Isaiah 9: 2-7
Luke 2: 1-20
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)
The city of Juarez, Mexico – sister city to San Diego – walks in deep darkness. Plagued by drug violence and police corruption, the city sees roughly five to six murders every day. The ongoing war between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels
holds the city in a pall of terror. The Juarez Cartel is particularly known for its ruthlessness – its para-military arm known as “La Linea” (made up of current and former police officers) is known for dumping the decapitated, mutilated bodies of opponents onto city streets in order to send a message. The presence of the Mexican military in the city has done nothing to abate the violence, as city gangs draw from a nearly limitless pool of fresh recruits from the city slums. With the police corrupted and military overwhelmed, the Juarez Cartel operates with impunity, and its citizens have nowhere to turn.
Last year, the citizens of Ciudad Juarez saw something unusual amid the the daily barrage of killings. At the sites where killings had occurred, there were suddenly … angels.
A local evangelical youth group began dressing as angels, painted in silver paint, with wings covered in feathers taken from abandoned mattresses, and standing silent witness at the murder sites (see NPR article). They would carry signs saying “Assassin Repent – Christ Loves You” and “Corrupt Police, Seek God.” (It is interesting to note that the word “evangelical” contains “angel” as its root. It comes from the Greek meaning “Bringer of the Good News”.) Passersby express their appreciation, but also their concern – they have reason. Out of the thousands of people murdered in Juarez every year, roughly a quarter are teenagers – and their assassins are frequently teenagers as well. But the co-pastor of the church is not fazed: “We’re in God’s hands, and we’re not afraid now.”
“Be Not Afraid” was the message of the angels to the shepherds in the field, according to the Lucan Gospel this week (see above). The eradication of fear was tied to the bringing of Good News – that a Savior, the Messiah (from the Hebrew maschiach, meaning “anointed one”), the Lord has been born. Luke’s wording of the announcement of Jesus’ birth was a deliberate copying of the syntax used when royal births were announced by Rome. The implication that anyone other than Caesar or his family were Divine was treasonous and a deliberate slap in the face of Rome. When the Greek-speaking Christians of Luke’s time were saying that “Jesus is Lord”, they were implicitly saying “… and Caesar is not.”
Likewise, when the angels of Juarez deliver the Good News to the tired, grieving people of their city, they are saying that “Jesus is Lord … and the Juarez Cartel is not.“
After the angels of Juarez bear silent witness at the scene of a murder, they often pray with the onlookers of the neighborhood who have gathered to see them: “The church group prays with them for employment, for better living conditions, for salvation from sin, and for an end to the murders. After the prayer, several of the residents are weeping” (see NPR article). While there have been many demonstrations and marches in Juarez demanding an end to the murders and to better living conditions, nothing has changed. However, the angels seem to be touching people in the way that a p0litical demonstration cannot. According to NPR, angel groups have sprung up in other violence-ridden Mexican cities, such as Torreon and Matamoros. This is not to say that these brave young people will be the magic solution to all the problems plaguing Juarez … but they herald the birth of something new. They announce the possibility that something can be God other than gun-wielding thugs and assassins. Be not afraid.
This Christmas Eve, let us ask ourselves, what fear is lording itself over our lives? What is pretending to be God in our lives that isn’t? We are not alone. The citizens of Juarez and the citizens of first-Century Palestine knew what it was like to live under fear. But the bearers of the Good News came to them anyway, in the least likely of places: in the fields, in the barrios … wherever they were eking out their lives. Angels are among us. Be not afraid. Go out and live into the joy that Christ has brought into the world this Christmas. God Bless.