The real story of the Christmas angels

The real story of the Christmas angels December 24, 2012
Suceviţa Monastery wall mural, Wikimedia Commons

Luke tells us that on the night Jesus was born, shepherds near Bethlehem were watching their sheep. Suddenly, an angel appeared before them — radiant, shockingly luminescent, and bright. Awash in the otherworldly light, the glory of God pooling around them, the shepherds were terrified.

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel, “for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2.10-11).

After telling them how they would recognize the infant Christ, the angel was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host” (v. 13). If one angel was bright, how about a multitude? The initial flash must have been like an explosion, but the sound of the glorious blast was song:

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men! (v. 14)

We focus for obvious reasons on what the news meant and means for people. But we should know that the glad tidings were good for angels too. They weren’t just praising God for the benefit of the shepherds or even us. As I discovered while researching my book Lifted by Angels, they were also praising God for reasons of their own.

Long before Christmas

The Incarnation of Christ made it possible to heal the rift between God and humanity. But long before Christmas God moved to rescue people from the peril into which our first parents had plunged us.

In the ancient Jewish and Christian understanding, God appointed his angels to oversee and govern particular aspects of creation. God employed angels “to exercise providence,” according to Athenagoras of Athens, “so that God may have the universal and general providence of the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed over them” (Plea 24).

Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, was a friend of the bishop and martyr Polycarp and secretary to the apostle John. He said, referring to the angels, “[God] appointed some of them . . . to rule over the administration of the earth, and he ordered them to rule it well” (Fragment 9).

God tasked dominions, powers, authorities, and principalities with overseeing regions, nations, peoples, even cities. Though their specific functions are not much described in Scripture, allusions and references are there. Importantly, particularly for our story here, Deuteronomy’s “Song of Moses” shows God dividing humanity under the angels (32.8, particularly LXX), and Daniel discusses angelic rulers over nations (10.13, 20–21; 12.1).

Working from these biblical passages and their received interpretation, the ancient theologians and preachers of the church saw angels as governing the affairs of people. In his Miscellanies, for instance, Clement of Alexandria, who was born around the year 150, mentioned “regiments of angels . . . distributed over the nations and cities” (6.17). “God Almighty,” wrote Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, “set over [people] the holy angels to be their leaders and governors like herdsmen and shepherds. . .” (Proof of the Gospel 4.6). And a few centuries later John Damascene said angels “are the guardians of the divisions of the earth . . . they govern all our affairs and bring us succor” (Exposition 2.3).

The Bible gives us a few pictures of God sitting amid these angelic overseers in council. Working from the number of nations as seen in the Scripture, the early Christians numbered the council of angelic rulers at seventy (see Psalm 82, Job 1–2, Genesis 10, Exodus 15.27, and Numbers 33.9).

Myriad angels serve beneath these seventy in their various ministrations — the primary of which is to bring people to a knowledge of God. “The single Providence of the Most High for all commanded the angels to bring all peoples to salvation,” as Pseudo-Dionysius wrote in The Celestial Hierarchy (9.4).

But something went wrong: Satan usurped the government of the angels.

The war in heaven

By the strength of my hand I have done it,
And by my wisdom, for I am prudent;
Also I have removed the boundaries of the people,
And have robbed their treasuries;
So I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man.
My hand has found like a nest the riches of the people,
And as one gathers eggs that are left,
I have gathered all the earth;
And there was no one who moved his wing,
Nor opened his mouth with even a peep.

(Isaiah 10.13-14)

Eusebius identified these words as that of “God’s antagonist, boasting in the strength of his wickedness as he threatens to steal and obliterate the divisions of the nations delivered by the Most High to the angels, and loudly cries that it will spoil the earth, and shake the whole race of men, and change them from their former order.” Humanity consequently became “enslaved by earthly powers and evil spirits instead of the earlier ministers of God” (Proof 4.9).

It was cosmic coup, and humans were pulled evermore to the cause of the insurgency. People became increasingly rebellious and corrupt. Try as they might, the angels could not break or even slow the momentum toward evil first begun in the fall. The angelic assignment, said Papias, “came to nothing” (Fragment 9).

Satan pushed the angels out of their territories and installed demons over the nations. And so we find passages in Scripture that identify pagan deities with demons (see Leviticus 17.7, Deuteronomy 32.17, Psalm 106.37). Sometimes these passages are clearer in the Greek Old Testament; for instance, Psalm 95.5 LXX says, “the gods of the nations are demons” (compare 96.5 Hebrew).

This understanding undoubtedly informs the worldview of writers like Paul. “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God,” as he says in 1 Corinthians 10.20.

