Sermon for Saint Michael and All Angels, Sunday, October 01 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Gen 28:10-17; Ps 103:19-22; Rev 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
The word for “angel” in the Hebrew scriptures is malakh. It translates roughly as “one who is sent”, a representative, messenger or ambassador. It’s used to speak of human messengers, ambassadors, some prophets, but also to speak of creatures who seem to be supernatural, as in today’s reading, or when three mysterious strangers appear to Abraham at Mamre. The Malakh Adonai, “the angel of God,” seems to be, at least sometimes, almost the very God, appearing in the human world in lightly mediated form—it’s the Malakh Adonai who speaks to Hagar in the wilderness and tell her that she will not die; who wrestles with Jacob in the night and give him a new name; who comes to Abraham and hold back his knife from the sacrifice of his son Isaac. The beings in today’s Old Testament reading, the ones Jacob dreams of, going up and down that ladder, are not the Malakh Adonai, but they obviously represent some kind of mediation between the earth as we know it, and the unknowable vastness of the realm and being of God. A ladder, a connection, a relationship.
Angels turn up here and there in the New Testament as well, of course. The Greek word, angelos, is similar to malakh in meaning, someone who announces something, who brings a message. But angels in their supernatural form turn up, for the most part, only in the early parts of the story—at the annunciation, at the birth of Jesus, at his temptation in the wilderness. After the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, they basically disappear. They are notably absent, indeed blatantly and very obviously absent, at the crucifixion. There are no angels at the cross. Artists over the ages have tried to correct this omission, and many paintings include angels, weeping, wringing their hands, comforting the women, or taking the soul of the good thief up to heaven—as well as, often, demons exulting in their apparent triumph, and dragging down the soul of the other thief. But this are not in the text. The crucifixion occurs purely in the human realm. Great evil is a human act only.
And that ladder, that mediation, that relationship, has moved into that even more awe-inspiring paradox, the human body of God, dying on a piece of wood. There is no need for another race of creatures to create a bridge between heaven and earth, for God has entered the world of creatures in vulnerable human flesh, and that body has gone into the hands of violent power, into the darkness of death, and responded with self-offering love. That body has fallen, gone down, into the farthest most barren reaches of abandonment, and will rise again into new life, bearing our human bodies with him.
You might argue, then, that we are done with angels, that the imagery is no longer useful or meaningful, that we do not need these strange imagings of lights and wings and eyes, of wind and flame. And there’s something to that argument. Yet somehow we keep coming back to them. Somehow the Christian tradition cannot let go of the imagery of angels, indeed has spent centuries elaborating our angel lore, creating orders and descriptions and names and special purposes, populating the air with vivid chimerical beings. Much of contemporary angel lore is, and I’m not going to be particularly tactful about this, simply silly and self-indulgent. There are far too many people who seem to believe literally in angels as some kind of species of celestial pets or hired help. Only, I think, in the modern developed West could we possibly get the idea that there is a race of amazing, powerful heavenly creatures whose particular reason for existence is to help us find our car keys, or to give us a celestial hug when we are sad. Or to be, in a vague way, pretty and nice, the way we say that children are being “angels” when they are briefly well-behaved.
But at the same time, may not be well-served by diminishing our imaginations. It is good to remember that created reality is rich and strange and confusing, that the human world and our human intelligence are not the boundaries of all things. We may use the language of angels or of quantum physics, but whatever words we use, they speak of great gulfs of mystery within creation, which we may approach through image and allusion but will never really fully apprehend. And angels, if they are anything, are the markers of that point where our reality breaks, and something impossible appears.
I mentioned last year, and I’ll mention again now, one of the great moments in contemporary theatre, the premiere of the play Angels in America, set in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The main character is a gay man with AIDS, he is very ill, he has been abandoned by his family and his partner, and towards the end of the first part of the play seems to be dying. And then—and I can only imagine being in the audience when this happened—the director suddenly violated the last unbroken boundary of theatrical space, as an angel literally smashed through the roof of the theatre, wood and plaster falling onto the stage, to tell the man that this was not the end. That whatever was left of his life, even if was short, had meaning and purpose. That, even in terrible illness and isolation, he had a calling.
It is as absurd as Hagar being told to struggle on through the desert with her child, and finding water, and living, and founding a nation. It is as absurd as a teenage peasant girl in an occupied country suddenly finding herself pregnant, and deciding that this was God’s decisive statement of solidarity with the poor, God’s decisive blessing upon her and upon all people. Angels comes through closed windows, through sickness and disaster, and tell us to get up and walk. To speak truth in a dangerous world. To walk, like Jacob, towards the person whom we’ve hurt and offended, who may hurt us back. To step back, like Abraham, from the apparently necessary sacrifice of the innocent. There is nothing pretty or nice or convenient about this. Angels come to us at the end of all things, and tell us that the end is not yet. That reality breaks at this point, and we choose the impossible, we choose to live.
And maybe that is at least some part of what we’re doing when we play with those images, when we imagine ranks of many-eyed singing creatures gathering around the throne of God or holding a burning coal to the lips of a prophet, of Michael fighting that legendary dragon, of Gabriel in a rush of coloured fabric. We are trying to find pictures for possibility, pictures for a hope that exceeds good sense and reason, images of a universe filled with life and intelligence. The hope that can keep us going, sustain us, in the wilderness wastes. The hope that will not let us give up, even when that is the easiest, and sometimes the most attractive, thing to do.
Of course the Bible’s great fantasia of angel imagery is the Book of Revelation, and this is one of the few days in the year when you hear that book read in church. Having spent some time a few years ago turning it into a script, I can tell you that it’s an almost impossible task to track and identify all the various angels with whom the author interacts—I had lists that said things like “five generic angels plus three additional plus angel in the sun”—and it all very nearly veers out of control. But it is still, at its core, about that same hope, indeed hope for all of creation, the mad promise that, in a world of empire and injustice, slavery and abuse, God is still working, and all that pain and death and suffering will somehow be redeemed, and the tree of life will stand at the centre of the new city, its leaves offering healing to all the nations. It is the most mad and impossible hope of all.
Revelation, of course, is problematic party because it figures that hope in images of violence, of triumph in heavenly war, Michael slaying the dragon, the good angels putting down the bad. And yet I wonder. I mentioned that artists tend to paint angels into the crucifixion, wanting that imagery, that window into reality, to be represented. But once, just once, I found a painting of the crucifixion with various saints and other characters—and there at the foot of the cross with everyone else was a dragon, a rather large and charming dragon, not there to be destroyed, but to worship at the feet of the entirely self-offering God. So this is my mad hope, I guess—that the crucified and risen God will draw together both the angels and the dragons, all the chaotic amazing creation, around that tree. The fig tree under which we have always already been known and which we will know again in the kingdom; the tree of death and life which gathers and heals us all, towards which all our bright imaginings and all strange creatures tend.