Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
These words of the angel were truly good tidings of great joy for all people. Although neither the shepherds nor anyone else in the world really understood the importance of what was begun that night, the angels did, and they had been unceasingly awaiting this event for centuries. They knew why there was cause for great rejoicing. The promised Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, had finally been born. The unbounded joy of the heavens was seen by the shepherds. Suddenly with the angel who had spoken to them there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)
Why were the angels so joyful? We can hear the excitement in the voice of the angel that spoke to the shepherds. And we can imagine the shiver of wonder that must have filled the shepherds as they heard the resounding sound of the angelic multitudes praising God. What was the source of the angels' joy? What did the birth of the Lord on earth mean to them?
The angels had known that the Lord would be born on earth ever since the first hint of evil had appeared in mankind. At the moment that the first of the Lord's people began to turn away from innocently following Him the angels could foresee in a general way what would happen. With the human mind working the way that it did and does, the angels could foresee that the power of evil, once begun, would gradually increase. (cf. Arcana Coelestia 4687:2) With horror they recognized that eventually the human race would turn so far away from the Lord that it would no longer know anything true nor be able to do anything good. They recognized that the human race would turn completely from the Lord's life and His blessings, and they knew that when a complete separation took place, no human being would ever choose a heavenly life and would be condemned to the anger, discontent and destructiveness of an evil life.
Yet at the time of the first hint of evil, the Lord immediately foretold in prophecy that He would be born as a Savior to ensure that all people would always have a real choice between a heavenly life and a hellish one. By prophecies given to people on earth, both they and the angels knew that the Lord would make His advent. The angels understood that He would come as the Word made flesh, as a light to the world. He would let His infinite soul slowly fill a natural body. He would allow a mind to form within the workings of a natural brain - one precisely like yours and mine. He would learn the stories and laws of the Old Testament just like a child today can learn them. Then He would do something that no finite mortal could. He would slowly reveal to that natural mind and to the universal spiritual world the infinite life within revealed truth. He took words and ideas of truth that could exist within a human mind and showed their hidden glory. This revelation was an essential part of His mission on earth. It was an essential part of the process that the Writings of the New Church call “the glorification.” The Lord showed the infinite wisdom and the infinite love that had been hidden by the darkness of evil and the obscurity of limited human thought. The Lord Jesus Christ gave a power to revealed truth that is the salvation of all who seek to follow it - to all who follow revealed truth while seeking to serve their fellow human beings. The Lord became the Word made flesh so that we might behold His glory, so that we might have the light that will give us life.
All this lay in the distant future when the Lord's birth was first prophesied. Yet the prophecies themselves had great power. Yes, they were reassuring words, but they were something more. Faith in the promise of these prophecies accomplished something extremely powerful in itself. Faith in the Lord who was to come, brought about a loving relationship between human beings and God. (Arcana Coelestia 2034) This faith gave life and blessings to countless people. It sustained many in the human race till the Lord's birth actually occurred.
Over and over again, the Lord renewed the promise of His coming. But much time passed, and the promise of the Messiah was nearly forgotten. A few held onto their hope and waited, looking daily for the Lord to come. Wise men far distant from Judea watched the night sky looking for the sign that the Messiah had been born, and when they saw the star of wonder, they journeyed to bring gifts to the young infant. An old man in Jerusalem also waited for the Savior. When Simeon saw the infant Jesus and held Him in his arms. From a contented heart he spoke the remarkable words, "Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all people: A light to give light to the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon certainly understood something of the meaning of the Lord's birth. Yet almost no one else in the world did. But the angels knew what the advent meant. The prophecies of the Lord's coming had been essential for the angels too. We are taught that if the process of the Lord's glorification had not been shown to the angels through the internal sense of the Word and also in the rites of the Jewish Church, the Lord would have been obliged to come into the world immediately after the fall of the first church from the golden age of mankind. (Arcana Coelestia 2523:1) For the angels the Old Testament served as a detailed prophecy of even the smallest aspects of the Jesus' life. From the Old Testament the angels knew the actual thoughts and perceptions of His whole life in the world.
The prophecy sustained hope with the angels. It held in check their fears when they foresaw the growing power of evil. Their deep apprehension was not just a general concern for a matter of principle or for the battle of evil against good in an abstract form. They were concerned for the salvation of each individual soul. They could see that the possibility of anyone getting to heaven was greatly endangered.
The angels are keenly aware of the state of the church with the human race. We provide a foundation for them. When the church within the hearts and minds of people in this world is weak and ignorant, the foundation is threatened. We are told of the sadness of angels when the people of the church are misled by false ideas and motivated by evil. Yes, the heavens are dependent on the people who make up the church on earth. If that quality of the church with human beings should completely fail, the heavens presently associated with us would have to be transferred to rest on other earths, and life would cease on this earth.
