every angel is terrifying

Angels in scripture love to tell humans not to be afraid when they show up on the scene. In her devotional for today, Angela Finet notes that “Don’t be afraid!” is the first line of dialogue in Luke’s gospel, spoken by the angel Gabriel who shows up to tell an old priest that he’s going to have a baby. The angel has to lead with that line, even though he’s got some serious news to share, because he can tell that Zechariah is freaking terrified.

And Zechariah is freaking terrified because in scripture, angels are not rosy-cheeked babies or glowing orbs of light. In scripture, angels are bizarre beings with mismatched parts and too many limbs. Some have four faces, some have six wings, a bunch of them have FAR TOO MANY EYES.

scripture, not sci-fi.

There is a whole thing called angelology which is not, despite my first impression, the hobby of collecting Precious Moments figurines. Angelology is all about categorizing and classifying kinds and types of angels because, well, there are a lot. Scripture’s got all kinds of weird and cringe-inducing heavenly beings in its pages. Ezekiel is particularly graphic, with cherubim (way too many faces) and ophanim (WHEELS. They are WHEELS WITH EYES: “Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.” -Ezekiel 1:18).

Ezekiel’s Vision

Gabriel was, according to some angelologists, the archangels of the cherubim. He was not a wheel with eyes, but he maybe had four faces? And some of those faces may or may not have been human-looking. He definitely had some amped up wings and was very, very large. The number of eyes is up for debate.

Whatever Gabriel the angel looked like, it was not the sweet Christmas tree topper that my mom made years ago out of old quilts sewn by her grandmother. (Kira Austin-Young is crafting an Accurate Angel Tree Topper this year, which inspired a lot of this post.) The angels who sing on high do not look like the children’s choir on Christmas Eve. Every angel is terrifying.

Yes, God is known in some circles as The Comforter. And we sing about comfort a lot during Advent, which also happens to be hygge season in the Northern Hemisphere. But the scenes that begin these stories – that is, the story of Jesus, the story of Christ, the story of God incarnate – are the opposite of cozy. The scenes that begin all of this are chaotic and confusing and filled with terror. Angels don’t translate well to the earthly realm, and they assault the senses. Their messages might begin with “don’t be afraid,” but their presence says otherwise.

What to make of that? Stand up. Raise your heads. Pay attention, even when the thing in front of your face is face-meltingly horrifying. Zechariah, the old priest, overcame his initial shock and held a conversation with Gabriel, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what the four-faced creature was trying to tell him. He refuses, so the angel renders him mute until his baby is born. Mary gets a visit from Gabriel, too, but she responds differently: she pays attention. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sometimes, the stuff that looks the most terrifying on the surface turns out to be our salvation. Sometimes terror is just terror, sure. Our exquisite human bodies know how to send up flares when danger is afoot and our limbic does its best to keep us alive. But sometimes, if we’re paying attention; if we are fully present to the many-eyed abomination in front of us, if we calm our fight or flight response long enough to listen to what is happening beyond the adrenaline…well, we might find buried underneath all that fear an invitation to become a god-bearer, like Zechariah, like Mary.

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