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Angels ascending and descending and how Jacob’s dream came true on the Shepherd Hills of Bethlehem, A Mini-Lecture, August 11, 2013

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Jacob’s Ladder and Luther on the Incarnation August 11, 2013

Angels ascending and descending and how Jacob’s dream came true on the Shepherd Hills of Bethlehem

                                 By Pr. Peter D.S. Krey, Ph.D.

I thought I would read what Luther had to say about the way Jacob’s dream came true in the angels appearing to the shepherds at the nativity of Christ, as they watched over their flocks by night.[1] So I read Luther’s Christ-messe Postil. (A Postil contains long commentary-like sermons that are design to help preachers with their sermons). The lecture you have printed out comes mostly from that section of Luther’s Genesis Lectures, where he interpreted Jacob’s Ladder (Gen 28:10—22).[2] It is this interpretation that Philip and I included in our book Luther’s Spirituality. In this mini-lecture, Luther’s interpretation of the angels ascending and descending before the shepherds in Bethlehem will predominate.

Notice that in Jacob’s dream, God is leaning on the ladder and speaking with Jacob, making the divine promises once again. The angel of the Lord, probably Gabriel, approaches the shepherds, but now God is not leaning on the ladder, but lying there in the manger, having just been born of Mary, and then because these are “things into which the angels long to look,”[3] the angels cannot marvel enough and adore this lowly infant at the breasts of Mary and ascend into heaven, where they “continually see the face of Jesus’ Father in Heaven.”[4] Ascending and descending over and over again, the way Jesus says, “Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[5] So we can talk of our ascending from the depths to the heights of humanity, but for the incarnation the angels are ascending and descending between heaven and earth, between God and humanity here in the union of the one person, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

Now here are some of Luther’s words, which I translated from the German of Luther’s Postil for the Christmas story in Luke, which we read on Christmas Eve:

The deeper we can pull Christ down into our nature and flesh, the more comforting it is for us.[6]

I once read in Luther that we cannot delve deeply enough into the flesh, meaning that we cannot become human enough.[7]

How could God [more greatly] show his goodness, than by steeping himself so deeply into our flesh and blood, so that he does not disrespect nor reject the secret of our [human] nature, but in this place (the birth of the baby Jesus from Mary) gives it the very highest honor. Adam and Eve brought it to the very lowest degree of shamefulness, but now from this point on, [human nature] becomes godly, honest, and pure, which all people had made most ungodly, most shameful, and most unclean.[8]

What is completely invisible on earth, what is given absolutely no attention, no standing, gets the highest regard or recognition in heaven, where the joy of the angels spills and overflows upon the shepherds. How under-impressive [for God] is the birth of a child to a prince or princess compared to the impressive celebration [of the angels] at the birth of this complete nobody in the eyes of this world.[9]

Luther has in mind the coram Deo versus the coram hominibus / mundo distinction: the one forum before the eyes of God, the other forum in the eyes of our secular society.

See with what superlative honor God respects those, whom people reject and take pleasure in rejecting. Then you see where God’s eyes look; they look only into the depths and humiliation, as it is written, ‘God sits above the Cherubim and looks into the depths or the abyss.[10]

Sometimes we refer to the highest human nature as high society or the high life, and the lowest human nature as low life. But

The angels could not find any princes or any of the high and mighty of the earth, [but appeared] to uneducated laypeople, the very lowliest people on earth.[11]

The late Bob Smith, a New Testament professor compared the shepherds to today’s used-car salesmen.

Shouldn’t the angels have graced the high priest, the intelligentsia of Jerusalem, who would know how to say a lot about God and angels? But it was the poor shepherds, who received such abundant grace and honor from heaven and who on earth were considered to be nothing. How utterly God rejects the highfalutin, but we horse around and rampage for nothing so much as joining them up there. And so we never receive the honor of heaven. Ever and again we step out of God’s sight, away from the face of God, so that God can no longer see us, because we don’t want to be seen in the depths, which is the only place that God looks.[12]

God’s word is like a fire that warms our hearts.[13] And the nature of God’s Word is that it teaches us to recognize God and God’s works, and it points to the fact that this life is nothing. Because the way God does not live according to this life and does not have property, possessions, honor, and the power of this life in time, God does not regard them either, and doesn’t speak of them, but teaches only a game that is played against them, played opposite them, working also contrary to our minds; God looks to the places that the world turns away from, teaches what it flees, picks up what it leaves there, and although we become disgruntled and suffer by the way God works, because we do not wish to surrender our property and possessions, our honor and life, so that’s the only way it can be. God won’t change; we won’t be able to direct him. He will direct us.[14]

Angels ascend and descend in the space between the lowest and the highest regard of human beings, while the lowest are lifted to the highest and the highest are humbled to be the lowest; the poor are made rich and the rich a sent empty away. There is a space coram hominibus or Mundo and the space coram Deo between which the angels ascend and descend celebrating the wonder of God’s Incarnation.

The angels are ascending and descending always away up in heaven beholding the face of God and now unable to marvel enough while adoring God in Christ, feeding at the breasts of his mother Mary, under all the demons and every creature residing on earth. Christ subjects the angels to himself, Luther says,

not because of his human nature, but because of the wonderful conjunction and union established out of the two contrary and unjoinable natures in one person. This, therefore, is the article by which the whole world, reason, and Satan are offended.[15]

This tension of opposites, I will argue also brings about the tension that produces growth and maturity in the ascent of faith and the descent of falling in love of what I call the existential rapture.


[1] Luke 2:8.

[2] For the previous mini-lecture given in a Mid-Week Lenten Series see: http://www.scholardarity.com/?s=Midweek+Lenten+message

[3] 1 Peter 1:12. Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), from p. 177.

[4] Mat 18:10.

[5] John 1:51.

[6] Martin Luther, Ausgewählte Werke, 3rd Edition, H. H. Borcherdt and Georg Merz, eds., Supplemental Series, Vol. 4, (München: Chr. Kaeser Verlag, 1960),  Page 116.

[7] I’ve never been able to find the citation again whenever I look into Otto Clemen, Luthers Werke: Erster Band, (Berlin: Verlag von Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1929) where I thought I read it. Perhaps this is the very citation I was thinking of, just with my extrapolating that we are in Christ and cannot get into the flesh deeply enough.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. This is a paraphrase reducing the number of Luther’s words.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 116-17.

[13] Cf. Jer 23:29. I conflated two sentences in this one.

[14] Ibid., p. 117.

[15] Philip and Peter Krey, pages 178-79.

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Written by peterkrey

August 12, 2013 at 11:41 am

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