Angels We Have Heard On High
“Merry Christmas,” says this pulpit rabbi and co-chair of the Jewish Renewal movement. Regardless of our theologies and beliefs, the message of Christmas is worthy for Jews to think deeply about – but we need to get clear about what we understand the real message of Christmas to be.
Granted, Christmas can leave Jews feeling either “Bah Humbug” or “Amazing Grace”: both are popular Christmas for Jews responses – along with modern traditions of Chinese food, movies and parties. Under the surface of Christmas ritual and rite, however, is an inner message both heavenly transcendent and intensely Jewish.
This message has been heard in many forms over the centuries but itself is little changed from the beginning-less beginning of spiritual time. As I understand it, the message is this: “Do not fear, for the transformational spiritual power and capacity we call God is ever-present. Its messengers walk among us even now, so rejoice!” This is the message Christians celebrate today (Luke 2:10-14) – words that inspired the famous Christmas carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” about angelic prophesy and praise.
But make no mistake: while today’s Christmas context (announcing Jesus’ birth) rightly seems dogmatically Christian, both message and messenger refract core Jewish spirituality and textual history.
Angelic messengers – in Hebrew malachim – crowd the Jewish canon but seem to hide in plain sight. In this week’s Torah portion (Vayechi), patriarch Jacob on his deathbed invokes his own angel to bless his grandchildren: “May the angel who saved me from harm also bless the children” (Gen. 48:16). Along with the angelic imagery that Shlomo Carlebach‘s Angel Song popularized, Jacob’s angelic prayer anchors Jewish bedtime liturgy, a popular lullaby and countless modern Israeli covers from adult contemporary to rock.
The Jewish angel of protection also is the angel of prophesy. What Moses saw in the Burning Bushwasn’t God but an angel (Ex. 3:2), heralding divine deployment to free Israel from bondage. Centuries earlier, angels saved Lot from Sodom (Gen. 19) and announced the birth of Isaac (Gen. 18:10). Centuries later, an angel predicted the birth of Samson (Judg. 13:3). The list of angelic encounters in the Jewish canon is long, deep and dynamic.
So too in Islamic thought, in which angels are so fundamental that to disbelieve in angels is to disbelieve in God. Stated otherwise, in Islam there is no faith and no religion without angels. “The apostle believes in what has been revealed from God, as do all people of faith. Each believes in God and [God’s] angels, books apostles. We make no distinction between one and another” (Qur’an 2:285).
Understood in this way, the Christmas message is the spiritual reality of angels, and the universal timelessness of that seemingly miraculous quality of hope and possibility. Lifted from its “plot” of a Bethlehem manger and virgin birth, the deep message of Christmas for everyone is that Angels We Have Heard on High.
Nice words, but now let’s get real. What if angels we haven’t heard on high? What if we’ve never felt or seen one? What if angels seem to us like fluff, stuff of fantasy, facile or fake spirituality that asks a faith so childlike as to delegitimize faith and spirituality? What if the idea of an angel seems so unbelievable that we feel chased away from faith, spirituality and religion altogether?
If that’s you, take heart: you’re in good company. Maimonides (c. 1138-1204), the Jewish titan of spiritual rationalism, understood “angel” to be a metaphor for a quality of transcendent consciousness that reached toward God through the seemingly miraculous realm. Predating Isaac Newton, Maimonides posited that angels are what we’d call forces of nature – God acting on, in and through our world. So critical to Maimonides was a theologically coherent angelology that his Mishneh Torah, his magnum opus statement of all Jewish law and practice, began with it!
And that’s the point: even Maimonides had to begin with angels. So did Muhammed. So did Jesus. So did Moses. That’s where all prophets began. That’s where Christmas begins. To me, that’s what Christmas is really about – the angels we believe in (in whatever form), and also the angels that may arouse doubt and skepticism.
No blogpost can do justice to angelology and our myriad internal and collective responses to angels in spiritual life – and I won’t presume to try. Countless writings ranging from doctrinal to academic to apocryphal invite the curious, the faithful and the doubtful of all stripes. Perhaps we can’t answer every question that angels might arouse in us, but Christmas invites us to ask them – and ask them boldly and without fear. As Jews with a deep angelic tradition that flows also through Christianity and Islam, the angels of Christmas and the angels of Torah offer us a precious chance this Christmas to bring open spiritual searching to our minds and hearts.
And you never know: someday, you might find yourself singing “Angels we have heard on high” – and mean it more than you ever imagined possible.