The Feast of Michael and All Angels – Br. Eldridge Pendleton
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, one of the great solemnities of the Christian liturgical calendar, and in doing so we focus our attention on the role of angels in the development of Judeo-Christian history. But it is also an opportunity for us to consider angels and their importance in our own personal spirituality. Is there room for them in your Christian faith, and if so, what part do they play? You may understand their significance in the unfolding of the Christian story in its early beginnings, but do they mean much to you currently? After all, we are living in the 21st century CE. Aren’t they really similar to fairy tale characters—figures of fantasy? As such, are they the weak link in your Christian faith? Do they really exist? I must say I have had my doubts and still do. While it is a comforting thought to many, do we really have guardian angels, special celestial beings whose purpose is to watch over us and keep us from harm. I suspect something mysterious is at work when I enter a crowded parking lot and the best place opens for me or when I am spared a terrible accident averted in the nick of time. Could this be the work of an angel?
You may be surprised to learn that many people believe in angels, even men and women who say they are not religious. A study in the UK in 2002 based on interviews with 350 persons found many who claimed to have experienced the presence of angels. These took the form of auditions declaring a warning or a sense of being touched, pushed or lifted to avert a dangerous situation. Others reported the smelling a pleasant fragrance at the time of the death of a loved one as if from the Garden of the Resurrrection. For some of those with these experiences, angels appeared in tradition form with wings; for others they were radiant human beings or figures of light. A study by Baylor University in 2008 indicated that 55 percent of Americans surveyed believed in angels, while a similar poll by the Pew Trust placed the number of believers at 68 percent. This tallied with the results of a recent survey in Canada.
Since they are a presence in the lives of many living today, who are these angels? What part have they played in religious history? First of all, their presence has not been limited to the Judeo-Christian experience. Angels figure in most of the major world religions. Our English term angel is derived from the Koine Greek term angelo meaning messenger. Their major purpose is to serve as God’s messengers. In fulfilling their mission they move with great speed. Icons of Michael and Gabriel indicate their rapid arrival by the strings of their headbands aloft in the breeze. The Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament are replete with stories involving angels. In the book of Genesis after Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden cherubim guard the Tree of Life, and in the vision in today’s lesson from the book of Revelation Michael and his angels triumph over the forces of evil. Angels appear in the guise of three mysterious strangers who visit Abram and Sarai and receive their hospitality at the oaks of Mamre. At a major turning point in his life Jacob wrestles with an angel. These celestial creatures appear in the Psalms as both destructive forces and guardians who bear us in their hands. In the book of Daniel one appears in the fiery furnace and some are given names. Angels bring divine announcements to Zechariah and Mary and angels visit Joseph in dreams. They exult at Jesus’ birth and after his death some of our Lord’s friends encounter angels at his tomb. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews urges us to offer hospitality to strangers for in doing so we may be entertaining angels unaware. And these are only some of their more significant scriptural appearances.
Of the archangels Michael is the warrior of truth and the weigher of souls, Gabriel is God’s chief messenger, and Raphael is the healer. In addition, there are various ranks of angels. Most remain in heaven to praise God. Some are sent in place of God, while others are God in angelic form. As with the rest of creation God created angels. Humans rank a little lower than them. In the Judeo-Christian tradition they are without gender, neither male nor female. It is not clear whether angels have free will as humans do, but Satan and other angels, in disobeying God have fallen from heaven and are the forces of evil in the world, continually at war with God’s armies of light. There is no scriptural indication that humans at death become angels, although this is a common misconception. In contemporary western culture the term angel is often used loosely and broadly to indicate human caregivers and those who do good.
What then if I were to say after all this that angels are mere make believe, an explanation of God’s loving actions? After all, there is no tangible evidence that they exist—no one has ever produced an authentic feather from an angel’s wing. Angels are figments of the imagination. And yet to say so is not to denigrate their spiritual value or undermine their importance. We need a feast to celebrate the imagination because our imagination is one of the spiritual gifts that brings us into deeper relationship with God. St. Paul may have omitted it from his list of spiritual gifts, because it is a power we share in common, inherent in all of us.
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, recognized the importance of the imagination as a means for deepening our intimacy with God and our self-understanding. In his Spiritual Exercises, the retreat format he created that has enriched the spiritual faith of millions over the last 500 years, he instructed those on retreat to imagine themselves in conversation with Jesus by placing themselves in an episode of the Gospel and letting the power of that encounter open their hearts and guide their lives. When we imagine in this way we initiate a process that allows the spirit to draw us closer to Jesus. Meditation on scripture utilizes our imagination to help us understand and grow. It is the power that helps us recognize God’s invitations in the daily chances and changes of our lives. We see this in the momentous meeting of Jesus and Nathaniel. In his imagination, Nathaniel recognizes Jesus as son of God, and Jesus assures him he will see greater things, angels ascending and descending on the son of man. We, too, come to know Jesus through our imagination.
