ARCHANGEL ON HOLIDAY
[Originally this was also a Christmas service in our little congregation. Some members read the story, and we sang carols in-between.]
Archangel on holiday! Gabriel smiled. Just think of the consternation when the lower ranks find out that he's spending three days on earth, doing absolutely nothing. But, as the Father had said with a twinkle in His eye, "There's always a first time."
To be honest, it didn't make sense to Gabriel either. Angels on earth were nothing new; at any given time at least two thirds of them were "downstairs", as they call it, but that was for specific assignments. The two archangels themselves were no strangers to the blue planet. Michael, leader of the armies of heaven, fought many a battle on that beleaguered globe, and Gabriel had been there every so often, delivering messages of earth-shaking significance to totally insignificant individuals.
Like the last time he was downstairs. What an event that was! The greatest event of all time. Michael would call Calvary the greatest, but he was a warrior. To Gabriel, chief of all messengers, the events at Bethlehem was the greatest ever. "Just think," he reminded Michael some time ago. "No Bethlehem, no Calvary."
Besides, Calvary was a day of darkness and sorrow, a day when the whole army of heaven waited with drawn swords for a command that never came. Instead of releasing them to save His only Son, Earthmaker turned away and cried.
Of course, He also cried that night at Bethlehem, but that was different. That was tears of joy, and of love: Passionate love that made Him a helpless bundle of humanity who would eventually save the helpless race.
What a night it was! Out on the shrub-covered hills of Judea all heaven broke loose as the eternal glory flooded the shores of time, irrevocably changing the lives of those simple shepherds. "Amazing," Gabriel thought. They were the first, and thus far the last, who had ever seen an archangel ... no, TWO archangels, in all their unshielded glory. And the myriads of others, all shining forth their celestial brilliance, singing at the top of their voices, dancing through the cool night air. They formed images that flickered in and out of the constraining limits of time and space, they flew formations, and eventually everything just broke down into a pandemonium of glory and light. Why, some of the juniors even cartwheeled through the thorny shrubs, briefly setting them alight with a heavenly luminescence until they shone like diamonds for a great king's crown.
And at the centre of their joy was an ordinary young carpenter and his virgin bride. And a baby. THE baby. The promised one. God himself come to earth.
But that was almost 2000 years ago. This time it was different. He had no message to deliver. No songs to sing. No dreams to invade.
"Go," the Father had said. "Spend three days on earth."
"Are You sure You don't have something for me to do there?" he had asked.
"You'll know," the Father had said. "You'll know."
Now he was standing at the doorway between the worlds. He was excited. It's been far too long since he's walked among the crown of God's creation. But there was a strange apprehension within him. After millenia in the presence of His Majesty, Gabriel knew this was more than a holiday. Something special was needed. Something for which only an archangel would do. Something he himself was needed for. And maybe it was something he himself needed.
Gabriel sighed, folded his wings, and stepped through the door–right into the city square of Bethlehem.
It was unbelievable.
Everybody seemed to be shouting at the top of their voices, either selling or buying or cursing. Money was changing hands faster than you could say "Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer". Cars were trying to get through the crowds filling the streets, and bright lights and signs lit up the night sky. Cheap nativity scenes were going for exorbitant prices, and at the outskirts of the town tourists were cleaning their wallets for the privilege of peeping into "the real stable" that was actually clobbered together centuries after the birth of the Baby.
But on the spiritual plane it was quiet. No praise going up to God. No thanksgiving for the greatest Gift of all. No worship from the heart. Just silence. And a gloomy near-darkness.
From Bethlehem to Washington to Moscow it was the same. Money, money, money. Silver trees and red decorations, tainted gifts and joyous spirits from a million bottles, and the stench of decay all over it.
Gabriel had heard about the declarations of idiots, declaring a "post-Christian" society of men that had come of age and no longer needed the crutch of religion. Up in the heavenlies he just shook his head in disbelief and went on with his job, but here, in the dark streets of Downstairs, it was making him physically sick.
"Will they never learn?" Gabriel groaned to himself. "Two thousand years, and they are still shutting out the light, selling their souls for emptiness and lies. Have they never heard?"
Two hundred miles from the South Pole an archangel squatted in the snow. His wings were covered with snow, an icicles hung from his earlobes. His tears were slowly freezing into transparent stalactites covering the utter disappointment on his face.
"Can it really be?" he cried to the heavens for at least the hundredth time. "Why did we sing at Bethlehem? Why did we cry at Calvary? Why? Why are they so set in their ways, so keen to push God out of their world? Why don't they want to hear?"
