St. Michael and All Angels
In my experience you are likely to get one of several reactions from people when your mention angels. One is the eye rolling, tossing of the head, I don’t believe you fall for the nonsense, reaction. Another is the new age, crystals and angels with flouncy long dresses and magic wands, reaction. But there is another reaction, and it probably won’t surprise you when I say, it’s the one I fall into.
For me, and for others, angels are not a pre-scientific, pre-rational, pre-modern way of understanding or thinking. Nor are they about whimsy, fantasy, and magic. For me, angels are about the imagination. Father Michael Himes, a Roman Catholic priest and Boston College theologian, defines the imagination as a “creative faculty,” which has “the capacity to embody the abstract in the concrete.” Imagination then is not about “escaping from reality.” Instead, imagination is “precisely about making things real.”
We have all watched children at play and have been captivated by how they can make real, and present, a world unseen. Their play is not an escape from the immediate constraints, weights, and fractures of human life, into some kind of fantasy. It is a way, in a sense, through the wardrobe door into another world, which is just as real as this one. In a way then, angels are doorkeepers who help by ushering us through the door, from one world into the other.
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]
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.
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?