During the yuletide seasons of my childhood, we took a break at the Methodist church from our usual repertoire of five or six old standards in the brown, threadbare Cokesbury hymnals and switched to an even shorter selection of Christmas carols.
So, instead of “In the Garden” and “Yield Not to Temptation” and “He Keeps me Singing” (on page 110 and my favorite because it had a snappy beat) we made a joyful noise – emphasis on “noise” – with “Silent Night” and a couple of others as Miss Mae Greer pounded away on the upright piano.
One of them was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. When I was in the first or second grade, I thought the angels were all named Harold (I might not have been the brightest crayon in the box early on). But Miss Mae Scott, my Sunday School teacher, put me right about that by explaining that heralds were particularly special angels because they were messengers. And that the message they brought at Christmas was the best one of all.
Several years after that revelation, when I’d fallen into the habit of perusing the two newspapers that were tossed into our yard beside Highway 79, I read Dallas Morning News columnist Paul Crume’s take on angels on the front page on Christmas morning in 1967. Little did I know that that short essay would be remembered by many as the very best of thousands of Crume’s columns published between 1948 and 1975. He and Houston Post columnist Leon Hale were in large part responsible for my taking up writing in general and columns in particular. So blame them.
Here’s part of what Mr. Crume said in the piece that is still, I think, printed every Christmas morning on the front page of the Dallas paper:
“Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels. If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself.”
He went on to include a few lines by Francis Thompson, a 19th century English poet, who maintained that “the angels keep their ancient places. Turn but a stone, and start a wing.”
I can’t claim to have ever actually heard wings fluttering nearby, but I can tell you that there have been times in my life when I’ve felt the presence of something bigger, better, and infinitely wiser than myself that was guiding me through a potentially dangerous or important situation.
One of those times was when my wife Karen and I were driving up to East Texas on a pretty fall morning and our car just simply stopped running on a country road. What seemed like thousands of warning lights lit up on the dash board and I had to maneuver us over to the shoulder before we rolled to a complete stop. As bad as that seemed at the time, it could have happened a couple of hours before when we’d been in the center lane of heavy traffic on the Pierce Elevated in downtown Houston. Or when an 18-wheeler was nudging up too close behind us.
If I’d listened closely that morning, I might have heard an angel’s wings.
I believe Mr. Shakespeare was on to something when he had Hamlet tell Horato that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained. And one of those things might just be the presence of angels.
This can all be waved away as foolishness, of course, by people who can’t bring themselves to believe anything that can’t be physically proven. “Show me an angel and I’ll believe it exists” they’d say. And I wouldn’t be able to produce one.
But I believe they are here, not only the hovering variety but those inside of us that can affect our moral compasses, the ones Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.
On this day that is holy for much of the world’s population, and is not only about faith but about the memory of lost loved ones and the bonds shared among family and friends, I’m betting that angels are in abundance, their wings fluttering all over the place.
On that Christmas morning in 1967 the late Paul Crume ended his column with a few words that I couldn’t possibly improve upon. So we’ll let him close this out.
“There is an angel close to you this day. Merry Christmas, and I wish you well.”