“Look Daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” “That's right, that's right. Attaboy, Clarence.”
I would guess that more than a few of us could probably name the film that this line comes from. For those who may not be able to, it is a line from the end of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic film for the holidays that tells the story of George Bailey who, after building a successful life in small-town America, falls on hard times and on Christmas Eve has become so depressed that he believes that life in general would have been better without him. As he stands on a bridge, ready to throw himself into icy waters, an angel intervenes to show George what life would have been like without him. This “assignment” for the angel was a test that would prove whether or not the angel was ready to “get his wings.” Hopefully, I won’t ruin the plot too badly for you by telling you that the angel, Clarence, was successful in his task of making George realize just how valuable his life had been, and so at the end of the film, when a bell rings, the little girl quotes her teacher and George realizes that Clarence indeed has made it.
Now, the word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos,” which means “messenger,” “envoy,” or “one that announces.” And so the irony of the movie, which is mostly—and, I would say, rightly—overlooked, is that Clarence achieves his full-fledged angel status by doing exactly what it is that angels do: bringing a message of hope to George, reminding him that his life was truly valued by the people around him and, at least implicitly, by God. Angels are sent to carry important messages from God.
Of course, the most important messages are going to be sent with the most important messengers. Therefore, we see that it is Gabriel, an archangel, who is sent to carry God’s most important message to Mary. For it was Gabriel who was sent to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, to announce the conception of John the Baptist and it is also thought to be Gabriel who spoke from the tomb of Jesus, announcing that “the one they were looking for was no longer there; but that he was risen.” Scholars have argued that this evidence indicates that Gabriel is indeed the “archangel of archangels.” Yet, it is not his particular abilities that make him great, but rather it is the greatness of the message that he carries that sets him apart.
Gabriel’s message, as we’ve heard in today’s Gospel reading, is that the beginning of the fullness of time is at hand. He is announcing that, after generations of waiting, the Promised One of God is about to appear. You know, the amazing thing about the annunciation is that so many things had to line up for it to happen. Kind of like a supernatural game of chess, God had been waiting for all of the pieces to line up so that he could enact his perfect plan for the salvation of mankind. Ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve, God had been moving among us, revealing himself and his plan for the salvation of man to us and encouraging us to learn to walk in his ways. He waited as our sinful inclinations caused us to drift away from his plan and then he waited as his grace slowly led us back into it, so that, in his perfect timing, his favored one, Mary, could be born free of sin by an extraordinary act of grace and thus be ready to receive the message that the angel Gabriel would bring to her on that glorious day.
The angels, too, waited anxiously for God’s perfect plan to come to fruition. And so when it came time for this great message of the Incarnation to be delivered to Mary, the angel Gabriel arrived in haste to deliver it. When he greeted her, Gabriel did not do so as if his message was some sort of subpoena proclaiming that she must comply with God’s will. Rather, his greeting came with an acknowledgement of her sublime dignity as one highly regarded by God. Mary, on her part, received the message with surprise, unaware of the dignity that God had bestowed upon her. And while certainly the message that God’s only Son was to become man and be born of Mary is the primary message that Gabriel carried, it seems also that he carried a secondary message of significant importance: “O lowly handmaiden of the Lord. Rejoice! You have been highly regarded by God.” This angel, who already knows the blessing of being regarded by God, was eager to bring this message of great joy to Mary. And so we see that the message itself is a blessing, a blessing that opens the door for an even more abundant blessing: the Word become flesh in Mary’s womb.
In many ways, we are experiencing another time of waiting, much like the ancient Hebrews experienced as they were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Christ, the promised one of God, has come and has brought us salvation through his life, death, and resurrection. He ascended into heaven and waits now, until the fullness of time comes to completion—that is, until all of the pieces of God’s wonderfully mysterious plan come into place—when he will come again to usher in a new heaven and a new earth and to call his chosen ones home. This anticipation of his coming is what we have been remembering in these past three weeks of Advent. As we turn now and focus our attention on our remembrance and celebration of Christ’s first coming, we find ourselves with a perfect opportunity to cooperate in putting into place those pieces that will lead to Christ’s second coming.
You see, part of our calling as Christians is, in some sense, to be angels of the Lord. There are many people around us who have never heard the message that Mary received from the angel Gabriel: that they are highly regarded by God. Yet, I suspect that every day we are given the opportunity to give that very message to someone. In the book of Genesis, it tells us that “God looked at all he had made and said, ‘It is very good.’” Therefore, in a special way, because each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, God looks on us with favor and invites us to all to receive a message similar to the one Gabriel carried to Mary: “Hail, favored one! God desires to dwell in you, if only you would let him.” Now, I don’t believe that I exaggerate when I say that each and every day God gives us a chance to say to someone, “You are important here. Your life matters, because God has a beautiful plan for your life.” Perhaps even now we are aware of someone who needs to hear that message. If so, then I invite you to make a commitment right now to carry that message to them this week. If not, then I invite you to pray this week that God will reveal to you who he wants you to bring this message to, the joyful message of Emmanuel, God with us, in this coming week. And when you feel the prompting of the Holy Spirit—in other words, when you feel moved to share this message with someone that you encounter this week—I encourage you to respond just like Mary did: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, Let it be done to me according to your Word.
My sisters and brothers, as we complete our preparations to celebrate our remembrance of the coming of Christ—that is, as we prepare not only our homes, but our hearts as well—let us also heed our call to be angels of God’s mercy to those around us. If we do, perhaps then on Christmas Day a bell will ring also for each one of us.
~ Given at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Carmel, IN. – December 18, 2011.