Angel with Mary Oliver

Believing in angels feels feverish, dizzy, unwise. But Mary Oliver, in her poem, “The World I Live In,” raises the right challenge: if we don’t believe, if we don’t open ourselves to the possibility the way saints and poets do, how will we ever see the angels around us?

A couple of Decembers ago my family went to HersheyPark to drive through the Sweet Lights show. I had never gone before, and I was dubious as we drove in and around the field where the first displays are set up. It was fine, but. I’m not sure what I thought I was going to see, but this wasn’t it.

Then the trail took a sharp turn to the right and headed uphill, into the woods. Light designs climbed trees, peeked out of shrubbery, filled in charming spaces. Snow had fallen, and the atmosphere was not of this world. Our youngest put on the 3-D glasses handed out at the entrance and exclaimed, so, since I was in the passenger seat, I put mine on, too.

They did more than the usual; these glasses had a snowflake pattern on them. The effect was a little like squinting your eyes hard when you look at the Christmas tree. The beams of light fragmented dizzily and shifted the axis of reality just a little, just enough.

As Rilke translator and poet Joanna Macy put it in an interview with Krista Tippett, “There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us, and we’ve just got to be available.”

Most of us like the things we can prove, through reason, experiment, or experience. We live in our heads and don’t realize how restrictive that space might be. We ground our bodies in earthly pursuits and don’t notice the thin spaces where heaven is closest by. We focus on human relationships and forget to communicate with the holy. We avoid being feverish, dizzy, unwise.

Somehow the shepherds were open to the starlight of unlikely possibility and the angel music of divine promise, ready to watch and listen and sing along.

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

This is an old story to us, so familiar we could take it for granted, but that moment of wonder and awe brought amazing news so long hoped for most people had given up on hearing it. The shepherds ran to see if what the angel promised would be true, a baby born to show God’s love, a baby born as a sign that God wants peace for all people.

And so we do our best to re-create the feeling of that night on the hillside by turning down the lights and looking at the flickering flames of a candle. We tear up at a favorite carol. We let the world get a little blurry. We open our minds beyond the orderly house of reasons and proofs, because we must, if we want to see the angels around us and hear the good news of great joy they bring for all people:

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

May we sing it along with them: “Gloria in excelsis deo!”

Martha Spong is a UCC pastor, executive director of RevGalBlogPals and a clergy coach. She is editor of The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, coming in January 2020, and There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, both featuring writers from the RevGalBlogPals community, as well as co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with Rachel Hackenberg.

“The World I Live In,” by Mary Oliver, can be found in her book Felicity (Penguin Press, 2016).

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