However, the concern of the angels was not for their own welfare. Their concern was for the happiness of others. They seek above all else to bring happiness to others. We read that "to save a soul from hell, the angels would regard death as nothing, indeed if it were possible, they would undergo hell for that soul." (Arcana Coelestia 2077:2) The angels suffered with and for those who wandered in spiritual darkness. They mourned over the sadness that filled the lives of so many. They waited and could do little to make life better for all who suffered. They waited, praying, hoping. They knew that the darkness and suffering would end when Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer, came in glory. So it was that when the Lord was born, the angels rejoiced. They rejoiced the night of the first Christmas so long ago. And with joy they brought the news to a small group of shepherds who were in the fields that night watching over their flocks.
Yet they knew that the Lord's birth was only the beginning. Jesus would grow from infancy to adult life. He would undergo continual battles against the mind-numbing power of evil. His battles would continue to the final trial of the cross. The completion of His work would come as He rose from the tomb on the first Easter. He rose not merely as Jesus, but as the infinite God, Jesus Christ our Lord appearing in flesh and blood.
On the first Christmas, the angels knew that much had to occur before mankind was truly free to chose a life different from the misery and spiritual emptiness of hell. But after centuries of waiting, hoping and praying for this event, it had now begun. In the words of the angel, the birth of the Lord was indeed good news of great joy for all people.
The Lord’s birth and life did not mean that evil loves and false ideas became powerless. The Lord re-established the freedom to choose good loves and true ideas and many have and will choose them, but not all. Our hearts can be saddened and sometimes discouraged or angered by the evil that we can see large and small. There is a memorable experience taking place in the life after death that Swedenborg relates which dealt with a time of discouragement of his own (Conjugial Love 81). He had been reflecting on the terrible state of marriage with so many and was grieved in spirit. As he walked and talked sadly with an angel about these things there was suddenly a dazzling burst of light that lit up the whole sky and he heard the sound of a mighty angelic choir echoing across the sky. The angel explained the different songs of celebration they were hearing related to the Lord’s advent such as:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of Jehovah...." ...Behold, the Lord Jehovih comes in strength.... He will feed His flock like a shepherd. (Isaiah 40:3, 10, 11)
Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given..., whose name shall be...Wonderful, Counselor, God, Hero, Father of Eternity, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
And there were also quotations about the Lord’s second coming. Swedenborg relates, “When I heard these things and understood their meaning, as a result my heart leapt, and I went home filled with joy” (Conjugial Love 81:5).
As we well know this also did not mean that there would soon be an end to sorrow and trouble in marriages. But it did mean there was hope and a future. If we stare too much at the sorrow and trouble this can grow to be all we see and the Lord’s role will diminish into a relatively small abstraction. In this state of mind there is no rejoicing, little hope and little energy to do what we can. It is not what the Lord and His angels would wish for us.
When we consider the Lord's birth, we too can be joyful. If the Lord had not come, we would not be alive today. If the Lord had not bowed the heavens and come down, nothing could save us from the natural patterns of thought and choice that bring us and others pain and hurt, that bring the reality of hell to us. It is valuable for us to come to an acknowledgement of the destructiveness within these natural patterns of thought and choice.
But something of the true spirit of Christmas is shown in the joy of the angels. Their joy was not because they directly benefited by the advent. The nature of angelic love is to feel another's joy as its own. The joy of the angels was for all mankind. In their joy they recognized the significance of the advent for the lives of so many people.
We can form some idea of their joy if we think of what the Lord's coming means to all those whom we love. When we watch loved ones and others we know learn and grow, it is not always easy. Perhaps we worry that they are making bad choices and that we cannot prevent it without taking away their essential freedom. It is then that we need to remember the Lord's coming. Because the Lord was born into the world, He is able to be very near to teach and lead our loved ones with His infinite wisdom and infinite love. He has come for them to lead them to receive as much of the joy of heaven as they possibly can. We can perhaps realize with joy that things may not be as hopeless as they sometimes seem. A knowledge of the Lord’s role can actually increase the energy and focus we have to wisely help those around us. We can be encouraged by the thought that an infinite and loving God is near and also working unceasingly with all human beings. And as we see their joy when they do what is good and right, we can feel something of this joy as our own and give thanks to the Lord.
The sense of another's joy is magnified many times with the angels. This is the joy with which the angels celebrated the birth of the Lord. They were rejoicing at the Lord's expression of His love and mercy to all of us. If we can enter into this joy of the angels, we will sense something of the true joy of Christmas. When this joy fills our hearts, we may echo the words of the angelic chorus, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."