He shivered, not because of the icy wind, but because a coldness was invading his heart. A fear that the evil one was gaining ground, that the battle was still far from over, that night was still threatening the day of God's power.
"Who are you?" the Voice asked deep within him.
Gabriel stared at the invisible door between the worlds. Just beyond it a light was shining, coming closer, getting brighter and brighter until it exploded into the sub-zero air.
Earthmaker sat down next to His dejected archangel. "Are you Gabriel or Elijah? Does reality shape you, or are you shaping it? The flame was lit with My Son's blood. Do you think it can ever die?"
For a moment Gabriel was silent. Suddenly he understood. In one fluid movement he rose to his feet and shook the ice from his glorious form.
"I am Gabriel," his voice thundered over the icy vastness. "I am Gabriel, archangel of the Most High God, bringer of good news, shaper of history, mouth of God to a dying world! I shall find the least of the saints and bring the message again!"
"Go!" Earthmaker said and smiled. "Remind them of my love."
"I will!" Gabriel shouted as he rose into the night sky. "Glory to God, and peace to men on earth!"
And with that he disappeared.
Sarah MacKenzie shivered and pulled the thin plastic raincoat closer around her frail body. A wet Christmas! As if she didn't have enough problems already.
Where was she going to get a dry place now? Renting a facility was out of the question. One could only go so far on a meagre pension. This year there would be no Christmas party. No happy smiling faces. No warm feeling of being useful in her heart. She sighed. Not only was it going to be a wet Christmas–it was going to be utterly miserable.
"Where are you, God?" she whispered. "I've tried to make these kids happy just for one day. But this is the end. We can't go to the little park in weather like this, and I don't have money to rent a place. And Barbara will call the police if I take them to my room. Why? I've saved every penny I had. I just can go on anymore." And a large warm tear rolled down her cheek.
In utter desperation she sat down on the dilapidated bench. She had hoped against hope that there would be some dry corner, but there was nothing. Only mud and lots of water. And the Weather Bureau predicted that the rain would continue until well after Christmas. No, this year there would be no Christmas smiles for Sunnyside's grimy street kids. Maybe she could at least give some food to the few venturing outside their alley shelters. But that wouldn't be a Christmas party.
She didn't see the stranger until he spoke to her.
"What's a beautiful woman doing here, crying in the rain?" His voice was deep, peaceful, warm.
She looked at him. He wasn't young, but he wasn't old either. Longish blond hair, ice blue eyes, and a warm smile.
"I'm old, young man," she said softly. "The beauty has disappeared years ago."
"Not true," he said. "Real beauty can never grow old. If you have it, you have it, no matter how wrinkled the packaging may seem."
She had to smile. "Thank you, young man."
"Mind if I sit next to you?"
"Not at all, " she said. "But you'll get wet."
"I'm wet already," he grinned. "I like it."
He sat down next to her and looked at the traffic crawling past the little park. "But you haven't answered my question."
"I don't think you'll understand," she whispered.
"Try me," he said. "I've heard many strange things these last two days."
"It's not really strange," she said. "It's just... it's just ...." and she started crying. The blonde man put his arm around her shoulder and held her.
"I'm sorry," she sniffed.
"It's okay, " he said and offered her a brilliant white handkerchief.
"Your wife won't like it when you get home with a dirty hankie," she said, trying to sound a bit more upbeat.
"I'm not married."
"No. Never married."
"The way the world is nowadays, that might be a good thing," she says.
"Love has never ever been so rare as it is these days."
What a strange reply! She looked at him. There was something familiar to his face, but she couldn't quite lay her finger on it.
He turned and looked at her. "What's wrong?"
"Everything," she said. "This rain, and everything is so expensive and the bandits took my last money and I'm alone and there will be no party this year."
"Christmas party," she said and sighed. "For the street kids. Since my husbands death I've had a little party for them every year. Nothing big. Just Oros and cookies..."
"And love," he interrupted. "And a warm heart."
She looked at him with surprise. "Well, yes," she stuttered. "How do you know about it?"
"O, I've heard some stories," he evaded the question. "But why not this year? Won't they miss it?"
"Maybe. But look around you, young man. This is the only place we have to get together, and it's got no roof. Their lives are hard enough–they can't sit around in the rain for a stupid little party. They'll get sick. I can't take them to my room, and I just don't have money to hire a place. So I'm stuck."
"It's not a stupid little party," he said and his voice was stern. "For some of them it will be the best day of their lives."
She frowned at him. "I don't understand."
"How many of them have you introduced to Jesus?" he asked.
"A few." She sounded shy.
