Holidays | Opinion

Better angels

Help is on the way

If we can’t get angels, there is nothing anyone on the planet wants more for Christmas this year than a vaccine for the coronavirus. We are told it’s on the way, but we must be patient. A global pandemic can’t be subdued in a day. This is our first COVID Christmas, and hopefully, by God’s mercy, our last.

We’ve had distressing recessions in my time, but overall I must confess I have lived a sheltered life, having never been immediately threatened or even inconvenienced by any sort of natural or social catastrophe. Others have felt the effects of this transnational catastrophe much more acutely: mental illness, job loss and death. It’s been life shattering. This year has also seen excruciating social tensions in our oversized neighbour to the south. On top of a botched response to the pandemic, they’ve had racial violence and riots, and one of the most raucous and contested elections I have ever witnessed. All this noise distracts from our own Canadian troubles, not to mention planetary perils like climate change.

In the midst of all that, what might Christmas mean this year?

There has been talk in the U.S. about turning to “the better angels of our nature” in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, charities, books, films, songs and even a beer have recently been named “Better Angels.” It’s hope at work.

While I realize it is a reference to our own best inclinations, in contrast to our basest instincts, be they tribal or other inner demons we may let loose, the first advent was not about human beings picking themselves up and making things better. It wasn’t first of all about the inner metaphorical angels of our good behaviour, but outside help, heavenly hosts appearing to the ruddy shepherds in occupied territory, carolling Good News of Great Joy that was for All The People. These are the true better angels.

Waiting in the Night

Angels are the King’s messengers, and they didn’t rescue anyone that first Advent. They are heralds, sent to announce big changes that everyone needs to know about. They chant the divine report: help is on the way. The distressed are going to be happy about this. Just you wait.

What happened after their grand broadcast? No army swooped into town. No lightning came and disintegrated the Roman overlords. No, there wasn’t a sudden rescue for Israel. This was the news: a baby was born in a backwater town, a child of promise. He was hope in a feeding trough. Still, they had years to wait for this King to rally his peace corps.

As I write today, it’s dark outside, and I’m preparing a eulogy for a colleague’s funeral, a death unrelated to COVID. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a saint of the church, a sinner who seemed in touch with his better angels. He still had much good to do, but his body could not match his aspirations. He taught over 4,300 students through the years, but only 50 people can come to his funeral.

Angels come to those keeping watch out in the field at night, whispering hope of radical change. Things will be different soon. The church, as a herald of the kingdom, can itself be a better angel that bears witness to such good news. The message, as always, is “Wait. The King has come, and he will come again. Be patient.”

There is happiness in gifts, good food, family connections and bright lights. I hope you can enjoy such festivities within the limits of our pandemic. More importantly, however, may the warm glow of the Great Joy for All People bring light to your dark place, knowing we wait for the return of the King, who is greater than any vaccine. Get ready.

Hark! The herald angels sing!

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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