Angels Bending Near the Earth

I’ve seen Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least a dozen times, but I’d never experienced a holiday miracle of my own until one dark December night a few years ago. On that almost-Christmas eve I encountered an angel—a couple of them, in fact—and learned a lesson in faith, prayer, and God's love that I will never forget.

This is a true story. Only the names have been changed—and not all of them!

Angels Bending Near the Earth

“It’s Christmas,” I reminded myself under my breath. “Peace on earth. Goodwill to men.” Supposing the heavenly exhortation extended to children as well, I looped the piece of cloth around a little shepherd’s head instead of tying it around his mouth as I’d have liked to.

It was already December twenty-something, and I had yet to bake a tray of cookies or wrap a single gift. Instead I’d spent most of the month writing a Christmas pageant, assigning parts, sewing and refurbishing costumes, building a stable, affixing a star in the cultural hall firmament, and directing twenty-some kids who were all now sugar-filled and giddy at the thought of Santa’s imminent arrival.

Despite being a nervous wreck I was pleased. It was our night of nights at last and we were ready. By the time the bishop stood to welcome the audience and announce the opening prayer, the set was decorated, the choir assembled, and the characters in place. Everyone and everything looked wonderful—if I did say so myself.

Having just completed my last task—shoving a crown on a wise guy’s little head for the umpteenth time—I slumped against the wall in the back of the cultural hall to enjoy the fruits of my labors. Just then a door flew open and an excited, windblown little girl ran into the room and grabbed my hand with her icy fingers. It was Earlene. As if the name alone wasn’t enough for a ten-year-old to contend with, this little girl was painfully thin, wore thick glasses, and had incredibly prominent teeth. She also had one of the strongest, sweetest personalities I’d ever encountered. I wondered if that was the reason she’d been sent to the family she had—one that seemed to have more than their share of trials in life.

“How do I look?” she asked breathlessly. “Where do I go for my part?”

She looked like she’d just tumbled off a hayride, but I didn’t tell her that. Nor did I mention that she might have known what was going on if she’d made it to even one practice.

After assuring Earlene she looked beautiful, I nudged her toward a children’s choir that was assembled around the piano. At least I tried to nudge her. She wouldn’t move.

“No!” she cried, pushing her heavy glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “I’m an angel!”

People in the last few rows forgot that Brother Crawford was now pronouncing a blessing upon the proceedings and turned to look at us instead.

“You’re not an angel,” I whispered. I had no idea where she got the idea in the first place. Then I added encouragingly, “But you’re a very important part of the choir.” Never mind that she wouldn’t know any of the songs since she attended Primary too seldom to learn them.

I’d dragged her about six inches closer to the choir before she yanked her hand from mine. “You said!” she insisted. “You said in church that I’m supposed to be an angel!”

My mouth opened, but no words came out of it. I was trying to remember just what I’d said to her and when. I seemed to recall speaking to Earlene in the hallway a couple of weeks previously. I’d been in a rush to get to Sunday School before my students and had practically knocked her into a wall. Whatever I said had said then had been an apology . . . and perhaps a platitude.

“You said I’m an angel!” Earlene wailed.

The audience uttered a resounding, “Amen!” I hoped it was in response to the end of the prayer.

I looked down into two myopic little eyes and knew it was possible—probable, even—that I had called Earlene an angel. But I certainly hadn’t meant she was a Christmas-pageant angel. I’d meant she was a . . . well, you know.

Earlene didn’t know. She knew only that as director of the pageant, God had given me the right to appoint little girls to be His heavenly messengers for ten or fifteen minutes in that particular ward on that particular night. Clearly, being chosen as an angel for the Christmas pageant—or believing that she had been—was the best thing that had ever happened in her short and surely difficult life.

Earlene clasped my hand again with both of hers and her eyes shone. “I’ve asked Heavenly Father every night to help me be a perfect angel in His pageant. He will help me. I know He will.”

The thought of Earlene’s sweet, fervent prayers brought tears to my eyes, but there was nothing I could do. The pageant would begin any second. I prayed for words to explain to the little girl that she had misunderstood, but there were no words in any language that could fix this. No matter what I said, Earlene would still believe in her heart that God had handpicked her to be an angel.

She looked from me to the softly-lit stage and back again, wondering when I’d produce that white robe and silver garland worn by the other pageant angels.

Any minute the welling in my eyes was going to run down my cheeks. There was no doubt in my mind that this misunderstanding would drive her parents even further from the Church. Worse, might the awful disappointment cause Earlene to wonder if God heard her prayers? To wonder, if He did hear them, why He would ignore her hopes and happiness—and at Christmas?

