Glynn Cardy 19th December 2021
William Bausch tells a story of a 12-year-old boy (Bob) and a 95-year-old lady (Mrs. Hildebrand). Bob did little chores to help her and she enriched his heart with stories.
One Christmas, Bob became aware that he was the only person she ever really saw. When Mrs. Hildebrand came to pay him that day for the chores he’d done, he refused. But she insisted, saying “What more important thing could I use this money for, if not to give it to a friend at Christmas?”
When Bob left that day, he decided to go past the General Store on the way home. Instead of buying a treat for himself, as he usually did, he found a Christmas card that he thought Mrs. Hildebrand would like, bought it, and wrote in it. Then he walked back to Mrs. Hildebrand’s place and gave it to her.
And it wasn’t too long after that Christmas that Mrs. Hildebrand died.
What struck me about this story was both its goodness and its ordinariness. Both Bob and Mrs. Hildebrand are good to each other, and for each other. Bob did chores for her, like many of us did as children for elderly relatives or neighbours. But Bob wasn’t paid to listen to her stories. Their relationship was more than a work-for-pay transaction. It was, as Mrs. Hildebrand said, about friendship. And Bob’s purchase of a Christmas card proved that. They liked each other.
The story is also very ordinary. It’s about people helping each other. Kindness extended and reciprocated. One person towards the start of their independent life, and the other coming to the end of it.
The word angel is a Greek word which simply means ‘messenger’. A messenger, certainly in the Bible, is said to come from God. But that doesn’t mean the angels needs to have wings, or appear suddenly out of thin air, or have supernatural powers. An angel could be a 12-year-old boy, or a 95-year-old woman.
There are three ‘sightings’ (so to speak) of angels in the two birth narratives we have of Jesus. In Matthew’s account the messenger appears in a dream to help Joseph get his head and heart around the fact that his fiancé, Mary, is pregnant, and not by him. Joseph is about to do the merciful and patriarchal appropriate thing (‘dismiss her quietly’), when the dream makes him think again.
That’s what angels do: they make us think again.
What did this messenger look like? Who were the people in Joseph’s life, living or now dead, who help him re-think things? Did he have a great grandmother who encouraged him to defy convention and follow his heart? Did she look like a Mrs. Hildebrand?
Then in Luke’s account, Mary is visited by an angel with a gender-neutral name, Gabriel. This messenger has a backstory – appearing in the books of Daniel and Enoch, and said to be the guardian angel of Israel. Of course, the naming of this angel says more about the author’s theology and angelology (yes, there is such a thing) than Mary’s.
For Mary, this messenger, not unlike the one in Joseph’s dream, came to help her get her head and heart around a very difficult circumstance – namely an illegitimate pregnancy. ‘Illegitimate’ as in not married, and the father a mystery. I can imagine Mary being distraught about the implications. I can imagine Mary being distraught about telling her parents and Joseph. I can imagine Mary being confused, unsure, and feeling very alone.
What did this messenger look like? No one knew what a Gabriel was meant to look like? Was the messenger an adult, someone she would intuitively trust? Or maybe the messenger looked like a 12-year-old child, someone who would say something completed outlandish, off-the-planet? Maybe the messenger looked familiar, maybe unfamiliar?
Then lastly there was that angel on the hillside who spoke to the shepherds. Remember shepherds
were not only teenagers, but were renowned for their shifty (as in shifting stolen property) ways. This
messenger came not to comfort, not to help these teenagers get their heads and hearts around
things, but to disrupt. The angel came to alarm them.
She/he/it not only told them that a baby was about to be born – in very barn-like circumstances – but
this Jewish baby would inherit all the titles that were associated with the great Roman God, Caesar
Augustus! This messenger gave the shepherds a set a of alternate facts, about an alternate way of
seeing the world, and an alternate God. As I said, a very disruptive and alarming angel.
And the angel concluded her/his mihi with a waiata. As you do.
What did his messenger with the alternate way of seeing the known world, of seeing God, look like?
What culture was she? What was the colour of his skin? Did she look like a 1st century police officer?
Or did he look like a 1st century Fagan (as in Dicken’s famous fence)? Who would those shepherds
have listened to?
I pose these questions to ask who does our heart really listen to? When we are stuck in difficult
circumstances – like a Joseph or Mary – what does a messenger, one who doesn’t get us out of
trouble but helps us to understand it, look like? When we are disrupted, discombobulated, alarmed by
a completely different way of understanding what’s going on in the world, what too does that
harbinger, messenger, look like?
Is it a paled-faced, white-winged, long-robed messenger, a semi-divine personage outside of our
experience, as the world of European art has given us? Or is it something different altogether
different? Someone very familiar? Someone who could be a neighbour? Someone like a 12-yearold
boy or a 95-year-old woman?