December 17, 2023
The Carols of Christmas: “Angels, From the Realms of Glory”
It’s the time of year to sing about angels, and angel choirs: “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love,” “The first noel, the angel did say,” “from angels bending near the earth,” and this one: “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Every year, my wife and I put an angel on the top of the Christmas tree, and we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” about Clarence, the angel who has to earn his wings.
What is an angel? We tend to think of them as supernatural beings (usually appearing like young women), wearing white robes, and sporting a pair of wings coming out of their backs.
Well, you know me. Never content with the usual, I had to go digging. I found out that the word we translate as “angel” in the original Hebrew is malak, which simply means messenger. The divine being that went before the Israelites to protect them as they fled from Pharaoh was called a malak, and so were the men that Jacob sent ahead of him to take gifts of appeasement to his brother, Essau. In ancient Israel, it seems, there wasn’t a lot of distinction between divine messengers and messengers sent by people. A messenger was a messenger. The same thing is true of the Greek word used in the New Testament. The word we translate as “angel” in New Testament writings is aggelos, and it means simply an agent. So, the divine beings who were heralds of glad tidings to the shepherds in the field are called by the same name as the two disciples that John sent to Jesus to ask him if he was the one they had been waiting for. There didn’t seem to be a lot of difference between a divine agent and an agent of John. An agent was an agent.
What I take from this is that a malak or an aggelos doesn’t have to have wings to be the real deal. In fact, in a lot instances in the Bible, there seems to have been created some very intentional uncertainty about whether messengers or agents in a given story are supposed to be supernatural beings, or just ordinary flesh and blood folks. So, I’m inclined to think that what’s important about angels is not the wings, but the message (sorry, Clarence). And I’m inclined to think that there are holy messages being delivered by divine agents all the time, if only we have the ears to hear them.
Someone who heard the voices of angels was born in November of 1771 in Ayrshire, Scotland. His name was James Montgomery, and his parents sent him off to a Moravian seminary at Fulneck, near Leeds, in Yorkshire when he was seven years old. He said goodbye to his mother and he and his father boarded a ship bound for Liverpool. While they were at sea, the vessel was overtaken by a violent storm. Montgomery later recalled how, in the midst of the raging seas – so severe that even the ship’s captain was frightened – his father comforted him with a simple word of faith. His father calmly told him to trust in the providence of God. Montgomery, even at the age of seven, was so struck by this powerful faith that he never forgot it. It was a formative moment. His father had, as it were, been a messenger of divine grace, and Montgomery’s life was changed forever. From that day on, Montgomery was motivated by an unshakable faith, and an indomitable fearlessness.
Another unlikely angel came into his life when he was at the Fulneck seminary. One day the celebrated Lord Monboddo visited the school. Montgomery recalled that he was dressed in a “rough, closely-buttoned coat, with top boots, and carrying in his hand a large whip.” Lord Monboddo asked if there were any Scottish boys in the school, and the teacher brought out the young Montgomery. Lord Monboddo looked him in the face, and menacingly held the whip up in front of him. “Mind, Sir,” he said, “that I trust you will never do anything to disgrace your country.” “This,” said Montgomery, “I never forgot, nor shall I forget it while I live. I have, indeed, endeavoured so to act hitherto, that my country might never have cause to be ashamed of me.”
These two powerful moments in his life shaped the boy in unmistakable ways. After leaving the seminary, he found himself in time working for a newspaper called the Sheffield Register. The publisher had to leave the country in a hurry for fear of being arrested for sedition because of the strong liberal, reformer views he published and supported. Montgomery took over as editor, changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris, and continued the tradition of publishing works that supported the reformers. Montgomery was wise enough, however, to do so with an artful subtlety that kept him out of prison – for the most part. He actually was jailed twice in York castle for his liberal views.
Throughout his life, he managed to strike a remarkable balance. On the one hand, he consistently spoke out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, against slavery, and in opposition to the oppressive government – he did so out of his strong, fearless and irrepressible faith, a faith ignited in him by a divine messenger, his own father. On the other hand, he managed to earn the respect of his comrades, even those who threw him in prison. He was so artful in his use of the printed word that he ultimately became something of a national treasure – he was able to do so because of a stern lesson learned from an angelic visitor with a whip who taught him to make his country proud of him.
Just to get a flavor of how clearly he spoke, and how eloquently he stood for the things he believed in, I offer the following quote from his farewell address to his readers in 1825: “I nevertheless was preserved from joining myself to any of the political societies till they were broken up in 1794, when, I confess, I did associate with the remnant of one of them for a purpose which I shall never be ashamed to avow; to support the families of several of the accused leaders, who were detained prisoners in London, under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and who were finally discharged without having been brought to trial.”
James Montgomery managed to pull off the most difficult of feats – something that few others have ever accomplished. He lived in a time of officially sanctioned oppression and insensitivity to the lot of common folk, and his life was devoted to the abolition of slavery, to the rights of poor classes like chimney sweepers’ apprentices, and to calling attention to those who abused their power, such as the magistrate who over-reacted in quelling a riot in Sheffield in 1795 – a criticism for which he spent six months imprisoned in York Castle. And yet, this man who spoke against the policies of his government was, ultimately acclaimed as a hero in his community, in 1830 and 1831 he delivered lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution, which were published in 1833, and in 1835 he received an annual pension of 150 pounds from the government because of his many contributions to English society as a respected poet and author. In essence, he kicked the blackguards in the shins, and was rewarded for doing it so well. That’s not easy to pull off.
So, what is an angel? An angel is a divine messenger or agent. I suspect if you had asked James Montgomery, he might have said his father was an angel, and he might have said that surly Lord Monboddo standing in front of him with a whip in his hand was an angel. If you ask me, I might say that James Montgomery was an angel.
His divine message was delivered through a lifetime of integrity and perseverance, through poetry and prose, and through a particular gift to us. In 1816, he published a poem in his newspaper, “Good Tidings of Great Joy to All People.” Many years later, the composer, Henry Smart, dedicated a hymn tune to London’s Regent Square Presbyterian Church. And some time later, someone thought to put Smart’s tune together with Montgomery’s words, and the result is sung every Christmas by millions of Christians around the world: “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”
I’m sure that on Christmas my wife and I will watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the forty seventh time. I’m sure that when they’re all standing around the Christmas tree in the end, and the bell rings, and George Bailey is reminded by his daughter that “Teacher says, ‘when you hear a bell ring it means an angel gets its wings,” and George smiles and says, “That’s right . . . that’s right . . . ‘atta boy, Clarence,” I’ll get all teary-eyed for the forty seventh time. I’ll get weepy partly because I love Jimmy Stewart and they don’t make movies like that any more, but also because the story is ancient and it touches a sacred place in my soul. It’s the celebration of the messenger who brings the eternal and omnipotent message that life is holy and that in the grand procession of the ages, faithfulness and goodness matter.
I believe in angels. I believe the world is populated with them. I believe that a divine message to us is being conveyed by agents of grace at every turn. My prayer for you is that these angels will happen upon you when you least expect it – that you will be engaged and transformed by their message. When it happens, will they be wearing white robes and sporting wings? Who knows? Maybe. But I suspect it might as easily be a family member, or even someone with a whip in his hand. Divine messengers and agents come in all forms. But angels are real. And I pray that in this Christmas season they will “wing their flight o’er all the earth” and proclaim that “God with us is now residing,” and that those of us who have been “watching long in hope and fear” will see the dawn of peace, and justice, and good will toward all.
May it be so. Amen.
Let’s sing it together.