In my years of writing, I’ve not paid much attention to angels. I’ve never knowingly encountered one — knowingly, I say, for how could I tell for certain? Supernatural go-betweens, angels operate in the invisible world, rarely revealing themselves to those of us who occupy the material world.

I think of angels as something like the dark matter that physicists are still trying to understand.  Our familiar world of matter—the Earth, stars and planets, everything that we can see—represents only 5 percent of the universe.  Dark matter, which doesn’t interact with “normal” matter, comprises some 27 percent, according to the latest estimates.  We know dark matter exists, due to its effect on gravitation, but can’t easily detect it since it doesn’t absorb, reflect, or emit light.

Evidently angels have the ability to cross over between darkness and light, spanning the invisible and the visible worlds.  They may act in subtle ways, through dreams, whispers, and mysterious coincidences—witness the many accounts of “guardian angel” experiences.  Or, as in the Bible accounts, they may manifest themselves so dramatically that they must begin with the words, “Fear not!”

As Christmas approaches, you can’t avoid angels.  They turn up in such places as Christmas carols in the mall, greeting cards, wrapping paper, nativity sets, and the tops of decorated trees.  These cute, cuddly depictions have little in common with the angels of the Old Testament, who often came as warriors to dispense judgment.

Puzzled by this abrupt change in style, during Advent I took a closer look at the dozen accounts of angels in the four Gospels.

In the four centuries B.C. (notably, Before Christ), Israel endured one humiliation after another, as foreign empires invaded and devastated the land.  God’s people languished in a dark, cold spiritual winter with no prophets, no word from the Lord, and no apparent cross-overs from the supernatural world to give hope to the beleaguered.

Suddenly a flurry of angel visitations takes place.  The archangel Gabriel announces the conception of John the Baptist to an old, barren couple, and an even more miraculous conception to a young woman named Mary.  Joseph, who sorely needs reassurance, receives three different angelic visits.  And in Bethlehem a host of angels fills the sky, dazzling a group of unsuspecting shepherds.  At the birth of Jesus, an event of cosmic significance by which we humans still mark our calendars, the invisible and visible worlds come together.

Skip forward some three decades, and again angels are on the move.  One with an appearance like lightning rolls away the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, sending the guards into a state of stupor.  Another (or were there two?) sits by the tomb informing a few women that Jesus is risen.  “Tell his disciples and Peter,” the angel commands, a poignant reminder that Jesus’ most loyal disciple has betrayed him.

As I read these accounts, I can’t help noticing the difference in demeanor between the multitude of angels who triumphantly announce Jesus’ birth and the one or two angels sitting by the tomb carrying on a conversation.  Gabriel struck Zechariah mute for his lack of faith, but the angels at the tomb seem oddly subdued. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they ask.  As if wiser to the ways of this planet, they quote Jesus’ own words about his predicted death. Not even the resurrection could erase the distress angels must have experienced during the time when God’s own Son was brutalized by a mob of humans.

Besides the bevy of angels at Jesus’ birth and resurrection, the Gospels record two other visitations, both at moments of Jesus’ weakness.  Angels ministered to him after the ordeal of Satan’s temptation in the wilderness, when Jesus was famished and spiritually exhausted.  And again, as Jesus faced the anguish of Gethsemane, with his companions sound asleep, an angel from heaven arrived to strengthen him.

Luke, who recounted the dramatic appearances surrounding Jesus’ birth, adds a postscript at the beginning of the Book of Acts.  Jesus gives a brief farewell address to the disciples, who are hoping for a glorious restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Instead, their leader commissions a new kind of kingdom, bestowing on them a mission to carry his message to the ends of the earth. Next, as they stand there slack-jawed, Jesus rises like a hot-air balloon and vanishes behind a cloud.

In an almost comic scene, two angels ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?”—as if to say, “Didn’t you hear what he said?  It’s up to you now, so get going!”  They promise a future time when Jesus “will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven”—but not before the long, slow slog of history has run its course.

How do angels interact with the world now?  The German director Wim Wenders offers one notion in his movie Wings of Desire, voted one of the best films of the 1980s.  In it, two angels watch over the Cold War city of Berlin, unseen and unheard but still able to inspire thoughts and influence people: a pregnant woman in an ambulance, a young prostitute, a broken man contemplating suicide.  Though powerful beings, the angels operate with surprising restraint and without overwhelming the humans’ free will.  Sometimes they fail, as in the case of the suicidal man who proceeds to jump off a building.

