The Rectory, September 1996
Angels are making a come back! As we celebrate this month (Sunday 29th September) the Feast of St Michael and All Angels there are signs that popular belief in angelic beings is not dead but very much alive. Recently I have noticed a number of books being published about angels, some even giving personal accounts of meeting angels. A number of these are admittedly from America and read a bit like a Christian version of encounters with aliens and UFO's. They seem to come more from fertile imaginations than from tested experience and theological reflection. Yet there are others asking to be taken more seriously. I've just finished reading a novel entitled Angels and Men by Catherine Fox. In this intelligent novel the possibility of angelic influence is taken seriously. It is not a 'supernatural' story and the angelic influence is interwoven into the ordinary story of personal relationships, faith and growth in self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Two of the central characters become aware of the possibility that, when they have been given a vital insight, or challenged, or judged or urged on, they have been addressed not from within their own thoughts but from without.
This is the biblical understanding of angels. The Greek word angelos means messenger. That of course means more than a post boy or motor cycle courier. In ancient times a messenger from the court of the King would be regarded as an envoy and treated as if the King himself were present. When the messenger came the King himself had drawn near to you. There would be awe and wonder that the King had noticed you and taken you seriously enough to address you, and your own affairs would suddenly appear in the greater light of a royal, or in the case of angels, a divine concern.
Because they come from the divine presence angels have also been seen as representing the glory of God and the worship of heaven. You may have read in SEE, the Diocesan Newspaper, that a new stained glass window has been installed in Southwell Minster. It is a distinguished artistic event and has been reported in the national press. Praise is being lavished on this new glass in the great west window of the nave. It was painted by Patrick Reyntiens. Its theme is the great company of angels. The bottom of the window depicts scenes of angelic visitations from the Bible. Above these are seven serene angels each holding a globe containing a scene from one of the days of creation. Then a row of Archangels with Mary and above them the whole company of angels praising God. Critics are writing about the great sense of calm and peace the window instils, and yet within this a sense of movement and rhythm. The belief in angels, and their depiction in this way, echoes our sense that the divine is not far from us, indeed very close. God's kingdom is here in our midst if we would but see it with the eyes of faith and live it with and through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It is perhaps significant that at the time of the Exile of the people of Israel in Babylon there was a great development in Jewish thinking about angels. Far from the land they associated with God, and cut off from the Temple which had been destroyed, the angels came to represent the continuing divine concern for them in a foreign land and an assurance that the majesty of God had not departed from his people. The visitation of God on earth and the glory of God in heaven are the two aspects of angelic significance.
No doubt there are a variety of views about the existence of angelic beings among Christians of all persuasions. In the creed we affirm our belief in a God who has created all things, visible and invisible or, in ASB, seen and unseen. Since the days of the Early Church, which first defined the creeds, much that was unseen has become seen. The world of the microscope and the telescope have revealed a more wonderful and mysterious creation than our forebears could imagine, and we now know about much in creation that still cannot be seen but is registered in other ways. Perhaps we should follow the wisdom of the Early Church and not dismiss what we cannot see as non-existent. Of course what is unseen becomes clothed by our imagination. We symbolise with wings of power and dress with bright glowing bodies what we cannot see. We give names, personalise and humanise what we cannot grasp or really know. For many this presents difficulties but the continuing interest in angels does reflect an awareness of our human need and frailty that, in struggling to be real and to be good, we need assistance from God. And, I think, it reflects a desire to be caught up into the worship of God in majesty, a desire to see God.
My concern about angels is that that they should not obscure the person of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. The incarnation of Christ is the greater mystery. We are less concerned with messengers than with the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. This is our true hope and joy. We are less concerned with occasional divine visitations than with living all our life in and through the indwelling Spirit. A lot of popular interest in angels implies that they help us to do and get what we want rather than to be reformed in the likeness of Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit which is true discipleship.