And so this day we remember Michael and all angels and we celebrate the gift of the imagination. Through our imagination we have a pathway to eternal life and a means of understanding the promptings of our heart in our relationship with the divine. But do angels exist? How, for instance, can we explain the mysterious and often disturbing spiritual intrusions in our lives, are they the work of angels? I am sure some of you here this evening have had such experiences. Do angels exist? I will let you provide the answer.
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I shall never forget an experience related to my Sun. School group when I was a child. It was told to us by Lois Neil, the elderly wife of our pastor, a wonderful woman, in whom I had utmost confidence. She said that in her days of teaching in the panhandle of Oklahoma, she was on her way to school which was located in a country rather isolated setting. The road had very little traffic. On the way one morning she had a flat tire. She was trying to decide what to do, bowing her head in prayer, when she was aware of a man walking up to the car. He asked, “What can I do for you?” She explained her predicament. He said no more, just went to work immediately, removing the tire and replacing it with her spare. She started to thank him, when he suddenly disappeared. He had no vehicle, and there were no houses anywhere near. She said she knew he was an angel sent by God.
This story has stuck with me all through these years, reinforcing my belief in angels.
Thoughtful, and not sentimental. But tell us more about what you think
imagination is. Jung has some interesting thoughts, as do all artists.
Yes, I agree with the divinity of angels, but am not sure if I’d go so far as to say that angels are figments of the imagination. When Emmett Till was brutally murdered in the south and his open casket public funeral in the north prompted fury in the north in the late 50′s to help spark the civil rights era, his mother Mamie Till Mobley explained it this way: “As I was hearing about what happened to Emmett, something passed out of the left side of my head. I recognized it as a dove. The dove said it will guide me and tell me what to do. I could see its wings fluttering. That dove talked to me until we put Emmett in the ground. That dove told me that my boy will never be forgotten and did not die in vain.”
Perhaps Mamie’s dove or angel feathers cannot be held to DNA testing standards. But for me that makes them manifestations of divine inspiration, the breath of God, more than figments of our often ego-driven imagination.
The reason I believe that the Apostle Paul didn’t include them as a spiritual gift is that they don’t always keep a orderly container to build a church in. If so, you would perhaps be speaking of our common Judeo-Muslim-Christian Abrahamic faith. Jesus prayer for us remains “that they may be one” and angels are doing his biding.
I think angels are real beings. I believe this because so many contemporary people have had encounters and experiences which could be considered angelic. Some people I’ve seen interviewed on such tv shows as, I Survived- Beyond and Back, have seen them during their near death experience. It’s interesting that more than a few of them have remarked that the angels that appeared to them were extremely tall, perhaps that is why in Scripture they often presage their message with “be not afraid”. One man they interviewed said that the radiant light that he saw coming off of the angelic form had the appearance of wings.
Many other people have given accounts of ‘people’ who seem to literally come out of no where and help them in a time of great need or crisis and then while their head or back is briefly turned away and they look back again, this ‘person’ has vanished into nowhere. I think we could classify these cases as ‘entertaining angels unawares’.
I was on what many believed to be my death bed several years ago. Our priest was reassuring me everything would be fine.
I was surprised he thought such reassurances necessary. Then I realized he couldn’t see the wall of bright, bright beams of light surrounding my ICU station. I knew they were angels. Why didn’t he?
Years ago, when my father was gravely ill in the hospital, he was given a powerful muscle relaxant one evening. He was in a delicate condition, and I wondered how he would fare through the night, so I decided to stay in his room to keep an eye on him. Late at night, after dozing next to his bed, I awoke with the majestic Sanctus from Mozart’s Requiem running through my head, and the distinct sense that the room was full of angelic presence; it seemed to me that just beyond my hearing was the rustling of enormous wings. I looked at my father and saw his face, relaxed in sleep, looking unlined and round. Which was fine, except at the age of 78 his face ordinarily wore the furrows and groves of age, and was not round. I hurried down the quiet hall to the nursing station and asked a nurse to come look at him; she did, and immediately took action, as he was experiencing edema from congestive heart failure. The nurses stabilized him, and he was transferred to the ICU early the next morning, with orders for no more muscle relaxants to be administered. He lived for eight more years, but I’m pretty sure that without intervention that night he wouldn’t have lasted until morning.
Was it imagination or angels that woke me to signal that something was wrong? Who knows? The answer is almost immaterial; even if one doesn’t believe in angels, the imagination can be understood as a gift from God that may help us know Him, listen to Him, and from His loving us directly and through others, to love Him more fully.
“Walking on Water,” Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on art and faith, discusses the place of angels and the place of art in the life of faith as well. She gets a bit repetitive as the book goes along, but the first 3-4 chapters are very coherent and would make a complementary reading to this meditation.
I’ve been re-reading it lately, to re-focus my own work, and was glad to see this as part of the ongoing angelic conversation we all share in.
To the degree that we are, to quote one thinker, “the hands and feet of God on earth” it is thought that at times perhaps we also function in an angelic capacity in bringing the expressivity of human love as a part of God’s love on earth.
Thank you, Brother, for the honesty of your homily. I like the idea of the imagination being an angelic expression. I have also thought that the influences we sense — intuition perhaps?– which lead us to good decisions as also an expression of angelica presence.