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The Birch Tree Leaf Newsletter Issue 8 — Christmas 2020

Seeing angels

Angels are key players in the unfolding story of the incarnation and birth of Christ. Angels inform and enlighten both those directly involved in Christ’s coming and complete strangers. They explain the pregnancies of both Elizabeth and Mary. They give specific instructions to Joseph and the wise men who traveled from the East. Thousands of radiant angels appear at the field outside of Bethlehem after a single messenger announced to the local shepherds that the Liberator had been born and where they could find the child.

Can you imagine?

We read these stories and we do try to imagine what it would have been like to have an angel appear and speak to us. For most of us grownups, angels are beyond our comprehension. They are strange and mysterious beings from a realm far beyond our daily reality... IF in fact we actually believe they exist.

We have our questions (and our skepticism) ready:

  • What did these angels exactly look like?
  • Did they have wings?
  • Did they look like ordinary people?
  • Did they glow?
  • What were they wearing?
  • How did they move?
  • How did they appear?
  • Did they vanish into thin air?
As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older and that is a tragic loss. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
Messenger of Truth by Michelle L Hofer - 8 x 10 inches, mixed media on paper, 2020

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,

his wings as drifted snow,

his eyes as flame.

“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,

most highly favored lady,” gloria!

“For known as blessed mother thou shalt be,

all generations laud and honor thee.

Thy son shall be Immanuel by seers foretold,

most highly favored lady,” gloria!

From the Christmas carol by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1923

Angel Appearances

My oldest daughter Madeline, who is now 17, speaks of two occasions when she was little where angels appeared to help her.

My daughter’s first encounter was in an overnight thunderstorm when she was 3 or 4 years old. She came into our bedroom terrified of the thunder and lighting happening outside. In my sleepy state, I mumbled that she best try going back to bed and praying to God. In the morning, I was surprised to hear her report that she had done what I suggested and that an angel came and sat by her and she was able to fall back asleep.

When Madeline went off to Kindergarten, I prayed, as I’m sure many mothers pray, that she would be watched over and cared for. Madeline still remembers that when she stepped onto the school bus for the first time, a very kind older girl invited Madeline to sit with her. The same girl offered to then help Madeline find her classroom when they arrived at the school. Then just like that, the girl was gone and Madeline did not see her again. There was also no such older student who rode our bus route.

I do not doubt my daughter’s accounts for it is children who unquestionably accept the reality of such things. As for us adults? We’ve been “corrupted” as Madeleine L’Engle explains in Walking on Water. We have learned the “dirty devices of this world” which “dull our imaginations, cut away our creativity.” We have thus lost the ability “to see angels, to walk on water, to talk to unicorns.”

ENVISIONING ANGELS

The artist, if he is not to forget how to listen, must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked CHILDREN ONLY. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Angels have become one of my primary artistic subjects. I do not know that I will ever tire of painting them. Working on angels fascinates and excites me. I love the possibilities my art affords me to play with color, mood and energy when portraying an angel. I love also the curiosity and conversation these images spark when others view my work.

Since I began my work with angels, I have had the privilege of hearing the personal stories of people like my daughter who have seen or experienced the presence of angels. Just like Madeline’s experiences and Biblical accounts, angels appear often as regular human beings.

So why paint angels with wings and glowing eyes dressed in fashions from 2000 years ago if that isn’t what they look like?

The angels of early Christian art (Byzantine art) and the angels I paint today are SYMBOLIC as are the elements included in an angel image.

It was just last week as I was working on a blue version of Gabriel that I decided to read about the attire this archangel is often pictured wearing. I learned a lot! Those who saw my social media post also found it interesting. I thought you would also find it helpful to know more about portraying angels. I will walk you through this imagery.

Michael with Gabriel. Archangels by Michelle L Hofer, 2020 — 8 x 10 inches, mixed media on paper

Michael OR Gabriel — These are only two angels mentioned in Scripture by name so they are the two distinguished angels in artwork. Guardian angels, healing/attending angels or angel escorts are also found in artistic depictions.

You will know Michael when you see an angel with a sword as he is the commanding angel of God’s heavenly army.

He wears the attire of a soldier, which in Byzantium would have included:

  • Chiton - the long-sleeved tunic length garment worn under the armor
  • Cuirass - hammered metal or thick molded leather breastplate with shoulder guards - the more embellished, the higher the officer’s rank
  • Pteryges - stiff leather “feathers” attached to the cuirass for additional protection at the shoulders and waist
  • Sagum - heavy-duty cloak fastened or tied around the shoulders
  • Close-toed shoe boots for protection of the feet

As God’s chief messenger, Gabriel is depicted holding a staff (symbolizing his authority) and a disk with the initials or a symbol for Christ — I use the Chi Rho symbol which combines the Greek initials for Jesus Christ. The disk indicates that he is Christ’s emissary on a mission from God.

