Cover image: The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik.
We have been there in our minds eye in shepherds’ fields a thousand thousand times. It is night, and lambs are bleating, and the shepherds, whose tedious, dusty job, never ends, are watching their flocks to guard them against the predators of the Bethlehem hills.
Then, at once the darkness bursts away, the night cut by the brightest light, when the angel of the Lord, comes upon this group to give the best news ever delivered. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Then suddenly there is a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”[i]
Because of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, we always envision this as a choir, rolling forth with thunderous joy, with harmonies and trumpets, perhaps drums that sounded and echoed across the sky.
I asked a Sunday School class recently, if any of them thought they had been in that choir, and finally one hand went timidly up, while a few shook their heads.
With all the talented musical spirits of all eternity to choose from, can you imagine how difficult that choir could have been to get into? These would have been tougher auditions than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the Met.
But somehow, I don’t think so. It couldn’t have been just an elite choir sent with a well-rehearsed message while the rest of us heard about it from others, sitting back quietly in the shadows. No, all of heaven would have rung out their praise, every one of us. Knowing that the Savior was being born, song would have burst from our souls, shouts of joy torn from our lungs because we couldn’t help it.
Here was the Son, come to be with us, to hold our weeping heads, lift us from the darkness, save us. How could we stop from singing?
The pattern is clear. God told Job that when the foundations of the earth were laid, “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”[ii] What a shout was that! For the birth of Christ, there could have been no less.
We have more to do with angels than we ever suppose.
Angels are Innumerable
BYU professor, Don Parry, who wrote Angels: Agents of Light, Love and Power made a deep study of angels and noted how endlessly numerous they are. He said, “The title ‘Lord of Hosts’ is so important that it is found some 250 times in the Old Testament; Isaiah alone used the term about fifty times. This title, then, is a frequent reminder that the Lord has hosts of angels. How many angels belong to the Lord of hosts of angels? The singular host, by definition, refers to ‘a large number of people or things.’ The plural, hosts, multiplies this number. The Lord of hosts of angels refers to immense numbers.
“Other passages of scripture also indicate that there are great numbers of the Lord’s angels. For example, Lehi envisioned ‘God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels’[iii] Other passages of scripture also indicate that there are great numbers of the Lord’s angels. Two passages of scripture—Hebrews 12:22 and Doctrine and Covenants 76:67—use the expression ‘an innumerable company of angels.’ Furthermore, John the Revelator recorded:
“And I beheld and I heard the voice of many angels, round about the throne…and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.[iv]
“Indeed, ten thousand times ten thousand angels, which equals 100 million, symbolizes a great number. To sum up, there are numberless concourses of angels, an innumerable company of angels, and hosts of angels—all of whom are in the service of our Lord and God.”
Angels in Scripture
Not only are angels innumerable, they play a key role, not just in the birth of Christ, but in every book of scripture. An angel comes to Adam, to Abraham, to Hagar, to Daniel, to Nephi, to King Benjamin, to Alma—and the list continues. Concerning the life of Christ, an angel came to Zacharias and to Mary. Angels comforted Christ after He had been in the wilderness and an angel came to Him in Gethsemane.
Nor has this dispensation been without angel visitations. Joseph Smith had 22 visitations from Moroni alone, and he saw at least 56 other heavenly visitors. Other Church authorities have been recipients of angelic communications. Parry calls our dispensation a period “of extraordinary angelic activity.”
So it is not just Christmas that is an angel story, but mortality itself is one. The Lord’s angels exist, they are empowered by Jesus Christ through his infinite atonement, and they have a work to do among us.
Knowing the Challenges of Mortality, God Sends Angels to Minister
It is not just eternal events or significant moments in spiritual history that angels are involved. It is not just among apostles and prophets that they do their work. The good news is that they administer to all of us who are willing to keep the commandments.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, knowing the challenges that Adam and Eve would face and how lonely and troubled they would sometimes feel, God “watched over His mortal family constantly, heard their prayers always, and sent prophets (and later apostles) to teach, counsel, and guide them. But in times of special need, He sent angels, divine messengers, to bless His children, reassure them that heaven was always very close and that His help was always very near.”
God does not leave us alone or unaided in the difficulties that we face. Elder Holland added, “I believe we need to speak of and believe in and bear testimony of the ministry of angels more than we sometimes do.”
Angels are beings of power and love, who are not far from us in mortality’s rocky road. President Joseph F. Smith spoke of this love: “I believe we move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them…I claim that we live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever…Their love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.”
