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Meanings of Christmas: How to rescue angels from the tinsel

Do not expect to find angels carolling in the realms of glory. But rather look for in the space between ourselves and God
THE TROUBLE with angels is that they do not easily fit into our world-view. Although it is said that in America more people believe in angels than God, and the New Age movement has now incorporated angels into its pantheon of divine beings, for most of us angels are creatures conjured up once a year to form part of the magic of Christmas: the angel on the top of the Christmas tree, a small girl playing Gabriel in the school Christmas play, hosts of singing angels, looking like choirboys, on Christmas cards. Angels, in short, have been both commercialised and demythologised - we don't believe in them but its nice to have them around, like mince pies, mistletoe, and Bing Crosby singing and dreaming of a White Christmas.

Christmas has now become an association of images and ideas fixed in nostalgic tableaux of Santa Claus and elves, Jesus, his mother and angels, children sharing presents and happy families. In this mix angels serve the same function as red robins and snowflakes, lights on the tree, decorations in the hall - they are all backdrop to the serious business of over-eating and drinking.

But in the Bible angels are serious business. The first thing to notice about them, however, is that they rarely appear by name - Michael, Gabriel, and the turncoat Lucifer are exceptions - and we know little about their appearance or haute couture. Michael and Gabriel are not depicted with wings, though the seraphim that shout "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts" around the throne of God are winged, as are the cherubim.

Occasionally we are given inklings that the cosmos is full of angelic beings doing God's will. In the book of Genesis Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to the heavens on which angels ascend and descend. There are also of course fallen angels, doing their best to thwart God. In the Book of Revelation we hear of a war in heaven in which Michael and the angels defeat the Devil and his cohorts who are then cast out from God's presence.

Usually, however, with notable exceptions, the good angels in the Bible either appear as announcers of God's will, or as creatures who praise and worship him. What we might call the more magical activity of angels with the world (much loved by Hollywood) are more to be found in the Apocrypha (notably "Tobias and the Angel") than in the canonical scriptures.

What is interesting about the Christmas narratives of the birth of Jesus is that we read both of announcing angels and praising ones. Talking of angels generically, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, once claimed that angels are "ontologically weak". By that he meant that they are not so important in themselves, but significant only as messages from God. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Joseph is assured by an angel in a dream that it is right for him to marry Mary even though she is pregnant. Later, also in a dream, he is warned by an angel to flee with his wife and child to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. The angels in these reports have nothing to say on their own account but are important only as heavenly postmen who deliver messages on time to the right person in the right place.

Greater angelic engagement can be found in St Luke's gospel where we read that God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary in Israel to prepare her for the divine conception. This was not just a courtesy call, but a wooing of Mary by God via an emissary who waits for Mary's consent before, as it were, he takes her answer back to God. In the Orthodox Church there is a sense that the whole of creation is hushed as it waits upon the reply of the girl who will freely choose to become the mother of God.

In the second chapter of Luke we have a remarkable passage where an angel appears in the heavens with a multitude of supporters, not to tell the world about the birth of God but to announce it privately to a small group of Shepherds. The Kontakion of the Orthodox Church for Christmas Day depicts the invisible and visible world joining together in wonder and praise at the miraculous birth: "Angels and shepherds sing glory . . . since for our sake hath come as a newborn child he who from all eternity is God".

In the Orthodox Church angels continue to be taken seriously outside the Christmas season. From childhood members are encouraged to talk to their guardian angel as helper and protector of their bodies and souls. To the Orthodox faithful angels are not so much messages, or messengers, but heavenly intermediaries, like the saints, who continually pray for us and commune with God. Talking to angels is not necessary for salvation, nor is it a compulsory component of Orthodox life; it is simply a normative practice that proceeds on the belief in God's good creation and His bounty and providence for the world. Angels in other words are naturally accepted as part of the created order and are no more odd than the existence of human beings or inanimate matter.

It is when we see the heavenly host in this light that its value becomes apparent. The ridiculous glitzy angelic confections of the commercial Christmas we can do without. But assistance in traversing the space between ourselves and God is something we need now as much as ever.

Dr Andrew Walker is the Director of the Centre for Theology & Culture, King's College London, and a lay member of the Orthodox Church