By Michael H. Brown

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and when an angel appeared to the shepherds, we tend to think in terms of a vision or apparition -- that the angels appeared in the form of spirits. This may well be the case. We see many places in both the Old and New Testaments in which messengers from God come in a way that's ethereal. They appear in flames, in dreams, or with a great, burnished countenance. When Zechariah sees an angel, it's in a "vision" (Luke 1:22), and Balaam needed to have his spiritual eyes opened to spot one (Numbers 22:31). We know the splendor of these entities in the Book of Revelation!

At the same time there are plenty of places in the Bible where angels also come in the flesh as "mysterious strangers." They manifest in a way that seems physical. This is how angels appeared to Lot at Sodom in Genesis 19:1 (even dining with him) and in Judges 13:16 we see that Manoah couldn't tell if the person he was talking to was a man or an angel. In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with one!

We bring this up because of the report we received last week of a priest in Maryland who says an angel visited his church two weeks ago, during Mass on the feast of Guadalupe  [see story]. In this case too, the angel took physical, man-like form. We also bring it up because, for what it's worth, in the Koran, the visit to Mary is described as a physical manifestation. Many are those (including ourselves) who have had encounters with strangers who do or say strange things, look different -- usually radiant and smiling -- and then disappear mysteriously. Usually it's when one looks the other way, although in the case of the priest, he claims to have seen the "man" vanish! 

Angels come in both forms. At Medjugorje, they have been seen both as mysterious people and also in the form of apparitions accompanying the Virgin. At Fatima an angel appeared bright as the sun, and gave seer Lucia dos Santos Communion. "It was a young man, about 14 or 15 years old, whiter than snow, transparent as crystal when the sun shines through it, and of great beauty," Lucia later wrote. "We were surprised, absorbed, and struck dumb with amazement. On reaching us, he said: 'Do not be afraid. I am the Angel of Peace. Pray with me.'"

We tend to think that when the angel appeared to the shepherds (and before that to Mary) it was in similar form because the angel similarly told Mary and the shepherds not to be afraid. Apparently, their countenances were awesome, where, on the other hand, when an angel appears in the form of a stranger, physically, it is not quite so startling. 

But who knows? We know only that angels are around a lot more than we realize, and that they're always anxious to come to our aid -- especially at special times like Christmas!

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