For the past few years, my wife and I have had a friendly dispute over how to top our Christmas tree.
She wants an angel, and I prefer a simple star. Traditionally, an evergreen is not a Christmas tree unless crowned by one or the other.
The ultimate compromise would be a topper she saw years ago consisting of an angel carrying a star. She’s looked high and low but not found one she likes enough to buy.
Meanwhile, our tree sports an old, hammered tin star like you might see in Williamsburg. I have long argued that the star is more biblical because virtually all the angel toppers you see are female. There are no female angels mentioned in Scripture. In fact, there are no cupids, either, like the cuddly babies with little wings. They’re so cutesy they make the Pillsbury Dough Boy look like Boris Karloff.
Although angels in the Bible are not explicitly masculine except for Gabriel, the Archangel Michael and Lucifer (the fallen one known as Satan), when angels confront mortals, the heavenly messenger first tells them not to fear. That suggests a fierce being, which makes sense, since it is God’s angels who do battle with Satan’s fallen angels, who are demons.
Angels are sent to protect us and they also perform miracles, such as shutting the lion’s mouths in the Book of Daniel or blocking Eden with a fiery sword.
William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army, once had a vision of angelic beings surrounded with an aura of rainbow light so brilliant that if untempered, he said, it would have been unendurable. The late Billy Graham, who related this in his book “Angels,” which has sold millions of copies since its release in 1975, noted many instances in which angels are described as “mighty,” such as Paul’s description in 2 Thessalonians 1:7.
Some of the most evocative Christmas carols center on angels, such as “Angels From the Realms of Glory” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the latter of which has the famous Latin chorus, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the Highest).
Churches have been conducting Christmas services since the Second Century A.D. According to author Ace Collins (“Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas”), Pope Telesphorus decreed around 130 A.D. that on the day of the Lord Jesus’s birth, all churches should have an evening service and that the congregations should sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
Did Christians in later years borrow pagan customs such as yule logs and evergreen boughs and make them their own? You bet. It was part of the church’s genius to transform various customs into reminders of the sacred, as long as it did not conflict with Scripture.
No one really knows what an angel looks like. Hebrews 13:2 says: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Over the years, Hollywood has had a field day with angels, right up to this season’s made-for-TV Christmas movies, such as Hallmark’s “A Shoe Addict’s Christmas.”
The most memorable is probably Clarence, the lovable, deceased clockmaker who has to earn his wings in the Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947). Nowhere does the Bible remotely suggest that people become angels, but the plot device propels the movie’s heartwarming, faith-based narrative, as do the people-turned-angels in “The Preacher’s Wife” (Denzel Washington, 1996), an update of “The Bishop’s Wife” (Cary Grant, 1948).
Similarly, television’s “Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003) steered viewers toward a Christian worldview while making biblical scholars wince. But wouldn’t you rather watch Roma Downey, John Dye or Della Reese portray an angel than, say, John Travolta, who was a drunk, chain-smoking version in “Michael” (1996)?
Which messenger of heaven fits better with the first verse from this carol?
Angels, from the realms of glory
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth.
Or how about the first verse from this one?
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains, in reply,
Echoing their joyous strains.
I’d say it’s no contest. Speaking of which, I finally conceded the tree topper dispute to my wife upon learning from Billy Graham’s book that angels are in all important aspects, “sexless.”
Also, no star is mentioned in the account of Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. That came later when the three magi visited.
As related in the passage from Luke quoted by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, 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.’”
I know when I’m beaten. I expect there will be an angel atop next year’s tree. But it would be boffo if it came with a star.