About wonderfulexchange

Kimberly Bohan is a priest in the Diocese of Lincoln, less surprised by angels than by being so far south.

First Cry

Zadkiel stood shaking, with his wings covering his face.

Michael came to him.  They were not easy companions, these two, but Michael could feel Zadkiel’s terror, and knew he must stand guard.

‘What’s wrong? Why are you afraid?’
‘He wasn’t supposed to see me.  He wasn’t supposed to know.’
Is that all? Michael wondered, a glance from Jesus, and he’s overcome?
Oh God — why did you choose this angel?

Michael tried to reassure him. ‘He may not have, you know — they don’t see much at first.’
But both Michael and Zadkiel knew there was no truth in it.  There had been a moment, just after first cry, when Jesus looked at Mary, then at Joseph, and finally at Zadkiel, who shimmered bright gold — and who remembered to hide himself just as Jesus reached out for him.

‘But he saw me.  I felt it.  The air broke with his cry and I wanted to laugh, but then– when I looked at him…

‘You know what it’s like when God is at play — when he comes to you and chats and dreams and spins out Creation’s plan?  You know how it is when Sophia teases, and God jokes, and they draw you in and you laugh and dance, and just for a moment you forget they are God?  And then suddenly you feel your heart expand, love for them surging — and you must stop it, quickly, before they notice and you make a mess of everything?’

Michael watched his companion closely. Did he know?  What this how he experienced God? Maybe.  Sometimes — but he usually saw a different side of God. He nodded for Zadkiel to go on.

‘I have always been afraid of that moment — afraid that if I gave myself to it, and they realised…’   Zadkiel fell silent and tucked down his head.

‘Then?’ Michael prompted.

Zadkiel shivered.  ‘Then it would be too much.  If the love were let loose, if they saw it, it would overwhelm me.  Everything would change.’

This Michael understood. The moment of change. So he waited…

Zadkiel uncurled himself and looked at Michael — could he really be saying this? to Michael of all angels? But they both knew what had happened, and there was no point in denying it now.

‘When Jesus looked at me, I forgot to hide.  All the love I’ve ever felt, I’ve ever avoided feeling, filled the space between us as the air turned gold.’

‘And everything changed?’
‘And everything changed.’

Michael thought of the vast complexity of God — the mind that set the universe spinning, the imagination that gave beauty and light, the love that shimmered bright on the air.  And yet it all came down to this: God in a manger, a new born child.  Michael marvelled at the daring of it: God come as a child who could not be ignored, from whom no one would think to hide.


Skipping Stones

‘You didn’t try to comfort me.’  Mary sniffed, once she had stood up and dusted herself off. ‘You didn’t look like you wanted comfort.’ Zadkiel said, as he walked to her side.

‘You didn’t try to stop me crying.’
‘You didn’t look like you wanted to stop’.

Mary was bewildered. Zadkiel was always so meddlesome, so present, so overbearingly helpful — and then, when anyone else would have tried to help, he’d just sat there.

Was he right?  Had she wanted to stop?  Not really — though she had hoped he’d try to stop her.  She wanted him to provoke her and give her a reason to let loose her fury so that it would be done.

Zadkiel was working hard at being still.  He hated this part– not helping, not fixing, just waiting. Every feather itched. But still he stood there, watching the water in silence. Finally, he broke the tension by skimming a stone across the water.  One – two – three – four – five.

Mary watched him.  She didn’t altogether approve of skipping stones, but it did shift the mood.  She watched as the angel bent  and flicked the stone across the water. One – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight – nine.  It danced right across to the other side.

‘You will have to teach him,’ she said, ‘Joseph has never been any good at it.’ And there, it was done. She had given him a place in her son’s life.

Zadkiel smiled as he remembered God scattering first light across the oceans, Sophia dancing through the stars. ‘He’ll learn,’ Zadkiel said, amused by the absurdity of it all.

Mary sensed it too, and began to laugh. But then the tears threatened again, and she forced her own will into stillness.

‘You fear for him, don’t you?’ Zadkiel said, ‘– and I remind you of that fear?’

Mary was surprised to have it named so clearly.  ‘Yes. You remind me. It was exciting at first — seeing angels, having God’s son. Elizabeth and I sang of justice, of a world set right — but then we let ourselves dream of small hands and sleepy eyes, of first steps and children’s drawings.  I began to think of my son — like any mother — and I just want it to be normal.  But it never will be, will it?  It won’t be easy and it won’t be normal.  You remind me.’

‘It will be as normal as it can be.  You are his mother.  He is your child’.
‘Yes, but not like other mothers…’
‘Just like other mothers.  It is never easy.  And — yes — there are some parts of this that will be strange.  But not for him. For him, you are all he knows. You, and Joseph; whatever you teach him, and whatever friends he makes.’

Mary couldn’t get her head around it — ‘But Gabriel said that Sophia was tricky — that the Incarnate Word would be wise.’

‘Gabriel talks too much — and he wants your attention.  He misses Sophia, and finds it hard to understand what God is doing in holding back from her, why he must set the Word free.’

Honestly, Zadkiel couldn’t make sense of it either.  What did it mean for God to be God and not-God all at once?  What did it mean for the Word to become flesh?  Would he really be the one to teach God to skip stones? Or would Jesus just know?

‘Look, this is what you need to hold onto. Jesus is your son. Everything that God has done, everything that God is doing rests on that. You just focus on raising your boy, and let God take care of the rest.’

‘But you will be there?’
‘I will be there.’
‘Will he know?’
‘Not at first.  Not for a long time, probably, but one day I suspect he’ll realise.’
‘And then?’
‘And then, a lot of other things will make sense to him. I’ll be there to let him talk, to let him think — to say the things he dare not say to anyone else.  Everyone needs someone they can turn to — someone they are not born to — and he will have me.’

