“An Angel of the Lord stood near the altar of the temple, having a golden censer in his hand, and there was given to him much incense, and the smoke of the perfumes ascended before God.” Offertory from the Mass of St. Michael, Archangel
She sat in the pew, leaning close to mom, taking in everything.
Nine years old, wearing her prettiest, newest dress and a lovely new hairbow with a Holy Family medal at its center, she watched with growing excitement as the candles were lit, one by one, high upon the altar…
Already, the scent of incense filled the air. The twinkle of white lights upon evergreen boughs overhanging the creche were charming, their soft light illuminated the manger which would soon contain the most precious Gift of all…Jesus…Emmanuel…God With Us.
I looked down at her beaming face, wanting to say something that would impress the moment upon her young mind. In a hushed voice I whispered:
“Abi, one day, when you are quite grown up, these will be your best Christmas memories. You will remember the scent of incense. The tinkle of bells. The rising crescendo of the choir singing “Joy To The World.” The sweet faced Saviour, nestled beneath the loving gaze of Heaven. These will be your best and most beautiful memories…you’re making a memory now. Hold onto it…”
She smiled. And dropped to her knees for a quick prayer, eyes forward upon the altar…
I glanced away from her, for just a few moments, sharing a quick hug with her younger sister, cuddled up beneath her daddy’s big coat, trying to escape the chill of the not quite warm sanctuary. Sacred Heart is such a lovely little parish church and we counted it a privilege that our dear priest was able to offer our traditional Latin Mass in such a gorgeous setting…indeed, it was the very church in which he had received his First Holy Communion and had first served the Mass. Yes…we were blessed to be in that space, at that time for the exquisite liturgy of Midnight Mass.
In the hush and silence I heard a sudden *gasp* and turned to see Abigail clutching her chest…she was breathing in and out, rapidly, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. I panicked…an asthma attack, she’d been having a lot of difficulties lately, chest pain,etc….and I didn’t bring the rescue inhaler…
“Abi! Are you alright? Is it your chest? What’s wrong sweetie?!” I fear I was perhaps a bit louder than I intended, but her face looked so very odd…I’d never seen anything quite like it.
She kept shaking her head, no…no…no. And then, in such a low, low whisper, shyly, never once taking her eyes from the altar she said:
“Oh, mom…don’t you see it?! The angel! I see him…he’s standing right there! He’s moving, mom! He’s real…he’s really there! Oh…he’s so beautiful! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful!” These words, spoken so low…she was pointing, I can’t quite describe well how it looked…almost as if she was worried that maybe she shouldn’t point…maybe she shouldn’t speak…but her face! It was all light…and water…and joy…and a bit of fear…it was…radiant.
What do you say to a child who’s looking at an angel that you don’t see? I looked at the altar…then I looked at her.
“Where, sweetie? Where do you see him?” I asked her.
“He’s standing over there…on the steps of the altar. He’s so beautiful! He’s wearing a bright white robe and gold belt. Now he’s kneeling. He’s looking at me and smiling. What should I do?!” she worriedly asked.
“Oh, sweetie…are you sure?” I was looking to see if maybe she was staring at a statue, but no…there were only small statues on the altar. The priest, deacons and altar servers hadn’t yet begun the procession…all of this was taking place just a few moments before the bells rang. It was real. I should have known by her face…by her actions…whatever was happening was real. As a Catholic I certainly understand the reality of angels amongst us. I know that each of us have our very own guardian. I know that a few privileged souls have been able to see or experience these heavenly messengers…I’m embarrassed that my first reaction was incredulity…but then…JOY! Joy, joy, joy…because I knew…knew that it was real.
“Ask him to pray for us! Ask him if he’ll pray for us now!” I whispered, awestruck and still so very taken by what was transpiring between my sweet child and this heavenly messenger. She began whispering a few words…I couldn’t hear her, she later told me that she did as I requested and the angel never spoke but smiled and nodded.
The bells rang and we stood for the procession. I quickly leaned over to her father and told him what was happening. He flinched, startled, and turned quickly, his eyes scanned the altar, just as mine had, trying to see what she was seeing. We were at the very front of the Church, with a complete and unobstructed view of the altar. Just before the procession made it to the rail, she tugged my sleeve…I knelt beside her…she never once looked at me, but quickly said, so quietly and sweetly, “there’s another one, now…on the other side! He looks almost the same…his hair is bright gold! Mom…he’s kneeling now…he’s looking at you and smiling…”
An angel…smiled…at me.
I burst into tears. Because I could see it. Not like Abi…no…there were no special visions of beautiful angels in white robes and golden belts for me…no…it was in my head…this image of the beautiful face of a smiling angel. How often has Father told us that our sanctuary is filled with them at every Mass? I’ve always tried to imagine them, crowding low, bending toward the altar at the moment of the Consecration… I think often of this quote: “If the Angels could envy, they would envy us for Holy Communion.” – St. Pope Pius X. How lovingly they must gather about us at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass…
Still transfixed upon the altar, my little girl continued her prayers. She had never been so attentive. She sang every response, every hymn. I suddenly remembered that I had brought my camera to take a few photos of the girls beside the creche…I turned off the flash and quickly snapped a photo of the altar at that moment and one after Mass was over, so that I could ask Abigail to identify the exact spot where she had seen the angels. Looking at the photo later, she pointed first to the top step on the Gospel side of the altar as the location of the first angel, and then the top step of the altar on the Epistle side as the location of the second.
It seemed Mass was over so very quickly. Abi and Rylee both flitted gaily down the aisle to hug Father and offer him a Christmas card and box of Daddy’s homemade candy. She wanted to tell Father what had happened, but there were so many people crowded around. So she waited…she waited while Father greeted old friends, prayed with a grieving family and finally, the church all but empty, she shyly approached him and said: “Father…I saw angels on the altar…first there was just one…”
She waited for his response…he looked up at me and then down at her, surprise etched upon his face:
“Really? Did it look like a statue that came to life?”
“No, Father…the statues are really small. It was real…like you, but beautiful!” (I had to chuckle…Father is a beautiful, holy priest of God, but we all got her point!)
“Well…what was it doing? Did it smile at me?” he playfully questioned.
“Father, the angels were very, very close to you all through the Mass…but they smiled at me and mom,” she shyly answered.
“I think she’s telling the truth Father,” I offered. “If you had seen her face…I’ve never seen anything like it…”
He smiled, so sweetly. “Well, you know the angels are all around us, all the time….ten thousand of them fill the sanctuary at the Consecration! It will be glorious to discover one day, in Heaven, just what this night was all about. And I have to tell you, once when I was very, very young, I once thought I saw an angel in this very same church…”
Abigail smiled, and skipped out into the cold, a swirl of snow rising from the walkway as we all made our way towards the car on that cold and oh-so-glorious Christmas morn…
Once in the car, she began to panic. She’d not been well for the past few days, and now fear began to seize her, doubt entered to steal her joy. “What does it mean, Mom, when you see an angel? Am I alright? Does this mean I’m going to die?”
Oh, poor, sweet girl!
“No, sweetheart! Remember what Father said…just because you saw them, doesn’t mean that they weren’t always there! You’ve had a very special night. And these angels brought you “good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people…” Your happiness was real. Don’t let fear take that from you…”
Four sleepy children, nodded and dozed during the long drive home. Six tired children, made their way up the stairs, off to dreamland to awake to Christmas joy.
I took joy with me, to the silence and stillness of my own room…a heartful. I couldn’t stop thinking, of the goodness of our God who brings Heaven to Earth in the gift of His Son…and of the smiling faces of angels, who walk amongst us.