The Feast of St Michael and All Angels, Year A, 2017 – Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Angels have something in common with belief in miracles, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection: lots of university profs and scientists think they’re bunk. Christians have a strange set of beliefs, but angels are probably the least strange. In any case, I’m going to try to soften the weirdness by coming at the topic first, from a historical perspective to show angels still have credibility for some people ¬¬–– scientists even. So it will be a bit “teachy” in order to trace how our conceptions of angels have changed. Then, because all religions have in common the existence of spiritual beings, I want to contrast the Christian view of angels with non-Christian views.
Christian angels show us how to worship God, while non-Christian angels generally get in the way of our worship of God.
Finally, I want to ask what angels have to do with the Gospel, since they’re a dispensable part of the Christian story. Jesus saves, not angels. What’s their significance? Again, they show us what we’ll be doing in heaven: contemplating the whole creation united in the Cross. And the Cross is far weirder than angels.
In the first Christian centuries, there was a kind of angelic “arms race” as pagans tried to gain respectability for their gods by giving them philosophical street-cred. Greek philosophers not only allegorized Greek myths in order to make them less morally offensive, they fit the pantheon of gods and goddesses (Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and so on) into their scheme. At the top was Plato’s divine “One,” under which were a chain of no longer crudely material, but immaterial, minds that descended towards us in the material world.
Christians generally agreed with this. Like Jews, they were of course used to the idea that foreign gods were in fact guardian angels –– usually fallen, and that Israel’s guardian was St Michael. The difference was that Christians objected to the way in which the Greeks worshipped them. Worship was for God alone. This effectively put angels in their place as just servants of God. Yes, they had extraordinary knowledge of creation and power over it. But Angels were mostly ignored in favor of Christ through whom we have direct access to God. We don’t have to go through angels. So, angels only played a modest role in the middle ages.
Most historians mark the beginning of modern times at the Renaissance, but it was then that angels really began to have a prominence they didn’t in the middle ages.
In the modern world, interest in angels accompanied the rise of natural science. Angels, after all, have perfect knowledge of nature, especially mathematics and music.
To take only the most famous example of a Renaissance man obsessed with angels, take John Dee who was Queen Elizabeth I’s court humanist, mathematician, geographer, antiquarian, and astrologer. Now, he also talked to angels. His motivation for these lengthy conversations, channelled by his friend, Edward Kelley, was to gain scientific knowledge. Dee had quite a lot of influence, and he represented a whole stream of Western culture that was becoming less interested in God, and more interested in intermediary beings, intermediaries who weren’t entirely supernatural anymore, intermediaries who could maybe give us technology for controlling nature.
The trend to make angels scientifically respectable has carried up to now where they still play a large part in our imagination –– they’ve just morphed into aliens, which many scientists do find believable.
Trace back the concept of aliens to the eighteenth century, and you find that the famous scientist and visionary, Emmanuel Swedenborg, was bringing back reports from his astral travels that each planet was inhabited by an angel. By the Victorian era the Spiritualist movement had taken on board this idea. Spiritualist channelers normally tried to get people in touch with their dead relatives. (This became very popular during WWI for obvious reasons.) But they sometimes “channeled” spirits from other planets! These ideas informed some of their fiction writers who put in place all of the key features of UFO’s, which people only later claimed to see. So by the 50’s angels had become material beings again –– they were just more evolved versions of ourselves. So much for my history lesson!
What I want to point out now is the difference between Christian and non-Christian “angels” –– the Greek gods on mount Olympus or modern “aliens” on higher planets. So what’s the difference? The answer is their jobs. Christian angels’ job is to worship God, while non-Christian angels seemingly take the place of God, sometimes as creators.
Take the recent sci-fi film, Prometheus. Peter Weyland, a scientist, isn’t convinced that life on earth could have just evolved. He reasons that it must have been designed. By whom? Aliens. But who created the aliens? We’re never told.
For Christians, however, angels don’t explain the existence of anything. They’re there to worship God. They’re superfluous; God didn’t need to make them just like he didn’t need to make panda bears or electric eels.
He didn’t even need to mention them in the Bible, because our salvation rests on Christ alone.
But the Bible does mention them, so what’s their significance? The answer is that, as perfect worshippers, they give us an idea of what heaven is like. As Jesus said, after death we “will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Well, what can this mean?
In his commentaries on Genesis 1, St Augustine distinguishes between humans and angels in this way.
Angels directly read the blueprint of creation as it is in God’s mind. They therefore see God’s purpose as a whole picture and in a single instant and are filled with praise.
Humans, like children, take time to learn. They don’t come to know all of God’s plans in an instant. We have the Bible, which is a transcript of the divine mind, but it takes a lifetime to read and digest. Like Job, we have questions about God’s purposes now: What’s God’s plan for my life when everything’s gone wrong? How will all things work out for good? In heaven, though, we will be like the Angels because we will have a mature knowledge of all of God’s plans for creation. “Now I we see through a glass, darkly,” says St Paul, “but then I will know as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
I want to point out that on this definition of angels, if one throws out angels as nonsense, one throws out the idea of heaven, and if one throws out the idea of heaven, one throws out the foretaste of heaven that we can have now when we have flashes of insight into God’s purposes. On one level, scientists and artists catch these kinds of insights when they experience wonder at creation. God asks Job,
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
Here the sheer existence of creation brings us to our knees.
On another level, the saints testify to foretastes of heaven, which the average Christian gains by reading the Bible spiritually. That’s what the Bible’s for: it gives us a glimpse of creation as the angels see it. And they see it as a unified whole. But Jesus is the one who has pulled together all of God’s purposes for creation on the Cross.
Our access to angelic knowledge, therefore, rests on our ability to read everything in the Bible in relation to Christ.
Again Paul writes, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Reading the Bible as any other book is to read it according to the letter; but to read the Bible as the mind of God is to read it spiritually. So after the Resurrection when Jesus meets two men on the road to Emmaus, they do not recognize him until “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). This is also what Jesus meant when he told Nathaniel that he would see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man in fulfillment of Jacob’s ladder in our Old Testament reading. For Jacob’s ladder –– the “stairway to heaven” –– is Christ’s Cross.
Having been lifted up between heaven and earth, Jesus unified the two parts of creation so that angelic minds could climb up to God by contemplating the lowly body of God crucified.
There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll just sum it up until next time I preach on St Michael and All Angels. First, belief in angels seems weird, but, then, NASA sends messages into space. Zeus, Aliens –– there’s a historical lineage there. Second, we don’t believe in angels because they explain anything. We don’t believe in them because we can communicate with them ¬¬–– we can’t. We don’t believe in them because they save us; Christ alone saves us. We only believe in them because God thought them up in the Bible. Third, the significance of angels is that they show us what we’ll be like in heaven. Right now we see God’s plan in part. In heaven we will see God’s entire plan as a complete mosaic. Finally, the unifying pattern on that mosaic is our Crucified Lord. If there’s anything weird in the Bible, it isn’t angels. It’s that the Creator allowed his Son to be murdered by his creatures, that he forgave them, and that this was the whole plan for creation. That is what the angels in heaven rejoice over, and it’s what we rejoice over too!