"More than a few," and he smiled. "Many had their lives turned around at your little Christmas parties."
She stared at him. "How do you know about this? Nobody was ever interested."
"Where it really mattered your parties generated a lot of interest."
"Well, it might interest them that this year there will be no party. I tried everything. I prayed. I pleaded with God. I begged people to help. I just can't go on anymore. Even God has withdrawn from these streets." There was an edge of bitterness to her voice.
"I doubt that."
"Well, where is he? I give every cent to do something for these kids, I befriend them, I spend time in their alleys, and God can't even keep away the rain."
"God loves them more than you can ever do," the stranger said.
"It doesn't seem like that. Where is His great power when we need Him? Look at my hands. Arthritis. In the past I played guitar and we sang carols. Now I can't even hold a plectrum between my fingers."
"And you think God doesn't know about all of that? Do you really think God didn't hear your prayers? Why do you think I'm here? God takes care of his saints, even those with knobby fingers and tired old legs. He knows your dreams and desires. In fact, He's the one who planted them in your heart. If you are willing to let Him take over, He'll make a way. But you have to decide if you're willing to keep on trusting Him."
"I'm willing," she whispered through her tears. "I'm just so tired and so lonely."
"He will never leave you or forsake you," the blonde man said. "And those who wait on Him will renew their strength."
"I know the Bible, young man." But there was a smile on the old face.
"That's good," he said. "Now believe it."
She was silent for a long time, but finally she looked up at the clouded sky. "I believe, Lord," she whispered. "Help my unbelief."
She looked at the strange young man. "Do you live around here?"
"No," he smiled. "I actually live quite far from here. I just came around to tell you that God loves you and that He has not forgotten you."
"You know, an hour ago I didn't believe that," she said. "But if you came all this way just to tell me, I'll take God at his word."
"Just hang in there," the young man said. "God will make a way, even through the mud."
She was silent for a while.
"We can go to my room for some coffee," she said. "If you want to."
"I think I'd better get going," he said. "I have some other projects to take care of, and my holiday's almost over."
"Well, you've accomplished your mission here," she said and smiled. "Maybe God can still get a party going."
"That's the sort of talk I like to hear," he said and got to his feet. "Take care of yourself."
"I will," she said. "You too. And by the way, what's your name?"
She watched him walk out of the park and disappear up the street.What a strange turn of events, Sarah thought. There was still no party in sight, but at least there was some hope in her heart again.
"Better go home," she sighed and got up.
"Hey Mama!" somebody shouted.
It was Peter, one of her favourite street kids, who came running to her.
"Hi, Peter. What are you doing here?"
"I've come to get you for the party," he said and gave her a broad smile. "Everybody's waiting for you."
"What party?" She was totally confused now.
"Our Christmas party! Come on! We have to get your guitar."
"But I can't play anymore," she objected.
"That's alright. Somebody else will. You just gotta come."
She shook her head as if to clear away her doubts. Something strange was going on. But then again, Gabriel said God could make a way.
"Let's go and see," she said. "But take it easy. I can't run anymore."
"That's okay, Mama. Just come."
Peter led her to the basement of one of the office blocks. He was jumping around with excitement. All her questions were just answered with a mysterious "You'll see".
"Hold my hand," he said. "It's dark in here."
A dark Christmas party! What a strange day this has become. She shuffled down the incline, clinging to his hand.
"Are you sure this is the place?" she asked. She was beginning to doubt the wisdom of coming with him.
"Sure, Mama. Here's a chair. You must sit down."
She felt around and sat down.
Suddenly there was light, and all her beloved street children were there, hugging her and laughing. They wore party hats, and the whole place was beautifully decorated. In one corner stood three tables loaded with food and drinks.
"Wow!" she said as she took in the scene. "Who did all this?"
"Jabu," one of the kids said. "And we helped him."
"You like it?" somebody else shouted.
"It's beautiful," she said through the tears. "Who's Jabu?"
"I am," a young black man said and stepped forward. "Don't you remember me?"
She looked at him, searching her memory.
"Of course!" she cried. It was Jabu, one of her success stories. She led him to Jesus many years ago, got him into a school, and then lost track of him.
He was crying as he knelt before her. "Your goodness has come back to you, Mama. It was not in vain."
She held him, not knowing if she should laugh or cry. "This is too much for me. What's going on?"
"I'll tell you in a minute," Jabu said and stood up. "But let's first get these kids partying."
It took some time to get the kids lined up for food. Everyone wanted to shout the loudest, but eventually things calmed down.
"Okay, Jabu," Sarah said as she sat down with her plate of food. "Tell me the story."