We are reminded by President Boyd K. Packer “Angels attend the rank and file of the Church…who answer the calls to the mission fields, teach the classes, pay their tithes and offerings, seek for the records of their forebears, work in the temples, raise their children in faith, and have brought this work through 150 years.” What is clear from these statements is that angels can attend us and do attend us.
We are not left fragile and alone to face the perils of mortality. The Lord tells us this: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you to bear you up.”[v]
Work Seen and Unseen
Angels attend us. They attend you in times of special need. Elder Holland said, “ “Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private. Occasionally the angelic purpose is to warn. But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times.”
What a truly wondrous idea. Elder Holland also said, “In the gospel of Jesus Christ we have help from both sides of the veil. When disappointment and discouragement strike—and they will—we need to remember that if our eyes could be opened, we would see horses and chariots of fire as far as the eye can see, riding at great speed to come to our protection. They will always be there, these armies of heaven, in defense of Abraham’s seed.”
Don Parry said, “It is my understanding—based on more than twenty years of research—that operations and ministrations of angels are largely unknown to mortals. Angels can move about the earth conducting the Lord’s divine work, and they serve, minister, and mingle among mortals, usually without our awareness. Most of us in mortality will never see an angel. As Parley P Pratt instructed, angels can ‘be present without being visible to mortals.’ And Paul wrote, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’[vi]
How They Work
Elder Dallin Oaks described how angels may communicate to mortals. He said “The ministering of angels can also be unseen. Angelic messages can be delivered by a voice or merely by thoughts or feelings communicated to the mind…Nephi described three manifestations of the ministering of angels when he reminded his rebellious brothers that (1) they had ‘seen an angel,’(2) they had ‘heard his voice from time to time,’ and (3) also that an angel had ‘spoken unto [them] in a still small voice’ though they were ‘past feeling and ‘could not feel his words.’[vii]…Most angelic communications are felt or heard rather than seen.
Angels are agents of power. They are agents of protection. They are agents of love—who work not just in somebody else’s behalf, but in our own as well. Stories abound about their ministrations. You have unseen friends—and this is not just a wishful hope.
Don Parry has collected stories about angels. Here are two:
“Elder Heber C. Kimball related an occasion when he and Brigham Young traveled together, conducting the Lord’s work. They started out with only $13.50, but along the way they paid for a number of items, including travel, lodging, and meals. In fact, they paid out over $87.00, although they had only had $13.50. Elder Kimball stated:
‘Brother Brigham often suspected that I put the money in his trunk or clothes, thinking I had . . . money which I had not acquainted him with, but this was not so. The money could only have been put in his trunk by some heavenly messenger who administered to our necessities daily, as he knew we needed.’”
Here is another:
“When President Lee was serving as the president of the Church, he shared an experience that occurred while he and his wife were traveling on an airplane. They had been visiting a mission, and both were impressed to return home earlier than they had planned. As President and Sister Lee were sitting in the airplane, homeward bound, President Lee received a blessing from an unseen person. He related:
“’As we approached a certain point en route, someone laid his hand upon my head. I looked up; I could see no one. That happened again before we arrived home, again with the same experience. Who it was, by what means or what medium, I may never know, except I knew that I was receiving a blessing that I came a few hours later to know I needed most desperately.
“’. . . Shortly [after we arrived home], there came massive hemorrhages which, had they occurred while we were in flight, I wouldn’t be here today talking about it.
“’I know that there are powers divine that reach out when all other help is not available. . . . Yes, I know that there are such powers.8
“The unseen person who gave President Lee a blessing demonstrated extraordinary powers: he remained invisible, he knew where to find President Lee, he knew of President Lee’s physical condition and of his need for a blessing, and he blessed the prophet with priesthood power. Additionally, it is my opinion that this unseen person did not board the plane as did other passengers, obtaining a passport, ticket, and boarding pass; showing his photo ID; dealing with airport security; and so forth. It is entirely possible, knowing of the vast power of angels, that this unseen person entered the plane through miraculous means. Such is the way of heavenly beings.”
Life is better and more secure than we ever imagine. If you put an angel on your Christmas tree this season, remember there is much more to this than we might ever understand.
[i] Luke 2:11-14
[ii] Job 38:7
[iii] 1 Nephi 1:8
[iv] Revelation 5:11
[v] D&C 84:8
[vi] Hebrews 13:2
[vii] 1 Nephi 17:45