It’s a phrase from the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2, which tells of the coming of the Angel to the shepherds, and the chorus of angels singing glory to God. Then it says that when the Angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds decided to obey instructions and go to Bethlehem to see the child. There is a vision, then the everyday world returns, in which there are no angels, and still these remarkable shepherds decide to stick with the vision.
When the angels have gone away into heaven, is when Christmas lives or dies. For if it is a brief moment of pretence, the families who rarely come to church these days, all present and smiling for our Christmas Eve services, and the old stories generating a glow of magic and goodwill that lasts till they get home, but not much longer, then not much has happened.
if I, after becoming utterly absorbed in the worship and the worshiping people, return to face my own accusing memories of countless follies in the past with no confidence that my future will be different; if I am no more equipped to cope with the terrible suffering of one of my family than I was before; if the fact of the plain stupidity of human beings including myself suggests just as messy future for the planet and its creatures as it did last week; yes, if the Angels have gone away into heaven, leaving no addresses, what benefit can there be in this festival?
Luke, the storyteller would not be impressed with this ineptitude. He knew that when the Angels went away, everything depended on the shepherds’ readiness to meet the new reality, just as it had all depended on Mary when the Angel went away, that there would be any new reality for them to meet. Of course Luke is writing magical realism rather than history, but every single detail is important. This one suggests that I have to get off my ass, and find the reality in which God is with us.
Did I say, “in which”? Of course, it should be “in whom.” That is, it will be present in human beings and in the creatures of the earth. If the word, the wisdom of God was indeed made flesh through all the processes of evolution, then I should be able to trust that it has not gone back into heaven but continues to be flesh here and now. This presence of God however is not some mystic thing that that exists in and under everything, it is goodness: the goodness God saw in his creation; the goodness of Jesus Christ in every person who shares his ministry to other human beings and his sufferings at their hands; the goodness of the Holy Spirit, who shows me that I am not on my own, but that I inter- exist with all other existences, including God’s.
Ths link to goodness is all that matters, as it tells me that hurt, oppression, violence, selfishness, greed, addiction, lust and self- righteousness, as well as all disease and suffering, are damaging and wrong and must in God’s name be opposed, healed, perhaps transformed.
I can sit on my butt complaining that angels have never had to deal with sheep tics, or I can make my way to Bethlehem and find a family treasuring their newborn, as families do. Treasuring the good God has given me, is where I must start again, and where I can learn again to treasure all the good God gives, when the Angels are gone away into heaven.