Mary thought back to her own childhood — to the old woman who lived down the lane. Mary had spent days with her — learning to make bread, sweeping the yard, trying to count the leaves. That is where she learned to speak of God. That is where she learned to say yes.

Is that what Zadkiel would be for her son?

‘You will teach him to skip stones?’ she said pointedly.
‘I will teach him to skip stones.’

‘All right then.  Let it be so.  You no longer need to hide in the rafters.’

Zadkiel laughed and brushed her with his wing.  ‘We’ll see,’ he said, ‘I need to hide somewhere, and Sophia was always fond of owls.’

Uneasy companions

It was unsettling, not being liked.

Zadkiel kept trying.  ‘Can I help you, Mary?  You must be getting tired.  Here: let me stir the pot.’ But Mary just kept shooshing him away to the rafters.

He’d given up on being an owl. She’d seen through him, so there there seemed to be no point. But he realised — a bit late perhaps — that she still preferred him out of sight, hiding, so that she could pretend he was an owl, if need be.

Mary found him to be a troublesome companion — and this made Zadkiel very nervous. What if Jesus liked him no better than Mary did? What if God had got it wrong? Zadkiel was not really sure why God had chosen him. God said it was because he was so good with people, but surely any angel worth their wings knew how to blend in and win the earthed-ones over. Zadkiel knew that he had no special skills — and Mary seemed more than willing to prove that point.

Zadkiel tried everything.  He offered help in the kitchen.  He offered help in the barn.  He tried talking with her, and he tried keeping silent.  But nothing he did seemed to ease Mary’s mood.

For Gabriel, Mary was different. Gabriel charmed her with stories of Sophia leaping the stars, and told her conspiratorially of just how stroppy the Word of God could be. For Gabriel, Mary laughed and tossed her hair, and acted like the young girl she was. But with Zadkiel she was stern. All broom and bristle. Wishing he wasn’t there. Zadkiel tried to sooth her by hiding in the furthest corner of the house.

The next morning, she slipped off without him.  How, how, had it come to this? Zadkiel was distraught.  Her time was getting near, and he must be there when Jesus was born.  Zadkiel was not supposed to let her out of his sight.

Quickly, he jumped down and shook the night’s cloak from his feathers.  He rose on the wind, and scanned the ground till he saw her, sobbing by the stream, with the water jug broken at her feet.

Gently.  He must go gently.  But not quietly — no.  Better to be human-like and clatter through the trees than to swoop swift-winged and silent.  So Zadkiel drew in his wings and walked, down through the brush, clattering all the way to the clearing, where he let silence fall.

Mary must have heard him, but she moved not at all.  So Zadkiel sat — three wing-spans away — and waited till her sobbing ceased.


‘I can see you, you know. You don’t have to hide.’

Mary turned away from the angel, and continued sweeping the barn.
She was getting better at this — seeing the angels.

That first time, there had been no ambiguity.
Gabriel came crashing into the garden, ablaze with expectation. He would have been frightening, if it hadn’t been so funny. She could see him struggling with himself — knowing he must be calm, knowing he must be reasurring, but so eager to hear her ‘yes’ that he forgot all that he’d learned through the centuries. Gabriel could be terrifying — but not to her. For Mary, he was game changer, joy-bringer, laugh-maker — the one who had confirmed her hunch that God was near.

Next, it was Ramiel. It took her a while to notice him — the one who came in dreams. At first she mistook the dreams for morning sickness, till Elizabeth pointed out that she needed to be awake for that. Night after night she had felt the darkness was spinning, all creation whirling in the blackness gathering strength. Then suddenly, the dreams burst into light — stars formed, galaxies. The dreams still spun her around, but now there was order and rhythm. Still she didn’t notice Ramiel — didn’t realise that it was Sophia dreaming inside her. But slowly, as Creation unfurled, as she felt God’s love stir for every last creature, she woke to find Ramiel sketching the dragonflies that had just filled her dreams. He’d become so caught up in their beauty that he forgot himself — slipped into presence — and there he was, sitting in the old chair beside her bed.

When it really was morning sickness, Raphael came. It didn’t solve anything, but he was comforting. He assured her all was well, and gave her some rose-hip tea. Raphael had seem amused by it all, and later Ramiel confessed that God had sent Raphael in. The great Creator had finally noticed what women really go through in pregnancy, and became terribly anxious that something was wrong.

But this angel was different. He lingered longer and hid well. This one chose neither to interfere nor to go away. Day by day she took his measure. He was quiet and calm, steady and loyal. He seemed less given to drama than the rest — and perhaps a bit more human. She’d become fond of him as the months went on, and she wanted to know why he was here.

Zadkiel was annoyed that she’d found him out. He should not have trusted the shadows of hay stack. The roof was safer, and he hid now, wing-wrapped in owl’s form, perching on a beam.

Mary had felt him swoop up, but decided not to push it. She swept and she sang, and she thought about the birth of her child. But then, as she forked over the hay, a mouse ran under her skirts, and she had an idea. Quickly she bent and cupped her hands around the little creature. She turned and held it up, watched by owly eyes.

‘Will you stay for lunch?’ she asked, and Zadkiel knew he had to stop pretending.

His wings unfurled as he took human form. He jumped down, and bowed to her.

‘I am Zadkiel — your Son’s companion. He will have no gauardian – no protection. But I will be with him and will be his friend.’

Mary’s eyes went wide, and she was slow to return the angel’s bow. She was unsettled by his presence and disturbed by his words. From that moment, she resolved — always and for ever — to let owls be owls.