We were laughing at the door of the sanctuary as I greeted people after worship. A member was carrying a bag with a Downton Abbey image on the side. I asked if they watched the show. She said they were hooked. I said I almost quit after Matthew got killed, and she said, “That was terrible.” And then, suddenly, she lost her balance, stumbled to the side, and fell against the table where our new nativity figures had been set out for the congregation to see (the figures are for a display outside that is under construction). As she hit the table, the angel began to rock back and forth in that strange, slow-motion, disaster-is-coming, fashion, then tumbled over onto the wooden pews.
Our first concern, of course, was entirely with the person who had fallen against the table as we helped her get her feet under her. When it was clear she was okay, I recruited someone to take my place in providing her support as she continued on her way, and went back to shaking hands and greeting people. But the back of my mind was wondering just how sturdy these new figures were. Then our property chairperson came out holding the broken wing of the dove in the angel’s hand – and the angel’s nose.
Life is hard, even for angels.
We don’t think of angels as battle scarred. Our culture seems to picture them as graceful and feminine, long flowing white robes and wings not all that different from the strutting, nearly naked women on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Search for images of angels on the Internet and we get very few that inspire the fear reported in every Biblical text. The angel in Daniel 10 declares he is on his way to war. Joshua is met by a warrior of the LORD. Elijah opens his servant’s eyes to see that the town is surrounded by the heavenly armies. These are not the figures that adorn the tops of our Christmas tree or stand watch in our nativities.
The Biblical title “LORD of hosts” refers to the vast armies of the LORD. Certainly the metaphor draws from the experience of kingship in the ancient world, where kings are served by – and masters over – great armies. But there is more to the image of soldier-angels than divine pomp and circumstance. They remind us that God is defending life, that God is at war with evil, that God is fighting to reclaim his rebellious world.
Angels are not guardians of our personal safety, but warriors against what is cruel, unjust, violent, and hateful. Wars have battles that are won and lost, and sometimes in the chaos you can’t quite tell who’s winning, but the notion remains that God is fighting those spiritual powers that seem to have us so firmly in their grip. Sometimes, as with Balaam, they come to stand not with us but against us.
So our angel has already been mended and she will stand, gazing lovingly at Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and magi come to see the new born king. But I will know that she has battle scars. And I will find that reassuring.