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The Day We Saw The Angels

A college professor and his wife are amazed to witness a group of angelic figures floating in the air.

An artist's rendering of angels appearing to the shepherds

It was not Christmas, it was not even wintertime, when the event occurred that for me threw sudden new light on the ancient angel tale. It was a glorious spring morning and we were walking, my wife and I, through the newly budded birches and maples near Ballardvale, Massachusetts.

Now I realize that this, like any account of personal experience, is only as valid as the good sense and honesty of the person relating it. What can I say about myself?

That I am a scholar who shuns guesswork and admires scientific investigation? That I have an A.B. from Harvard, an M.A. from Columbia, a Ph.D. from Hartford Theological Seminary? That I have never been subject to hallucinations? That attorneys have solicited my testimony, and I have testified in the courts, regarded by judge and jury as a faithful, reliable witness?

All this is true and yet I doubt that any amount of such credentials can influence the belief or disbelief of another.

In the long run, each of us must sift what comes to us from others through his own life experience, his view of the universe, his understanding. And so I will simply tell my story.

The little path on which Marion and I walked that morning was spongy to our steps and we held hands with the sheer delight of life as we strolled near a lovely brook.

It was May, and because it was the examination reading period for students at Smith College where I was a professor, we were able to get away for a few days to visit Marion’s parents.

We frequently took walks in the country, and we especially loved the spring after a hard New England winter, for it is then that the fields and the woods are radiant and calm yet show new life bursting from the earth.

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This day we were especially happy and peaceful; we chatted sporadically, with great gaps of satisfying silence between our sentences.

Then from behind us we heard the murmur of muted voices in the distance, and I said to Marion, “We have company in the woods this morning.”

Marion nodded and turned to look. We saw nothing, but the voices were coming nearer—at a faster pace than we were walking—and we knew that the strangers would soon overtake us. Then we perceived that the sounds were not only behind us but above us, and we looked up.

How can I describe what we felt? Is it possible to tell of the surge of exaltation that ran through us? Is it possible to record this phenomenon in objective accuracy and yet be credible?

For about 10 feet above us, and slightly to our left, was a floating group of glorious, beautiful creatures that glowed with spiritual beauty. We stopped and stared as they passed above us.

There were six of them, young beautiful women dressed in flowing white garments and engaged in earnest conversation If they were aware of our existence they gave no indication of it. Their faces were perfectly clear to us, and one woman, slightly older than the rest, was especially beautiful.

Her dark hair was pulled back in what today we would call a ponytail, and although cannot say it was bound at the back of her head, it appeared to be. She was talking intently to a younger spirit whose back was toward us and who looked up into the face of the woman who was talking.

Neither Marion nor I could understand their words although their voices were clearly heard. The sound was somewhat like hearing but being unable to understand a group of people talking outside a house with all the windows and doors shut.

They seemed to float past us, and their graceful motion seemed natural—as gentle and peaceful as the morning itself. As they passed, their conversation grew fainter and fainter until it faded out entirely, and we stood transfixed on the spot, still holding hands and still with the vision before our eyes.

It would be an understatement to say that we were astounded. Then we looked at each other, each wondering if the other also had seen.

There was a fallen birch tree just there beside the path. We sat down on it and I said, “Marion, what did you see? Tell me exactly, in precise detail. And tell me what you heard.”

She knew my intent—to test my own eyes and ears to see if I had been the victim of hallucination or imagination. And her reply was identical in every respect to what my own senses had reported to me.

I have related this story with the same faithfulness and respect for truth and accuracy as I would tell it on the witness stand. But even as I record it I know how incredible it sounds.

Perhaps I can claim no more for it than that it has had a deep effect on our own lives. For this experience of almost 30 years ago greatly altered our thinking. Once both Marion and I were somewhat skeptical about the absolute accuracy of the details at the birth of Christ.

The story, as recorded by St. Luke, tells of an angel appearing to shepherds abiding in the field, and after the shepherds had been told of the Birth, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest (Luke 2:8-14).

As a child I accepted the multitude seen by the shepherds as literal heavenly personages. Then I went through a period when I felt that they were merely symbols injected into a fantasy or legend.

Today, after the experience at Ballardvale, Marion and I are no longer skeptical. We believe that in back of that story recorded by St. Luke lies a genuine objective experience told in wonder by those who had the experience.

Once, too, we puzzled greatly over the Christian insistence that we have “bodies” other than our normal flesh and blood ones. We were like the doubter of whom St. Paul wrote:

But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? (I Corinthians 15:35).

In the years since that bright May morning, his answer has rung for us with joyous conviction.

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another…So also is the resurrection of the dead…It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body…And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly…For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (I Corinthians 15:40-53).

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All of us, I think, hear the angels for a little while at Christmastime. We let the heavenly host come close once in the year. But we reject the very possibility that what the shepherds saw that night 2,000 years ago was part of the reality that presses close every day of our lives.

And yet there is no reason for us to shrink from this knowledge. Since Marion and I began to be aware of the host of heaven all about us, our lives have been filled with a wonderful hope. Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopal bishop, expressed the cause of this hope more beautifully that I can do:

“This is what you are to hold fast to yourself—the sympathy and companionship of the unseen worlds. No doubt it is best for us now that they should be unseen. It cultivates in us that higher perception that we call ‘faith.’ But who can say that the time will not come when, even to those who live here upon earth, the unseen worlds shall no longer be unseen?”

The experience at Ballardvale, added to the convictions of my Christian faith, gives me not only a feeling of assurance about the future, but a sense of adventure toward it too.

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