This Christmas season I’ve been reading the remarkable book Wounded in Spirit by David Bannon, which combines classic art with Advent meditations on grief.  In its pages I met the American artist Abbot Handerson Thayer, who died in 1921.  Thayer seemed obsessed with angels, and his portraits have appeared on bookmarks, prints, and even the cover of TIME magazine.  In this painting, Thayer used his twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Mary, as a model.  The angel’s melancholy expression reflects the sadness of the artist’s life.  Thayer lost one son at the age of two and another just three months old.  He struggled with what is now known as bipolar disorder, leading to suicidal thoughts.  His wife, devastated by the deaths of the two children, was institutionalized, and died when Mary was fourteen.

Reading about Thayer’s life, I reflected back on the angelic appearances in the Gospels and the limits of their power.  Angels may surround us, invisibly, yet their activity on this planet is somehow constrained.  An angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents, but did not prevent the massacre itself.  An angel strengthened Jesus at Gethsemane, but did not prevent the crucifixion.  Jesus himself declared, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  He, too, felt constrained by the inevitability of history and his preordained sacrifice.

At Christmas, God subjected God’s own self to the circumstances of a rebellious planet.  Was not that the point of Incarnation?  A willing victim, Jesus joined us in a corner of the universe notorious for evil and suffering.  According to the Book of Hebrews, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”  The author later emphasizes that we now have a leader who can be touched with the feelings of our weaknesses. God came alongside us in order to communicate divine love in the most effective way: human-to-human.

This season I also reread Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  Writing a friend, he describes Advent in prison, as bombs fall and window panes shatter and fellow prisoners cry out in fear.  “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.”  Even so, he adds, faith can provide comfort in such times: “the calmness and joy with which we meet what is laid on us are as infectious as the terror that I see among the people here at each new attack.…We are neither of us dare-devils, but that has nothing to do with the courage that comes from the grace of God.”

Unlike Peter’s experience as recorded in Acts, no angelic messenger rescued Bonhoeffer.  He died waiting and hoping, for the Nazi SS executed him a few weeks before his prison camp was liberated.  Bonhoeffer understood the constraints of power exercised from the bottom up, not from the top down.  In one of his Christmas sermons he says, “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.  He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them.  God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

At Christmas, God set aside the prerogatives of deity and joined us in our state of misery, opening the door from the outside, to free us for the day when we will join the angels in an unrestrained heavenly chorus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist credits:
(used with permission)

Daniel Bonnell, Seeing Shepherds

David Bannon, Wounded in Spirit

Laura Canby, We Reach Up

 

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33 responses to “Melancholy Angels”

  1. Dorothy Seyller says:

    I enjoyed your interesting piece on angels. Thanks for making me think more about the subject.

  2. Harry says:

    I read your article on angels with great interest. At the turn of every year I immerse myself in the book of Revelation, largely to remind myself of the present and anticipated victory that is ours in Christ. And of course Revelation is full of references to angels. Angels are everywhere. The interpretive lens we use for Revelation varies, but I embrace the perspective that sees persecution, and the related suffering, as a key to understanding the book. That immersion in Revelation somewhat makes angelic realities seem the norm, though admittedly, when angelic appearances seemingly come to others, I tend to miss them. On the normalization of angelic realities, it does seem that in Acts 12:15, the early believers were quick to assume angelical activity, with little or no surprise. And I wonder if angels are more apt to show up in times of great suffering, particularly persecution. Years ago I read the book Lilies Amongst Thorns: Chinese Christians Tell Their Stories Through Blood and Tears by Danyun (1991). I was struck by how frequent angels would appear to either provide deliverance (as Peter in Acts 12) or comfort and strength in the midst of suffering and loss. Truly, perhaps a primary role of angels is that of ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those’ (Heb. 1:14) under great oppression. H. Strauss

  3. Steve Kamerick says:

    Good morning Philip, and thank you for this thought of angelic visits and actions, a subject I too have not considered amongst any study theme or pattern of learning about Christian life.
    We Followers of Christ sometimes forget to notice important things or actions that have taken place and who or how the action had been carried out. We only see the sum of it all without seeing the details that brought it to pass. When the familiar words, “we may be entertaining angels without recognizing it.” (my paraphrase of Paul’s thought.)
    You and your wife are subjects of my prayer life daily with few exceptions. I pray the coming New Year will bring an even closer fellowship between you and God.
    Steve

  4. Ann O'Malley says:

    “Melancholy Angels”? Who would ever use such a phrase? I want you to know how much I appreciate your stepping outside the bounds of evangelical correctness and going deeper into the puzzling truths of Scripture, including your reference to melancholy angels. I’ve never thought of angels this way.