Gabriel is depicted in two forms of dress in Byzantine art. He either wears the orator’s attire of a long toga and heavy robe or he is dressed as a soldier. While Gabriel is seen as the chief heavenly deliverer of messages, he also engages in warfare with evil spirits. We know from the book of Daniel that Gabriel was delayed 3 weeks in arriving because he was battling the demonic prince of Persia. Only when Michael came to his aid was he able to get past the demon.

Wings — some of the angels described in Scripture are said to have wings, but those that appear as persons wouldn’t have. Wings on an angel are a symbol of their ability to travel from the spiritual realm to the earthly realm. This was explained centuries ago by the Christian theologian and great defender of Christian images:

That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature. — Saint John Chrysostom
Guardian II by Michelle L Hofer, 2020 — 8 x 10 inches, mixed media on paper

Halo — also called a nimbus, is a symbol indicating that an angel reflects the grace or glory of God. Having been in the presence of God, the angel has been illuminated by God and in turn illuminates those to whom he appears.

Hair Ribbon — this includes floating ends next to the ears and is a rather interesting detail. It symbolizes that angels are continuously heeding God’s voice and ready to obey His will. I like to think of them as little antennae.

Face and Figure — angels are neither male nor female, though they are referred to by male names and pronouns in texts. Angels are pictured with a masculine body build and a more feminine face.

Eyes — my personal interpretation is to give an angel a set of glowing metallic eyes. I do this in reference to the fact that many of the Biblical angelic encounters were frightening. Daniel and John fall flat on the ground and the first words these messengers speak is, “Do not be afraid!”

A NEW GABRIEL

...one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding — that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of — there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things when we are not yet able to understand. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Our family Christmas card features a new form of Gabriel, one that I quite enjoyed discovering, listening to and bringing to life. The story of how this new Gabriel came to be is exactly the kind of creation story that I look back on and marvel at. It is always a co-creation. I cannot take full credit for the ideas or the work I do. The Spirit shows up and helps the project along and that is what is magical and wonderful about being an artist. But I don’t just think that experience is for artists alone, anyone’s work has the potential for co-creation and the inspiration of the Divine.

The work at my painting table is largely experimental. Much time is spent pushing paint around on paper, playing with color and texture, getting my hands full of paint. Sometimes this is frustration and sometimes there is magic.

I had a particular background in shades of purple, navy and pearlescent white that was quite wonderful. Such backgrounds tend to hangout longer on the painting table. I like to save them, I want something really special for them. I had picked this one up many times, but always found myself setting it back on the pile for lack of a unique image idea to finish it with.

One day as I picked it up, I heard a voice say, “This needs a Gabriel, a messenger of good news,” to which I replied, “Yes, but it must be a very special Gabriel, something different than what we have been painting.” And there it was, I knew this background had been waiting for just that - a special Gabriel. The very next thought I had was, “Isn’t there a Gabriel mosaic in the Hagia Sophia?” And Google quickly told me, “Yes, here it is.” Wonderful! It was the Gabriel this background would proudly display.

Mosaics of Gabriel, Mary, Jesus, and John — the famous Gaspare Fossati paintings of Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is one of Christianity’s oldest and most magnificent cathedrals. And this year it has honestly been on my mind quite a bit. I saw this marvel of a space in 2001, an experience that literally changed my life. If you are familiar with my Pantocrator mosaic banner, it is a copy of the amazing mosaic of Christ that is in the Hagia Sophia. When I visited almost 20 years ago, the building was a national museum. This year, it has been converted into a functioning mosque. There has been quite a buzz about this in certain circles as much work has been done to preserve the Christian mosaics and frescos in the structure — will these works of art continue to be cared for and preserved? Converting the Hagia Sophia to a Muslim house of prayer and worship has meant this imagery is now covered up - some with paint and some with fabric drapery. The stunning mosaic of Gabriel would be one of the images affected by the change.

As I worked on this “new” Gabriel, I had strange but very cool feelings of belonging. Here I was copying these awesome angel shoes that someone half way across the world over a thousand years ago designed. I felt the significance of carrying on the tradition of giving visual form to the highest messenger in the universe. Here I was illuminating and sharing this spectacular image of Gabriel at a time when the original was now less visible. I felt connected to the many artists and artisans throughout the centuries who had given vision to the good news of God’s kingdom — it felt both right and good.

