I’ve got to admit, and perhaps this is the wrong way to start a sermon on St Michael’s day, but to be honest, not much place was given in my training at seminary for angelology. In fact, when I see a new picture book of angels in the gift shop window, or hear someone on the radio talk about their daughter as ‘my angel,’ the truth is I’m probably suppressing a bit of an inward sneer. And I don’t think it’s just me: angels don’t seem to feature much nowadays in ‘respectable’ Christian discourse. They sound too abstract, too much like a game for theologians discussing how many of them will fit on a pin.
I suppose a fairly typical modern Christian worldview is that there’s God in heaven and there’s the created universe, but not much, if anything really, in between. But – don’t we say in the Creed at Mattins and Evensong, “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible?” May I suggest that it’s the ‘things invisible’ that tend to get exorcised from our modern imaginations. We can conceive of a creator God and the visible, tangible creation we live in; so far so good. But an invisible creation, a created realm beyond the possibilities of scientific exploration and understanding? A bit more tricky. What might such an invisible realm of things be? St Paul gives us what seems to be the consensus of his times. He starts, “by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible” and then he goes on to list what those invisible things are: “whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:16) Anyone who has ever sung ‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones’ will instantly recognise these strange titles as the ranks of angels.
St Paul’s belief in angels was completely mainstream among the Jews of his time, although they were given various interpretations. They feature quite prominently in the Old Testament: you’ll remember the cherub with the flaming sword guarding Eden, the angel going before Abraham, Jacob’s dreams of the ladder and the angelic hosts, Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions of the seraphim worshipping God. But let’s not dismiss them as primitive fantasies: they feature quite heavily in the New Testament, too, and not just in bit parts. They announce the birth of Our Lord and John the Baptist, appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi – and that’s all coming from Luke, not a Jew, but a gentile writer, so we can’t just dismiss it as some Jewish superstition. They release Peter from prison, they minister to Our Lord in his temptations in the desert, appear to Him in Gethsemane, announce His resurrection to the women at the tomb, proclaim His second coming at the Ascension. And of course, the entire Revelation of St John, that mindbending final book of the New Testament, is based on his vision of the angels. The Christian story would be rather shorter without them.
So what could they be? Well, today’s Gospel, which harks back to the vision of Jacob’s ladder, describes them ascending and descending between heaven and earth, as some sort of spiritual agents of God. And that is pretty much how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes them: as “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14). Saint Gregory the Great builds on this and gives a helpful description: “the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.” We may have learnt at school that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger,’ form the Greek ‘angelos.’ What Gregory is saying here, is that there are spiritual, created beings, whom we call angels when they take on this function of bringing us a message from God, revealing something about Him. We cannot see God face to face and live, our created minds cannot contain the sheer unspeakable vastness of the uncreated God, so He sends created beings, spiritual intelligences, which take on a form we can – just about – cope with. I say ‘just about’: pretty much the first thing these spirits say when mortals encounter them is ‘do not be afraid.’ And afterwards, when those who have seen them try to describe them, they come out with gobbledigook, creatures with six wings, or the heads of lions, or just indescribable light. They push people’s powers of description to the limit, as though they can be described only in poetic terms, because prose is too blunt an instrument.
The angels are pictured as God’s messengers, His Hosts, or armies, in warfare against the fallen spirits, a choir of worshippers around His throne. But they are not meant to be just an object of theological curiosity. We’ve got to do more than just describe them: we’ve got to join them. We’ve got to find our place in the heavenly harmony as we sing their song: Holy, Holy, Holy. We’ve got to join in their warfare against sin, taking our place in the ranks of the Lord God’s Hosts. By doing so, we can help them in their work as messengers, angels, bearers of the Good News that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.