The association with Christmas and ghosts no doubt sprung from Literature’s best Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. And while there were no ghosts present in the narrative of the birth of Christ, there were angels all over the place. I suspect that many people think that the psychological effect of seeing an angel is similar to seeing a ghost, which is complete tomfoolery. (That’s right: TOMFOOLERY).
Angels are not sprinkled about on every page of the Sacred Text like confetti. Our glimpses into the celestial beings are few and far between. Then – suddenly – Luke’s gospel is full of them. Gabriel is making speeches to Zecharias and Elizabeth. A heavenly host is singing praises on a dark hillside. Another messenger brings word to Joseph to flee lest the Chosen Child be taken by Herod. The universal response to the angelic presence is to fear. We might be tempted to think that this is because they lived in a less scientific world, or that the people themselves – priests and maidens and shepherds – were more susceptible to the psychological terror of such beings. But we demonstrate our conceit when we think this way, for Fear is really the only rational response to the angelic.
We tend to think of angelic beings the way we think about ghosts, when in reality ghosts are something like the photo-negative of an angel. A ghost, as popularly conceived, is the appearance of a person without the substance of that person. They float around and pass through walls because something essential to them – their body – is missing. We fear ghosts even though we are not sure what a ghost could actually do to us. An angel, on the other hand, is a being whose substance is weightier than our own substance, being designed for another world. We fear the angelic not because he might pass through objects in our world, but rather because we suspect that any object in our world that is touched by an angel might be undone to its last molecule. We see ghosts as shades, but feel ourselves to be the shades when confronted by such beings as inhabit the court of the Almighty.
And so it is that both Zechariah and Mary FEAR, not because they lived in a more superstitious age or because they were faithless people, but simply because they were people and the normal human response at being in the presence of a Flaming Messenger is to fear.
If the appearance of one SENT one can have such an affect, how much more ought we to fear the One who SENDS? He told Moses that no one could see His face – that is, no one could see Him in His fullness – and live. The Israelites were warned not to even touch the mountain lest the holiness of God consume them. But to Mary, Gabriel has come to announce a change in the Immutable. The Eternal Son would take on flesh and reveal the fullness of the Father to us: Immanuel.
Why angels? Because heaven was breaking through. The kingdom of God was coming to overthrow the Prince of this world. Battle would soon be joined.