For the most part, angels have been successfully downplayed in modern Christianity. There are of course the “spiritual warfare” types and the various New Age-y angel trends, but when it comes to preaching in most churches, angels are reduced to a bare minimum. That’s why it’s so jarring to realize how completely unavoidable they are at Christmas time. Virtually every religious Christmas carol at least mentions them, and there are a few that are completely focused on the angels. And of course angels figure prominently in both the “standard” Christmas story from Luke and the one in Matthew.
Since reading Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory, I’ve been much more interested in angels, and my immediate thought when this occurred to me during a Christmas Eve service at my parents’ church is that Christmas is also the most “economic” holiday. This is true in the straightforward sense that it is devoted to consumption and provides a boost to the national economy because everyone feels obligated to buy things for others. It is also true insofar as Christmas is supposed to be the season of redemption, of a miraculous change in one’s life — but a change that works on the characteristic “economic” or “providential” model of persuasion.
Two of the most popular modern Christmas stories prominently feature this theme of conversion through persuasion. It may not be explicitly angels who haunt Scrooge, but his change of heart comes about solely by showing him his wrong turns and where he will end up if he continues on his path. Similarly, George Bailey’s angel in It’s a Wonderful Life moves him to a point where he can embrace his decision for altruism without its accompanying resentment. (Watching it for the millionth time this Christmas, I was struck by the fact that Potter, when offering George a job, shows himself to be the only person who really understands him. George really does hate the savings and loan and resents the fact that he always has to be the “good guy” who sacrifices to others. It seems to me that George’s hyperbolic rejection of the job, combined with heaping insults on Potter, stems from a kind of short-circuit — for him, staying in Bedford Falls equals altruism and leaving equals success, so that he can’t process the notion of having a high-paying, semi-glamorous job while remaining in Bedford Falls.)
These narratives are certainly sentimental, but they are weirdly not as moralistic as you’d think. George Bailey’s problem, in fact, is that he feels so oppressed by his own moralism and needs to embrace the fact that he has become a more meaningful hero to the people of Bedford Falls than his brother or anyone else — that is, in a weird way he needs to become more self-consciously proud and self-absorbed.
It’s not a matter of showing George that he shouldn’t resent his life because it’s wrong to deprive people of his service or because it’s “God’s plan” for him to stay in Bedford Falls (as in the Veggie Tales adaptation of the story that we also watched this Christmas). These stories present an “economic” redemption that is based on persuading the hero that choosing redemption is actually in his own self-interest.
And that is perhaps why it has to be mediated through angels, because in the modern world we can’t seriously conceive of God without arbitrary moralism or “mysterious” predestined plans — that is, we can’t conceive of a God who leaves “room” for persuasion, who needs or wants to persuade us. The throw-back element of angels is also a throw-back to a pre-modern, patristic concept of God (who can’t appear as such, given that our concept of God is so different now).
Many Christians are worried about the secularization of Christmas, etc., and I understand that — it really does seem perverse on the face of it that we celebrate the birth of Christ by indulging in an orgy of consumer spending — but it seems to me that these more or less “secular” narratives of redemption through persuasion tap into a mode of thought that is simultaneously very “Christian” (i.e., very patristic) while being more appealling and persuasive than what customarily goes under the name of “Christian” in the modern world.