Sermons from St
Why link this story with the Feast which we celebrate today, of Saint Michael and All Angels? Because I suspect that it’s a good description of the way most people think of angels, if they think of angels at all. The main difference between the appearances on our fictional ship and those of angels’ is that latter’s appearances are, we think, deliberate and have a definite purpose.
For example, Genesis tells of an encounter with angels very soon after we humans appear on the stage of creation, a meeting that is neither pleasant nor reassuring. When Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise an angel is posted at the gate, flaming sword in hand, barring their return. By the time we arrive at the last page of scripture we have had so many encounters with angels they have become like old friends.
In the book of Revelation John and his angel-escort saunter together by the river of life and take in the grandeur of the Holy City. The angel is quite alarmed when John falls down to worship him, insisting that he is no more than a servant of God, along with John himself and all the prophets.
encounter us for an infinite number of reasons. They come
in order to warn, to admonish, to guide, to rescue, to
announce, to open prison doors, to sing anthems. They
enter our lives at the most unexpected moments.
In heaven, too, we see contention and struggle as the great archangels gather their forces and war breaks out. Michael and Satan ride to battle and Michael triumphs, banishing Satan, hurling him as a fallen star from heaven to the depths of hell, and ever since Satan has won battle after battle among human beings, because they are naive enough to think him defeated. They don’t realise that he still possesses grandeur and power, because he is an archangel, albeit a fallen one.
We see this
truth more clearly than anywhere else in Epstein’s great
bronze on the wall of Coventry Cathedral. Look quickly and
you see Michael standing over a defeated Satan, apparently
slain by his sword. Look again and you see that Michael’s
spear hasn’t yet entered Satan’s body, that Satan isn’t
recumbent but propped up on one elbow, about to rise. The
struggle goes on forever and will not be resolved until
the end of time.
In 1993 the world of the dramatic arts was confronted by one of the most powerful dramas of recent decades, Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America’. This Pulitzer Prize winning drama put into words the dread and awe of the plague that has robbed so many of some friend or acquaintance, or has taken from us some greatly gifted man or woman whose art of humour or acting or writing or faith has graced our lives beyond measure. When Kushner set out to dramatise the terror and agony of AIDS, he found that it was impossible to do so without allowing human suffering a dimension beyond itself and beyond time and space. Only in that way could meaning be found for such suffering.
With this choice he forced Western art to return to its ancient roots in Greek tragedy, where whatever happens on stage has a meaning beyond itself. There the voices of the chorus sang as the voice of the gods, or the gods themselves walked the higher reaches of the stage. All through the tradition of high opera the same devices are seen, where divine or satanic figures move in the world of human affairs.
In the early years of the twenty first century we suddenly find ourselves watching a stage where angels once again take their majestic place among us, bringing back dimension and depth to our living and dying, our loves and betrayals, our breaking hearts and vulnerable bodies. Since angels come primarily to guide or to warn us, we need to ask ourselves about the times in our lives when we have been guided or protected – often from our worst selves. When we remember, then we need to recall the people we encountered at these times, realising that in them we were encountering angels. Their wings and their glory were hidden, their voices were familiar and they spoke of everyday things. Yet when we remember such times and such people, we realise how much we have been guarded, protected and guided, most often when we were completely unaware.
Two thousand years ago Joseph remembered when he awoke that an angel had warned him in a dream to take his wife and child to Egypt. His shoulder was shaken and his nostrils assailed by the midnight breath of some sleepy but courageous neighbour who had heard a bar room conversation and decided to warn a stranger to get out of town before disaster struck.
It’s easy to suppose that Elijah, sleeping the sleep of sheer exhaustion as he fled from certain death by Jezebel’s guards, remembered a flaming and majestic figure placing food before him in his periods of fitful wakefulness. But it may have been no more than the brief glimpse of a hand or a veiled face before it faded into the desert: it’s actually said that such faces appear and fade soundlessly in the Sinai to this day.
Joseph and Elijah differ from us, as they wake from their
dreams and we wake from ours, is that they recognise these
encounters as meetings with angels, angels who are
ministers of grace. Our restless hearts will find no rest
until, in the comings and goings of our daily lives, our
ears are open to the beating of wings and our eyes can see
the glory of Michael and his companions.