    Sometimes I find myself questioning the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke when they say over and over again that God used an angel or a dream to tell someone exactly what they needed to know or do. Why would He rely so heavily on such an unusual means of communication? But recently I realized that the battle between good and evil has seldom been seen more clearly on this planet than it is in these passages. Maybe the intensity of the warfare required the use of rare weapons. Maybe the people involved needed clear and obvious directions from God in opposition to the wily lures of Satan. Maybe the uniqueness of the form of communication underscores the uniqueness of the times. The same could be said of the other New Testament references to angels that you list here. (Adapted from my blog at https://thosewhoweep.blogspot.com/2018/12/o-little-town-of-bethlehem.html)

    It’s frustrating and humbling to know that I still doubt some of the details in His Word even after being a Christian for more than 40 years, but I’m thankful that we have a God who continues to teach me, rather than punishing me for my lack of faith.

  5. Suleman says:

    Love from Pakistan

  6. Allan and Juliet says:

    Merry Christmas. God bless you and your wife always.

  7. Herb says:

    As Edwin says above, “in this world, sometimes it’s difficult to see evidence of a loving God”. Sometimes, I feel that way also. But, many of Philip’s books say “we believers are the evidence of God on earth”. So, if the evidence is hard to see, maybe we should look at ourselves. God bless you, Philip.

  8. Marilyn Ehle says:

    While living in Germany, we were privileged to get acquainted with a grey-haired, noble, regal woman who had survived World War II. One Sunday our American pastor of a somewhat liberal bent was, with great erudition, “explaining away” the possibility of angelic beings. Suddenly C.—with quiet, firm determination—began describing personal angelic interventions, not only protecting her and her children, but confounding the enemy so whole villages were spared.
    Who and what God chooses to use and when he chooses to intervenes, is part of the beautiful mystery of following him.

  9. Tom King says:

    Another book, and with stories about Paul Brand. I can hardly wait. Keep them coming, please!

  10. Aster says:

    Hello Mr Yancey,I found myself feeling sorry for myself at this Christmas eve. What I really realized it was, I was missing my children and the festival mood that I used to enjoy when I was in the states. In America, we complain because we feel Christmas has been commercialized, but there are places in the world that even Christian people don’t celebrate Christmas, because of poverty, or just being lonely by themselves. Thank you for putting Banoffer’s quotation in your writing. It really brought comfort to my heart, I’m not in person, I’m very comfortable, I have friends around me, I just miss my kids.
    I am so thankful that God came to a humble home with very little to celebrate the arrival of his Son, and he is still arriving at humble places and festival places to visit us. Enjoy the beautiful music of Christmas and the beautiful lights that tells, Joy to the world the Lord has come.

    Did you stop writing books anymore? I’m really looking for work for a book from you that will get us through this ………. of our time, if you’re not inspired yet I am praying that you will be inspired, because I like the way you put things in perspective so that common people like me can read and understand about what God is doing in our time
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.
    Aster

    • Philip Yancey says:

      This is my favorite comment on the post. I’ve only spent one Christmas out of the country so I can only imagine the “melancholy” feeling you describe. You bring it to life.

      No, I haven’t stopped writing. I have a book coming out in the fall of 2019: Feaerfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image, which reworks and updates some of my earlier work with Dr. Paul Brand. Then, in 2020 I should have a memoir ready to publish. I haven’t run out of words yet! –Philip

  11. You never fail to stir my heart. Thanx!
    Have a wonderful Christmas!
    vicki

  12. Darin Holmes says:

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it with us. It was a blessing to read. God bless you and your family, and a Merry Christmas to you as well!

  13. virginia says:

    DEar Philip, once again thank you for your writings. I have been so blessed by all your books which I keep re reading! I am still struggling with your suggested reading of Orthodoxt by GK Chesterton, which I do not really understand! However I came across a phrase in it “the awful authority of a mob” which exactly describes what is going on in France at the moment! (written in 1908).
    I wish you and Janet a very Happy and Blessed Christmas.

