In a survey conducted in Great Britain last year over three thousand of the British public was asked to name their favorite Christmas movie. Surprisingly, the movie that came out on top, and by a wide margin, was “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It was released to the viewing public in 1946, 76 years ago. Upon its release the film generated little interest and was mostly panned by the critics. Today, it is considered a Christmas classic and rightfully so.

As the story unfolds, an angel named Clarence arrives from beyond time from the realms of God’s glory to save George Bailey, a husband and father, from taking his own life. Bailey, broke and in despair, had considered his life a failure and a disappointment to those whom he loved.

The angel shows him what life would have been like if he had never been born. He assures the suicidal Mr. Bailey that life even in the direst of circumstances, is a wonderful gift and is indeed worth living.

George Bailey is loved by his family, his community and, most assuredly, by the Lord.

An angel made a difference in the life of a solitary and deeply troubled American citizen.

What about salvation history? What roles do the angels play?

Angels are mentioned no fewer than 296 times in the Bible. They are the pledge of the supernatural. Tellingly, they are present in nearly all the important events in the Old and New Testaments, especially in the life of Christ.  As heralds, they minister to us by announcing messages from God. Their most important messages were at Christ’s birth.

Christ would be inconceivable without angels, who are creatures of God and pure spirit. It is for good reason that many Christians choose to keep an angel atop their Christmas tree.

Early in the last century, the 20th, Irish-American songwriter George M. Cohan composed an unforgettable song, “Give my Regards to Broadway” for one of his many plays. In the song he makes reference to one of New York City’s legendary landmarks: Herald Square.

“Remember me to Herald Square,” was the appeal made by the main character of the play, an American jockey named Johnny Jones, as he sees a ship sail for America. Today, Herald Square is the site of Macy’s flagship department store, but in the days of Cohan it was the site of the New York Herald Tribune, one of the city’s many daily newspapers of that bygone era.

Some of the aged members of this congregation may recall the scene of young boys peddling newspapers on city streets and crying out in a loud voice, “Extra, extra, read all about it.” The boys delivered the news to the reading public. In a fashion, they were imitating the angels of God.

Few would argue that one of the most memorable Christmas carols features messengers of God: “Hark the Herald Angels sing,”the words of which proclaim the glad tidings of Christ’s birth.

In one of the Peanut comic strips, Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, tells her brother what she has to do in the Christmas play in which she has a part. She says, ”When the sheep are through dancing I come out and say, “Hark. Then Harold Angel starts to sing. Charlie Brown is dumbfounded. “Harold Angel”? Sally is compelled to defend herself: “It’s right here in the script”

In some of the other well known Christmas carols Angels are mentioned:

“Come and behold Him, born the King of angels” (O Come, all ye Faithful); The First Noel, the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay” (The First Noel); Angels from the realms of Glory;  “Angels we have heard on High” “What child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherd’s watch are keeping” (“What Child is this).

In Luke and Matthew’s infancy narratives, an angel appears to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, Mary, the mother of Christ, Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and the shepherds Christmas night.

In the Gospel for Christmas at night, an angel of the Lord appears to shepherds and the glory of the Lord shines around them, and they are struck with great fear. The angel says to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the City of David a savior has been born to you who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk. 2:9-11).

Their song radiates joy. It is as if the shepherds were hearing the sounds of heaven.

One of the tourist attractions in the Holy Land is the Church of the Angels, which is located in Shepherd’s Field, a Palestinian town just East of King David’s city, Bethlehem. In the interior of the church the tourist is likely to be impressed by the lovely artwork. Each wall of the chapel displays part of the infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel.

In one image an angel can be seen as proclaiming the good news to the frightened shepherds. The painting invites the observer to enter the scene with the shepherds that holy night, to hear the wonderful news of the birth of the Messiah.

What possible lessons may we learn from this splendid feast?

The birth of a child is something of a mystery. Why, after all, do any of us exist in the first place. The wonder that anything exists at all is the beginning of one’s path to God.

The message of Christmas reminds us that God is faithful and true to his promises. God has kept and will keep his promises. The Child born in Bethlehem is the promised Messiah.

In recalling the fictional character George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the meaning of Christ’s birth is illuminated. “God wanted to be with us as one of us, sharing our life with all that is good and beautiful in it but also its darkness and sadness” (Kasper). It is altogether true that too many of us struggle with pain, heartbreak and loss on the holy feast day.

Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing” (Is. 9:1-2)

Jesus is “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.” He has emerged from his inaccessible light in which he dwells. He has entered our world, our time and our history. The Word became flesh and dwells among us” (Jn. 1:14)

Very often our family celebrations on Christmas Eve and Day are accompanied by music and singing. Some of you may be familiar with a song made famous by the legendary bandleader, Benny Goodman in the era of the Second World War, the 1940’s. The song’s title is, “You Smile and the Angels Sing” The melody of this popular tune inspired couples, young and old, to get up from their tables and dance.

In reading Luke’s account of our Lord’s early life, we see how frequently the texts speak of singing.

There is Mary’s Magnificat, a song of praise, the canticle of the aged priest of the Jerusalem temple, Simeon and the song of the angels on Christmas night.

As disciples of Jesus we have every reason to sing with joy. For the good news of Christmas announces, “Christ our savior is born.” The long wait for the Messiah ended on one special night in Bethlehem.

On this holy night, I encourage you to join your voices with the angels.  And, lest I forget, in the celebration of the Eucharist the angels surround us: “In our joy we sing to your glory with all the choirs of angels”

Merry Christmas

Father John Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Troy and this was his sermon on Christmas Day, 2022.