out. So quickly the angel continues. And maybe it is Raphael after all, "God heals," because these words are a soothing comfort to the shepherds' shock and fright.
"But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,'" (Luke 2:10-11).
In the night - in a sleepless night, a dark night, or even just an ordinary, doing-your-regular-job, getting-ready-for-the-holidays kind of night, these words to the shepherds just might become the angel's word of assurance to you too. It wasn't just for shepherds that God was born in human flesh: It was for innkeepers and motel maids, for kings and CEOs, for wise men and businesswomen, for prisoners and parents, and for school kids and strangers who work the night shift while all the world sleeps.
Not just words
One night this season, maybe you and I will wake with the shepherds and then the whole sky will light up for us too. Suddenly, we, too, will see that this appearance of an angel isn't just words printed in a Bible, not only carefully memorized lines spoken in a child's voice in a Christmas pageant. This angel, joined soon with a multitude of the heavenly host, will be bringing good news to us.
And these angels-for-us sing with a song like the roar of the oceans, like the sound of many bells, like the screaming of eagles: "Glory to God, glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors" (Luke 2:14). And so was the birth of Jesus, the Christ, announced - suddenly! By angels. Our lives, too, can be changed and rearranged when angels bring sky-shattering news. We can trust in this hope.
We can now live lives that reflect the terrible beauty of this glory: God was born a baby, fragile flesh of our flesh and fragile bone of our bones, to bring us salvation. It was announced first by angels from heaven. Now we, too, can tell what the angels proclaim: Here at last, in this Child, we people of the earth find peace among ourselves and with our God.