The completed Hofer family Christmas card - front and back

WHAT NOW?

As long as we know what it’s about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

In my own imagining of what it would be like to have an angel bring me some direct message from God, I land on the questions that would come after the angel has gone and the dust has settled. The biggest of these is simply: What now? I find myself here anytime some big event or happening is past. It’s the time to ask the questions that will help me get my bearings again, set a new course and head out. I am sure we all had some experience of this coming to the realization this pandemic would not be over soon.

In the ancient Scriptures, prophets had the experience of being picked up and taken to some location where God needed to show or tell them something. That must have been a weird experience. I feel like that is the kind of experience 2020 has been for me. It’s like I’ve been picked up and taken somewhere else for a while. Everything here is strange and different.

I do my best to always be listening for the Spirit’s guidance. I find myself listening for God in about anything. (Maybe that’s odd, but it is the same approach I use for creative inspiration. Anything can be a creative spark. It’s almost a game I play with myself — challenging myself to find inspiration in the oddest of ways and places.) As I’ve been listening these past months, I’m getting the message that says it’s time to take a different road. That has me both excited and terrified — it is venturing into the unknown and will require continuing faith and trust and wherever I think we might be going is probably all wrong. I laugh.

I’ve been quoting from the book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle which I first read many years ago. It has been great to revisit such a wide and imaginative understanding and expression of faith and art. This book originally emboldened me at a time when I needed to find the artistic courage to take on scary ventures. It influenced me to dive into the world of Christian icon art. L’Engle also left me with the renewed desire to approach my art with the wonder and curiosity of a child — an insight that directly inspired the abstract splatter paint backgrounds of my current work.

As the months of living in pandemic have gone by, there has been more time for solitude. Unclogged schedules have allowed for free evenings and weekends, something I have not minded. L’Engle points out solitude provides “an atmosphere in which imagination can flourish.” This has happened for me. I can say I am fully stocked up on ideas and possibility. Rereading Walking on Water was just the message I needed in order to be open to possibility and experience new boldness. I think this is ultimately how Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zachariah, the shepherds and wise men must have felt too.

The Angel Gabriel

I have not seen the angel Gabriel

Standing at the right side of the altar

Saying that important line of angels

Do not be afraid

I have not heard the angel Gabriel

Telling me my prayer has been answered

That my heart’s desire has been granted

An my wife will bear a son

But I have been answered

And I have been promised

In words that cannot be spoken

And the tender mercies of our God

Has caused the rising son to shine upon us

To guide our feet into the path of peace

I was not there when the angel Gabriel

Visited the village of Nazareth

Home of a young maiden he addressed

As the highly favoured one

I did not hear the angel Gabriel

Promise what could not be imagined

Answered by a faith without fathom

let what you have said be done

But I have been answered

And I have been promised

In words that cannot be spoken

And the tender mercies of our God

Has caused the rising son to shine upon us

To guide our feet into the path of peace

Lyrics by Jim Croegaert

FINAL THOUGHTS

Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. — Miguel de Unamuno

I began my sharing for this season of mystery and miracles with my daughter’s angel encounters. I thought I’d end with a passage from Walking on Water where Madeleine L’Engle shares her own story of wonder...

...nobody told me it was childish to believe in angels. And so I was able to do a few impossible things. For instance: when I was a small child, visiting my grandmother at her beach cottage, I used to go down the winding stairs without touching them. This was a special joy to me. I think I went up the regular way, but I came down without touching. Perhaps it was because I was so used to thinking things over in solitude that it never occurred to me to tell anybody about this marvelous thing, and because I never told it, nobody told me it was impossible. When I was twelve we went to Europe to live, hoping the air of the Alps might help my father’s lungs. I was fourteen when we returned, and went to stay with my grandmother at the beach. The first thing I did I when I found myself alone was to go to the top of the stairs. And I could no longer go down them without touching. I had forgotten how. Did I, in fact, ever go down those winding stairs without touching them? I am convinced that I did. And during the years enough people have timidly told me of “impossible” things they have done that I am convinced that the impossible is open to far more people than we realize — mostly because we are fearful of being ridiculed if we talk about it. Ridicule is a terrible witherer of the flower of the imagination. It binds us where we should be free. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Many blessings to you this Christmas season!

May you live as children do in the possibility and beauty birthed to us with each new day.

Created By
Michelle L Hofer
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