Throughout the Old Testament period the battle waged. “[T]he activity of the demons daily waxed greater,” said Eusebius. And while Israel at first responded to the ministration of angels and “returned to the Light and proclaimed the true Lord,” as Pseudo-Dionysius said (Cel. Hierarchy 9.4), eventually God’s own chosen people succumbed as well.

“[E]ven the Hebrew race was hurried along in the destruction of the godless,” said Eusebius, but “at last the Savior and Physician of the Universe [came] down Himself to men, bringing reinforcement to His angels for the salvation of men”(Proof 4.10).

Reinforcement! This is the source of excitement. This is the reason for cheer. The angels were like long-embattled forces, beleaguered and weary. And at last, here is the answer to their foe. Here is Christ! And so the skies erupted over his birthplace.

Cause for excitement

Christ, God himself, would personally wage war on the demons. “[God] did not,” according to the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, “send [humans] one of his servants or an angel or a ruler or any of those who administer earthly activities or who are entrusted with heavenly affairs, but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself” (7.2).

In the Incarnation, God did not send another angel. He sent the Lord of the angels.

Christ’s cosmic counterinsurgency is intense and immediate. He gives his disciples authority over the demons. Then, very significantly, he sends out seventy disciples, a number which corresponds to the number of angelic princes over the nations, thrones which were then occupied by demons. Ancient Christian commentators like Cyril of Alexandria understood this action as revealing Christ’s intent to liberate all the enslaved peoples of the world (Commentary Upon the Gospel According to S. Luke 60).

Before going to the crucifixion where he would conquer death by death, bind Satan and finally liberate humanity through the Resurrection, Jesus pronounced judgment on the usurper: “[N]ow shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12.31).

The coming of Christ is indeed good news — both for us and the angels. Our liberator is here, and the usurper who had oppressed us and frustrated the mission of the angels is finally thrown down. That is why the angels cheer.

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  • debby

    A Holy and Most Blessed Christmas Season to you and all you hold in your heart, Joel. May the embrace of the Holy Family, image of the Triune God, be ever for your family a reminder that God comes to us in such a way that without fear of the truth of who we really are, we can not only draw near to Him, but bow and worship and love and enfold Him as well. We can embrace Him because He has embraced us first!
    I have been following your site for a month or so now and appreciate the beautiful yet truth-filled messages you bring. Like shepherds and angels alike, may we go about proclaiming the Good News: God is Truly WITH us! Thank you for your work and honesty and vulnerability. May His Peace Surpass all our Fear and transform us into His own dear image.
    Blessings! debby from nj

    • Joel J. Miller

      Debby, thank you for the kind words and wishes. Praying that God would bless you richly this Christmas season!

  • Joe

    I would like to insert into this conversation the fact that God did not become Man on Christmas. The event of the Incarnation that made the angels shout for joy was first accomplished at the Conception of Jesus, the Coming of Our Savior. Jesus’ Birth is a milestone in His life; but the thing about His Birth that made the angels sing in the darkness of that night more than two millenia ago is that at that moment, mankind first saw the Face of God.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Fair point. But don’t be pedantic. The moment God became man is less the point than the fact he did so — something the church celebrates at the feasts of the Nativity and the Conception both.

  • Joe

    That is exactly my point: Each feast celebrates something different in the life of Jesus and each has its own unique lesson. When the events are bundled together — as some do with the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Ephiphany — we lose a great deal. Each step along the storied path of God’s entrance into our poor humanity should, in my modest opinion, be examined and rejoiced over on its own. Otherwise, why not just say “God became Man” and let it go at that? No, if it were not for the Incarnation, we would have no Annunciation or Christmas or Epiphany; and in fact we must acknowledge and celebrate that fact if we are true to the meaning of each. The moment God became Man is the most special in history and we should not diminish it by a theological fiction that during Advent we look forward to the Coming of the Messiah. He came; get over it. Nine months before. Now, let’s see just what the angels truly rejoiced over: they and the small gathering of holy people there in Bethlehem (the Kings had not yet arrived and would not do so for quite some time) were struck by the exquisite beauty of our God. Not to be sneezed at! Not to be bundled.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think you’re overstating the need for separation. When Gregory Nazianzen preached his Nativity homily (Oration 38), it was Epiphany because back then the Nativity and Epiphany were celebrated together, something he comments on in the sermon itself. Even the hymns conflate and merge events. The Christmas canon begins:

      Christ is born! Glorify Him!
      Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
      Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!

      The calendar enables us to celebrate and contemplate each event, but they are related events and naturally invite broader celebration and contemplation than the distinct moment the calendar marks. He “descended” and “is now on earth” at the Annunciation/Conception (March 25), but we obviously proclaim it again at Christmas, as even the services do. To say so does not diminish the Annunciation; March 25 still comes around every year and the hymns and readings appropriately draw our attention the subject of the feast.