In my years of writing, I’ve not paid much attention to angels. I’ve never knowingly encountered one—knowingly, I say, for how could I tell for certain? Supernatural go-betweens, angels operate in the invisible world, rarely revealing themselves to those of us who occupy the material world.

I think of angels as something like the dark matter that physicists are still trying to understand. Our familiar world of matter—the Earth, stars and planets, everything that we can see—represents only 5 percent of the universe. Dark matter, which doesn’t interact with “normal” matter, comprises some 27 percent, according to the latest estimates. We know dark matter exists due to its effect on gravitation but can’t easily detect it since it doesn’t absorb, reflect, or emit light.

Evidently angels have the ability to cross over between darkness and light, spanning the invisible and the visible worlds. They may act in subtle ways, through dreams, whispers, and mysterious coincidences—witness the many accounts of “guardian angel” experiences. Or, as in the Bible accounts, they may manifest themselves so dramatically that they must begin with the words “Fear not!”

As Christmas approaches, you can’t avoid angels. They turn up in such places as Christmas carols in the mall, greeting cards, wrapping paper, Nativity sets, and the tops of decorated trees. These cute, cuddly depictions have little in common with the angels of the Old Testament, who often came as warriors to dispense judgment.

Puzzled by this abrupt change in style, during Advent I took a closer look at the dozen accounts of angels in the four Gospels.

Entertaining Angels

In the four centuries B.C. (notably, Before Christ), Israel endured one humiliation after another, as foreign empires invaded and devastated the land. God’s people languished in a dark, cold spiritual winter with no prophets, no word from the Lord, and no apparent cross-overs from the supernatural world to give hope to the beleaguered.

Suddenly a flurry of angel visitations takes place. The archangel Gabriel announces the conception of John the Baptist to an old, barren couple, and an even more miraculous conception to a young woman named Mary. Joseph, who sorely needs reassurance, receives three different angelic visits. And in Bethlehem a host of angels fills the sky, dazzling a group of unsuspecting shepherds. At the birth of Jesus, an event of cosmic significance by which we humans still mark our calendars, the invisible and visible worlds come together.

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Skip forward some three decades, and again angels are on the move. One with an appearance like lightning rolls away the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, sending the guards into a state of stupor. Another (or were there two?) sits by the tomb informing a few women that Jesus is risen. “Tell his disciples and Peter,” the angel commands, a poignant reminder that Jesus’ most loyal disciple has betrayed him (Mark 16:7).

As I read these accounts, I can’t help noticing the difference in demeanor between the multitude of angels who triumphantly announce Jesus’ birth and the one or two angels sitting by the tomb carrying on a conversation. Gabriel struck Zechariah mute for his lack of faith, but the angels at the tomb seem oddly subdued. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they ask (Luke 24:5). As if wiser to the ways of this planet, they quote Jesus’ own words about his predicted death. Not even the Resurrection could erase the distress angels must have experienced during the time when God’s own Son was brutalized by a mob of humans.

Besides the bevy of angels at Jesus’ birth and resurrection, the Gospels record two other visitations, both at moments of Jesus’ weakness. Angels ministered to him after the ordeal of Satan’s temptation in the wilderness, when Jesus was famished and spiritually exhausted (Matt. 4:11). And again, as Jesus faced the anguish of Gethsemane, with his companions sound asleep, an angel from heaven arrived to strengthen him (Luke 22:43).

Luke, who recounted the dramatic appearances surrounding Jesus’ birth, adds a postscript at the beginning of the Book of Acts. Jesus gives a brief farewell address to the disciples, who are hoping for a glorious restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Instead, their leader commissions a new kind of kingdom, bestowing on them a mission to carry his message to the ends of the earth. Next, as they stand there slack-jawed, Jesus rises like a hot-air balloon and vanishes behind a cloud (Acts 1:6–11).

In an almost comic scene, two angels ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?”—as if to say, “Didn’t you hear what he said? It’s up to you now, so get going!” They promise a future time when Jesus “will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven”—but not before the long, slow slog of history has run its course.

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Angelic Restraint?

How do angels interact with the world now? The German director Wim Wenders offers one notion in his movie Wings of Desire, voted one of the best films of the 1980s. In it, two angels watch over the Cold War city of Berlin, unseen and unheard but still able to inspire thoughts and influence people: a pregnant woman in an ambulance, a young prostitute, a broken man contemplating suicide. Though powerful beings, the angels operate with surprising restraint and without overwhelming the humans’ free will. Sometimes they fail, as in the case of the suicidal man who proceeds to jump off a building.

This Christmas season I’ve been reading the remarkable book Wounded in Spirit by David Bannon, which combines classic art with Advent meditations on grief. In its pages, I met the American artist Abbot Handerson Thayer, who died in 1921. Thayer seemed obsessed with angels, and his portraits have appeared on bookmarks, prints, and even the cover of TIME magazine. In this painting, Thayer used his 27-year-old daughter, Mary, as a model. The angel’s melancholy expression reflects the sadness of the artist’s life. Thayer lost one son at the age of two and another when the child was just three months old. His wife was institutionalized and died when Mary was 14.

Reading about Thayer’s life, I reflected back on the angelic appearances in the Gospels and the limits of their power. Angels may surround us, invisibly, yet their activity on this planet is somehow constrained. An angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents but did not prevent the massacre itself. An angel strengthened Jesus at Gethsemane but did not prevent the crucifixion. Jesus himself declared, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53) He, too, felt constrained by the inevitability of history and his preordained sacrifice.

At Christmas, God subjected God’s own self to the circumstances of a rebellious planet. Was not that the point of Incarnation? A willing victim, Jesus joined us in a corner of the universe notorious for evil and suffering. According to the Book of Hebrews, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” The author later emphasizes that we now have a leader who can be touched with the feelings of our weaknesses (Heb. 2:10, 4:15). God came alongside us in order to communicate divine love in the most effective way: human-to-human.

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This season I also reread Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Writing a friend, he describes Advent in prison, as bombs fall and window panes shatter and fellow prisoners cry out in fear. “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” Even so, he adds, faith can provide comfort in such times: “the calmness and joy with which we meet what is laid on us are as infectious as the terror that I see among the people here at each new attack. …We are neither of us dare-devils, but that has nothing to do with the courage that comes from the grace of God.”

Unlike Peter’s experience as recorded in Acts, no angelic messenger rescued Bonhoeffer. He died waiting and hoping; the Nazi SS executed him a few weeks before his prison camp was liberated. Bonhoeffer understood the constraints of power exercised from the bottom up, not from the top down. In one of his Christmas sermons, he says, “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

At Christmas, God set aside the prerogatives of deity and joined us in our state of misery, opening the door from the outside, to free us for the day when we will join the angels in an unrestrained heavenly chorus.

Philip Yancey is a former CT columnist and best-selling author, most recently, of Vanishing Grace: Bringing Good News to a Deeply Divided World (Zondervan, 2018).