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Entertaining Angels Unawares

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 4th October, 2016

In Brian Aldiss’s science fiction thriller ‘Starship’, the ship is a miniature world in which the crew and their families have lived for so many generations that the no longer know any other. For them the starship is the whole world. From time to time the members of this community glimpse larger beings, objects of fear and awe, who appear from nowhere and then disappear again. Only at the end does Alldiss reveal a terrible truth about this crew and their families: for all these generations, they have never actually left the orbit o Earth. They are part of a millennia-long experiment in which they have become smaller, their body rhythms have changed and their sense of time and seasoin altered.
The large mysterious life forms they have glimpsed from time to time and about whom thye teall stories and fables are human beings, technicians sent up from earth to service the ship.

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.

Angels 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.
St Luke wrote of a door opening in time and space in the hill village in Palestine where Gabriel appeared to Mary. The appearance to the young woman disturbs her, because the angel enters not only into the outer world of time and space, but also into he inner world of awareness.

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.

Where both 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.

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