Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Today we celebrate one of the more mysterious feasts in the calendar of the Church: The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Not only is it a feast, but it is what we monastics call a solemnity: one of the upper echelon feasts, with its title in ALL CAPS in the Ordo, and a lunchtime meal with not only meat and dessert but also ‘festive beverages,’ therefore it must be pretty important. What do you know about angels? Or what do you believe about these mystical beings? You may know a bit more than me. I have to admit that I had to do some research in preparing the homily for this feast because I know very little myself about angels except that most images I have seen of them show human like figures with wings and a glowing countenance.
Perhaps like a few of you here, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the church that did not talk a lot about angels. Even though angels show up at different times in the scriptures, we just didn’t dwell much on them, which is ironic because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word angel: a bearer of good news. Primarily, angels are known as messengers from God. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”)[i] visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after in Luke’s gospel we hear that an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus and telling them where to find him. And before they set out the sky is filled with angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’[ii]
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
St. Michael & All Angels
Today we remember angels, mysteriously other. These outside, beyond, heavenly beings worship before God’s throne, fight evil, and come bearing messages.
When he was afraid, Jacob received a dream. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder connecting heaven and earth and heard God speaking to him. God who had seemed beyond and absent broke through to be present in voice and with the sight of angels.
Jacob woke from his dream and said: “Surely the Lord is in this place. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is gate of heaven.” So Jacob made a pillar, poured oil on it and called the place Bethel, the house of God.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)/Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17/1 Cor. 6:12-20/John 1:43-51
This scene from the Gospel of John seems camera-ready to me—if a bit odd with its very abrupt ending. John sets the scene: somewhere in Galilee “on the next day”—which happens to be the second day after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. The main characters are on the set. Jesus is ready with cryptic quotes. (“Where did you get to know me?” “I saw you under the fig tree.” The actor playing Nathanael is ready with earnest effusions. (Who would play guileless Nathanael? Maybe that guy that plays Jamie on that cop show “Blue Bloods”—Will Estes?) Somewhere in the background there’s got to be a fig tree. The cameras roll. The players play.
Then this strange and abrupt ending: “Very truly I tell you, you will heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” End of scene—that’s it; we have no idea what happened later that day. All of a sudden it’s chapter three: “On the third day there was a wedding…”
How do we speak of things that we sense are true, but which lie beyond our ability to see or touch or know? How can we, with our limited language and concepts, begin to describe the spiritual world which we sense is all around us? What can we say of unseen and mystical realities that do not lend themselves to observation or analysis?
I must say I didn’t expect it from him. I was caught off guard, surprised by what he said. It didn’t fit. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not from him. Not from them. I wasn’t supposed to like what he said. But I did. I heard a most encouraging interview with a national Christian leader last week: Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family. Yes, that right-wing evangelical powerhouse founded by Dr. James Dobson who was so aggressive in his mission.
Focus on the Family has been on my “other” list. I expect to hear things I strongly disagree with, or get mad hearing about from them. That in itself is a reversal. I grew up listening to Dr. Dobson and was positively nurtured by Focus on the Family as a child. But as a young adult I cut ties. I distanced myself so far from them that it is rather shocking to be impressed by and grateful for Jim Daly.