Feast of St Michael and All Angels
Sunday 29 September 2019
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14
On the side of angels ©Sue Grimmett
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic Orders?
And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
The Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke Angels as ‘beauty that we are still able to bear’, and yet also the ‘beginning of terror’….I wonder if that is how you would describe these beings of spiritual energy which appear a few times in scripture, and much more often in popular fiction and new age mythology. Given the limited and questionable sources of our knowledge about angels, it would pay me, on this day when we break from our usual ordinary time to celebrate the feast of St Michael and all Angels, to proceed with some caution. Yet it is strange that we Anglicans have angels everywhere- in our liturgy, our hymns and our church windows- and yet we don’t ever talk about them. So today, we are going to name the elephant-or I should say- the angels in the room.
The Hebrew word for angel is mala’ak; in meaning it is the same as the Greek word, angelos. In both Hebrew and Greek, the term simply means “messenger” and was used for both God’s messengers as well as those of a king or ruler on Earth. Then in scripture there are other references to cherubim and seraphim. Given that it is a cherubim who is placed with a flaming sword to guard the gateway to the garden of Eden, I think we can assume that they are not the sweet winged babies of popular imaginings. The Seraphim aren’t exactly Botticelli angels either, since Isaiah (chapter 37) describes them as having “six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew,” and who sing God’s praises in the heavenly throne room. So perhaps, particularly given that the first words spoken by angels when they encounter people in scripture tends to be “Don’t be afraid” it seems we may have some reason for agreeing with Rilke that “Every angel is terror.” But maybe this kind of terror is really a holy longing – where our heart would ache at the beauty of it…maybe angels can express for us the presence of the divine all around us, the invisible realm that is hidden from our sight, but none the less surrounding us.
There is, after all, only one good in the world, love, and the one evil is fear. There is no evil that cannot ultimately be traced to fear, and fear is the root cause of all violence and all division between people. Jesus
is the ultimate witness to the non-violent life of one human life lived in courage and given over entirely to love. Through his life, death and resurrection Jesus disarmed the power of fear through the triumph of love.
Yet if we believe non-violence to be central to Jesus’ life and witness, what are we to make of this apparent battle between the forces of good and evil in the reading from Revelation? There appears to be goodies and baddies; the great dragon, identified as Satan, is described as fighting the archangel Michael, and there seem to be angels of light and darkness battling it out alongside these two main players. It is of course an exciting image, and one that has inspired many works of fiction, but I don’t think we should too readily start imagining arrays of angels lining up and marching out against one another like every cinematic depiction of medieval battles we have ever seen. There is something else going on here.
When we read in Revelation that Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth, I think we should be hearing echoes of Jesus’ vision of the effect of his ministry of peace. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus welcomes back his followers who have been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom to all the surrounding towns saying, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” (Luke 10.17-20) As the people receive the good news, the power of evil is somehow being vanquished. Here this is not an image of dragons, or a battle array of winged soldiers, but rather of ordinary men and women going from town to town declaring the love and forgiveness of God. Satan is described as not only the deceiver, but the accuser. It is this spirit of judgment that falls like lightning in the face of the unconditional love and acceptance of God which unites humanity and draws all creation to unity and peace. This is an invitation to listen to our own better angels and recognise that there is no one to accuse us. When we believe this, we can lay down the heavy burden of our judgement of others, and even release our own harsh criticisms of ourselves. When we do this together, we know peace.
But this vision of love winning is not just about our personal lives, but also about the defeat of powers in this world that rule by fear. If we are tempted to still see a justification for violence in the visual images of Revelation we must remember that the most common recurring image for Christ there is not the Lion but the Lamb; the one who offered himself for the life of the world, so exposing human violence and simultaneously disarming and defeating it. The next chapter of Revelation reads;
If you are to be taken captive,
Into captivity you go;
If you kill with the sword,
With the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13.9-10)
This call for radical endurance (hypomone) and trust (pistis) summons the church to resist the impulse to violence. Like Jesus, the church is being called to absorb the violence, and only in this way, render it ultimately powerless.
We see this power at work wherever people resist evil with a commitment to non-violence. It is no accident that the church has been at the centre of anti-slavery campaigns, the civil rights movement and resistance to apartheid in South Africa. People of faith across the globe today work together to resist violence in all its forms with peaceful protest on issues such as care of refugees and for climate justice. It was a Hindu, of course, who probably gave us the greatest witness in the last century of non-violence exposing the evil of systems of oppression. The movie Gandhi depicts a scene at the salt march protest in India where police brutally turned back hundreds of protesters who offered no counter-violence. Vince Walker, an American reporter on the scene gave the following news report:
They walked, both Hindu and Muslim alike, with heads held high, without any hope of escape from injury or death. Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on and on. Whatever moral ascendency the West held was lost here today. India is free. For she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
This is a more modern image of Satan falling like lightning in the face of the power of fear and violence. Maybe it might help us to see how the battle depicted in Revelation can still be a powerful image if we recognise that the powers of darkness are defeated not in violent conquest but in the courage of everyday people who range themselves alongside the angels in their steadfast refusal to give in to fear and hatred.
Angels in both scripture and tradition are mysterious- not human, not divine…and I suspect we get it wrong every time we try to work it out. Perhaps it is a lesson in humility to accept that which is present yet invisible in the world around us as a mystery. Maybe it is an invitation to recognise and live into the better angels of our own natures as we seek to follow the way of Jesus together, standing with one another and against all that would accuse and condemn.
So may we know the power Michael and all the angels to resist hatred and violence in all its forms and the courage to stand against all that would divide us from one another.
May we have the vision of the angels that simultaneously opens us both to awe and to wonder at the miracle of our life together and the grandeur of the divine all around us.
And may know love as we speak comfort into one another’s hearts saying with the angels, “Do not be afraid.”