Despite my fears of a family’s impending apostasy and a child’s crisis of faith, I simply didn’t have an angel costume—or any way to come up with one in two minutes or less. My thoughts raced. Earlene wore a dirty orange sweatshirt and tattered blue jeans. No way could I slip her onstage with the robe-clad girls without evoking stares and giggles that would break her heart. I looked frantically around the room, hoping to spot a shirt or a sweater or anything white that I could strip off an unsuspecting ward member. While everybody looked festive, nobody looked angelic.

The Relief Society room was locked or I would have ripped the tablecloth out from under their pot of poinsettias and improvised. At that point I might have considered packing Earlene in snow but we were in Arizona, so I didn’t have any of that either.

Heedless of Longfellow’s bells tolling despair back here in the corner, the pianist broke into “Joy to the World” and the first narrator entered. The play had begun.

An awful understanding began to creep onto Earlene’s face. The census was going forth from Caesar Augustus and she was going nowhere. “Hurry!” she said. “I need my costume now! I have to go be with the angels!”

I wanted to “go be with the angels” too, but my wish was metaphorical. I simply wanted to die before I had to witness Earlene’s heart shatter.

Just then Sue McGurr appeared in a doorway not six feet from where Earlene and I stood. If she had been the Angel Moroni materializing with a golden trump in hand I couldn't have been more surprised. In her hand was a hanger, and on the hanger was a clean, white angel costume that was exactly Earlene’s size.

Earlene had her shoes off, her jeans rolled to the knees, and the robe on before I managed to draw a single breath. With a dazzling smile on her face, she raced across the room and hoisted herself onto the stage. Although clearly surprised at her sudden arrival, one of the “regular” angels ripped half the garland from her own belt and used it to adorn Earlene’s long, hopelessly-tangled hair.

Angels are like that. Bless their little hearts.

When the program ended, I was still standing in the same spot and I was crying in earnest. It was the best Christmas pageant ever. Mary and Joseph had made it all the way to Bethlehem without bickering as they had done in every rehearsal. The shepherds had neither dueled with their staffs nor played keep-away with their stuffed sheep. The wise men had found their way from the East without a detour to the drinking fountain. And above them all stood the angels—beautiful, bright, beatific—with Earlene in the very front. You don’t have to believe this final line if you don’t want to, but I will always believe there was a surreal glow—and maybe an extra angel or two—around her.

When I could speak again I sought out Sister McGurr. Sue had no idea she’d just pulled off the biggest Christmas miracle since Clarence earned his wings. When I asked her where she’d come up with the costume she reminded me that I’d given it to her daughter the year before. Only then did I remember being impressed to let the little girl keep the robe when she begged, but I also remembered that I'd never expected to see it again.

Several times during the year, Sue told me, she’d almost thrown away the angel costume, but “something” made her stuff it back in the closet instead dropping it into the wastebasket. The same something had urged her to find it after dress rehearsal and wash and press it. In the end, she’d left it behind in her haste to get her children to the church on time, but that stubborn, blessed “something” intervened one last time. Sue had got up out of her seat, hurried home to grab the costume, and then returned just as the pageant began.

I was awe-struck at the heavenly machinations. I had been prompted to give away a costume I wanted to keep. Sue had been impressed to keep a costume she didn’t want. These minor miracles, set in place hundreds of days before, wouldn’t impact the world. They were all for the benefit of one little girl—a child who loved her Heavenly Father and put her trust in Him. Because of her prayers, Earlene was a perfect angel that night. Or at least she was a pageant angel . . . with perfect faith.

The real miracle, of course, is the one of which prophets and apostles testify: the infinite love God has for each of His children. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “I do not know exactly how He does it, but I testify to you that He knows us and loves us individually and that He hears our prayers. My testimony is that nothing in this universe is more important to Him than your hopes and happiness.”

I gained this testimony firsthand one beautiful, blessed near-Christmas night. Our Father—who loved us all enough to send His Son—loved odd, little Earlene enough to send her an angel robe. He had known her prayers months and months before she uttered them and had set in motion a plan to reward her innocent faith before she exercised it.

And so it is with us. Each year when children sing, “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray” I feel the warm, prickling confirmation of the Spirit and think of Earlene. I don’t know where she is now, but I suspect that she is still a perfect angel, still close to her Heavenly Father, and still looked over and loved by He who blesses each of us so perfectly.

I like to think that she still has her white robe. I gave it to her, of course. It’s all she asked Santa for that night when she sat upon his lap. Besides, “something” told me that angel costume had been made and preserved and protected just for her.

Just like her.

Story © by respective author(s)
Licensed under the Creative Commons License