  14. Edwin says:

    Philip,

    I have read nearly all your books and steadfastly read your posts. I greatly admire your intellect, your spirituality and your wonderful effort through your skillful writing to make God more tangible, more understandable and more accessible. Yet, I look around this world and see very little evidence of a loving God. The evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming. But I will keep looking and keep reading.

    Edwin

  15. Rodney Otto says:

    Thanks for lifting us in hope, peace, joy and love with Advent thoughts from Bonhoeffer and insights into the “mystery of faith”, including angels. My wife,
    Phyllis, has adorned our Christmas celebration with “myriads of angels” on the
    tree, mantle, walls and window sills. What a blessing to go deeper in this “hidden”
    part of faith that helps us find meaning in suffering and pain and loss.

  16. Dave Campbell says:

    You touch my soul like no other writer. Please, never stop writing your deep revelations. Thank-you for being real. Merry Christmas!

  17. George Ford says:

    Thank you for blessing and enriching my life. Your writings have helped me be a stronger Christian in His service. Merry Christmas.

  18. Joseph says:

    Your post is a good reminder of God’s faithfulness to the care His creation. The reference to dark matter perhaps remains to be proven scientifically yet the comparison of the animate and inanimate containing similar properties is interesting. Bonhoeffer’s quote of “God not being ashamed of our lowliness but marching right in” is quite comforting. Nice post Philip.

  19. Thoughtful discussion on a mysterious topic. I do not doubt the presece and even influence of both angels and demons, but the why’s and how’s are shrouded from our eyes. We want all these things to make perfect rational sense, and yet stories of supernaural sometimes bring unanswerable questions. Thanks for pondering.

  20. Steve Clark says:

    Perhaps the angels say “fear not” because they know our Inclination is to fear what we do not understand. A different posture than those in the heavenly realm who trust God fully. Something we can all aspire to do.

    Thanks for writing this and Merry Christmas!

  21. Nancy Wilson says:

    Thank you Phillip for this beautiful piece on angels: the truth, the stories, the art.
    I know that there have been times in my life when God has sent angels to protect me. Your writing has meant much to me for many years. I keep hoping you’ll write
    another book.

    May you and your wife have a blessed Christmas and many blessings throughout
    2019!

    In Christ,

    Nancy Wilson

  22. Charles Crutcher says:

    Good post, Philip. Always enjoy reading you. Merry Christmas!

  23. Les Carter says:

    I’ve read so many of your books and articles, and I must say this is one of your most thought provoking yet. Thank you, thank you for being such an inspiration.

  24. Jane Sutton says:

    Beautiful, thanks for sharing this!

  25. Ellen johnson says:

    Ah. Tears leave my eyes for the incredible joy of it all.

  26. Lee Soo Ann says:

    Encouraging words

  27. Ted Groat says:

    Thank you, Phillip.

    Very insightful and encouraging.

    (I’m a good friend of John Sagherian and long-time YFC music staffer.)

    Ted Groat

  28. Kirsten says:

    Your writing have given me joy and strength as i understand more of gods character. The truths that i can stand on give me confidence that god does not leave us. Thank you

  29. Avenel Grace says:

    Dear Phillip,
    A dear friend of mine from Tampa in Florida, recently had reason to make an emergency trip up to Baltimore as his daughter was in intensive care and he and his wife wanted to be at her side. As he was driving up the freeway nearing New York he hit a patch of black ice, and the car skidded out of control straight towards a concrete wall of an overpass. Just before smashing into the wall, John saw a giant hand over his windscreen, and the car was guided gently toward the median strip where it was safe. He drove carefully along the strip for some yards, until he was back on a safe part of the road. A little while later, he pulled into a service station to refuel, and get some hot drinks. A truck driver called out to him, and said..
    “I saw your car headed for the wall back there, but I also saw a huge hand come out from nowhere and lift you over to the middle strip! Please tell me I wasn’t hallucinating !” John said, “no , that was God’s hand…He always takes care of me”
    (John has a long history of encounters with Jesus from a previous accident … long story) The truck driver told john to stay in close behind him for the next leg of the journey so the truck would deal with any ice or snow and they would be safe.
    There’s your angels. Blessings for Christmas Phillip . Avenel, with love. <3

  30. Michele Breen says:

    Thank you

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