"You got me into school, remember?" She nodded. "I finished Matric, and then they got me into a construction firm. They sent me to university and gave me a job when I got my degree. A year ago they made me a partner in the business."
"It gets better," Jabu said with a wide goofy-grin. "My partners are all Christians, and God really blessed our business. We invested in a lot of youth projects, but I've always wanted to come back here. Two weeks ago a strange young man walked into my office..."
"A blonde one?" Sarah interrupted him. "Good-looking?"
"No." Jabu looked at her. "Why?"
"I just had the strangest experience this afternoon with a young man who got me out of my self-pity. I was just wondering."
"No," Jabu said. "It wasn't the same one who came to me. I'm not even sure where he came from. Just said he was Michael, and he knows you very well."
"My blonde man said his name was Gabriel. No surname. 'Just Gabriel', he said. Do you think ... I mean ... Michael and Gabriel ... getting us together ..."
"Maybe we shouldn't ask too many questions," Jabu said, but his eyes were shining. "Maybe, maybe not."
Anyway," Sarah said, "I interrupted you. Please carry on."
"Sure. As I've said, this Michael walked into my office and told me it was time to get back here and do what God has laid on my heart. He told me that this place was available, even helped me get all the neccessary permits and things, and here we are."
"So what are you going to do?" She was getting excited now.
"We're starting a home for street children," Jabu said. "Food and clothes and a place to sleep, and we're also going to start a school and job training programme. And they'll get lots of the gospel."
"Excellent. I'm so happy!"
"But we need somebody to run the home for us," Jabu said and looked into her eyes. "Will you join us?"
"Me?" She was overwhelmed. "Why me?"
"There's no better person," Jabu said. "These kids need love more than anything else, and you're the one person I know who's got more than enough to give. But, to be honest, the real reason is this Michael fellow. The last time I saw him, he said to me 'And remember to get Sarah MacKenzie into this'.
Tears welled up in her eyes. "O Jabu, do you know how often I've dreamed and prayed about this?"
"God knows," he answered. "And he answers prayer. But come on, let's tell them the Christmas story. Will you?"
"Sure," she said with a broad smile. "I'd love to. Get them together, will you?"
Unseen by human eyes, two archangels leaned against the basement wall.
"Isn't this beautiful," Gabriel sighed and wiped his eyes.
"Almost like the first Christmas," Michael replied.
They watched as Sarah ended her Christmas story with the good news of Calvary. They watched her pray with some of the kids. They watched the eternal flame being lit in the hearts of these little children. They saw eyes brightening and smiles growing.
"And the flame passes on," Michael said in a hushed voice. "Glory to God in the highest!"
"Amen!" Michael agreed. "Let's go home."
They stepped through the doorway and turned around for a last look at God's favourite planet.
"It's so amazing," Gabriel said. "They're such fragile creatures. Just the slightest little breeze and they collapse. And yet so powerful."
"The paradox of our God," Michael said. "His strength is made perfect in weakness."
"Just look at that old lady," Gabriel said. "She looks like she's on her last legs, and yet she's changing the future of a whole planet. I don't think she'll ever know what has been achieved through her labour of love."
"Not this side of heaven," Michael said and smiled. "But I'd like to hear about your holiday down there."
"It was strange," Gabriel answered. "Very, very strange. But I think I'm beginning to understand."
He was silent for some time, as if he was thinking. "We're always talking about love," he finally said. "Up here its like an everyday thing. I think we often take it for granted, like air or water. But down there it's different. I looked for it all over the place, but I looked in the wrong places. You don't find it among the high and mighty and the rich and the famous. And in all the so-called important places there's just utter darkness.
"It's the little people in the insignificant places. They are the ones spreading the love, like the most precious gift passing from hand to hand. Nobody notices them, but they don't care. Up here everything is bathed in love, but down there love grows best secret. No acknowledgement. No awards. Just love for love's sake."
"Just like our Lord," Michael said. "Earthmaker's only Son on a bed of straw, and just about nobody knew about it."
"And somehow his people are becoming just like their Father," Gabriel sighed. "There's definitely a lot more to love than we would ever know."
"God so loved the world that he gave his One and Only Son," Michael murmured. "Do you think we'll ever have the chance to sing on earth again before it is made new?"
"I don't know," Gabriel said. He looked through the doorway at the earth, spinning through space. "But if we do, there's one song I'd like to sing."
© 2003 Flip van der Merwe. All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced, stored or distributed, in part or in whole, in any manner whatsoever, without the express written permission of the author, or his legally contracted agent(s). For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.