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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas