Angels

On Sunday 29 September we kept the feast of S.Michael and his fellow Archangels. The patronage of this building includes S.Michael because, between 1901 and 1972 All Saints’ had a daughter church of S.Michael and All Angels in Saddlebow Road in South Lynn (now the Community Centre). When it closed, S.Michael’s Chapel was created here in the chancel and our own ‘Berlin Wall’ was built behind the nave altar. The removal of our wall came much later than the removal of the one in Berlin.

It occurs to me that at this point I could sing to you an old song ---

You may not be an angel

But angels are so few

But until the day that one comes along

I’ll string along with you”

Today we are celebrating S.Michael and his fellow Archangels Gabriel and Raphael, but what do we think and believe about angels?

There is not much talk about angels nowadays. There is not that much modern theological material to ‘read up’ about them. Many would consider talk of angels as primitive – just a way to explain away phenomena not elucidated by science. The whole idea of a ‘miraculous being’ with wings – not to mention all those feathers – is just a joke.

Many years ago a practising Christian teased Father Hope Patten at Walsingham. Father Hope Patten spent his holidays travelling Europe collecting relics of saints. They ended up filling the Shrine, each one in its own reliquary. Some wit, seeking to make the point that all the reliquaries were getting ‘too much of a good thing’, put a feather into a reliquary and labeled it ‘S.Michael’. Father was not amused!

On one level, that practical joke, illustrates what even a serious, and no doubt devout Christian, thought deep down about the medieval concept of an angel. Perhaps some of us would want to reject that ‘classical’ picture. But we must not fall into the trap of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Rejecting the feathers, should not mean rejecting the idea of angels altogether.

Humanity has been ‘bamboozled’ by science and is all too ready to trust the evidence of its own eyes and nothing more. It is all too easily fooled into the ‘conceit’ that our perception of the world is ‘dead right’. That it is the only way to look at things. Do we really assume that God created nothing other than that which we can see? Are there really no more intelligences than those that are within the physical universe?

Both Jews and Christians have believed in more than ‘just what we can see’. They have talked of heavenly beings whose good offices guide and guard us but who will also be called to witness our deeds at a time of judgement. In the prophetic visions, the angels surround God’s throne. They are what their name literally means – ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’.

In Greek, ‘angeloi’ means ‘messenger’ and S.Gregory the Great (540-604) in a commentary written in the 6th century is at pains to share just this. “Angel”, he says, “is the name of an office”. It is like the word ‘Priest’. We know that our priest has a name, we know it, but we are likely to call him ‘Father’ which refers to his office. And so an angel too has another name and that name is the key to his work.

  • Michael means ‘one who is like God’. S.Gregory says, “Whenever a mighty deed is in question, Michael is assigned, so that by his actions and name it may be known that no one can do what God can do”.
  • Gabriel means ‘strength of God’ – it is he who is sent to Mary to give her strength for the acceptance of her task.
  • And Raphael means ‘healing of God’ and it is he who cures Tobias of blindness.

Traditionally, angels are a sign of God’s infinite concern for the world. Everything and everybody has a guardian angel.

All this is the view of angels before secularisation overtook us. Secularisation insists on the reasonable and the logical. All that is mysterious is rejected as ‘mumbo-jumbo’. They would, of course, ridicule and reject as medieval, this very Mass with its solemnity and incense which reflect the mystery of the heavenly places. ‘Surely, we are past all that sort of thing’, they might say!

One approach could start with taking the word ‘angel’ literally. He is a messenger from God. We might say that because everyone can convey God’s truth to another, then we all spend some of our time being ‘angels’ – messengers – to our fellow human beings. This might be supported by quoting The Letter to the Hebrews which says that we can entertain angels unawares. Somehow, however, I have a feeling that this is just too neat; very logical - but ultimately unsatisfying.

Because God is so big that we cannot tie him down; because he will never be penetrated to the point of total understanding; because he is indeed a mystery, we dare not imagine that some slick logic will do. God created all that is ‘seen and unseen’ – we say that in the Creed. The unseen – the supernatural – must not be laughed out of court. I believe that there is far more that is unseen than seen. God himself is unseen and supernatural.

Perhaps our world needs to rediscover the supernatural. Rediscover the awe and wonder of the Mass. To ponder just what that altar really looks like when the company of heaven – angels and archangels – surround it unseen. We need to rediscover an awed silence when we dare to approach the great mystery of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. How can a faithful person communicate with anyone but God at such a moment.

But there is more. Surely, a reawakened sense of the supernatural will make our cold and scientific approach to how the world works, change into a new and heightened wonder of creation. Because our limited view is a restricted view, it is not the whole truth.

Let us not force God’s three-dimensional reality into our own two dimensional limitations. Let us not discount the possibility of Angels – for indeed we would then be entertaining them totally unaware. And you never know where they might have been.