Readings: Genesis 28:10-17, Rev 12: 7-12, John 1:47-end
Wherever I go there are Angels. Today I look at a church full of them, I have just, the internet is full of them, and our experiences on a daily basis can be angelic. When was the last time someone called you an angel? This Feast of St Michael and All Angels is also so significant that this academic term in many institutions is called the Michaelmas Term, and look outside the south door of this church and you will see Michaelmas daisies. From the internet, to art, to university terms, to flowers, Michael and his angels are with us. The readings set for today also give us the perspective we need to understand a bit more about the significance of angels.
First the reading from Genesis. Judaism inherited its belief in angels mainly from ancient Sumerian religion. Jacob and the angels, which we just heard is a manifestation of this. Angels, winged messengers of protection, appear in all the great religious traditions of the world, and Judaism simply inherited this. Because of their universality, they are great unifiers, as any believing person of any faith will tell you today. They serve an important role in our faith, and today we have a great opportunity to be reminded of that. The late and great Bishop John Robinson wrote in his book, But That I can’t Believe (designed for the sceptical British public), “ When you say to someone, ‘Be an Angel’ you are not saying to them ‘Go and grow feathers,’ you are saying to them, ‘Go and do something angelic.’ A simple paraphrase is “ An agel is what an angel does.” So even in sceptical liberal secular democracies they serve an important role.
Look around this church, and you will see angels – angels in the windows, in the icons, angels on the reredos behind the altar, a large icon of St Michael in the Chapel over there, and angels in the pew next to you. We also pray in this and every liturgy with angels and archangels who we do not see – or perhaps you do? In this sense an angelic being needs no defence, as they simply are – part of the created order, which we humans are given a mandate to care for, especially during this creation time when we focus on our care for creation. Winged, post-gender beings are, I believe, particularly helpful for we non-winged, gendered beings, as they lift us above and beyond ourselves. Angels symbolically fly above all that restrains and hinders us as human beings – especially as we grow older and our frail body becomes a tattered thing upon a stick. Children generally have no difficulty with angels, especially as symbols of protection. We remember that angels particularly surround the young, the weak, and the vulnerable. I had a powerful reminder of this in Kosovo, when I visited a couple of years ago. One of the EU monitors guarding an Orthodox monastery there said to me as we went in, “We’re protecting this church, especially the priceless frescoes of angels,” to which our Kosovar Muslim guide responded, “I think you’ll find that they are protecting you.”
The Greek word for angel, angellos, or Semitic Mallai’k, Farsi Freshte, denotes a winged messenger. Winged because their message is not limited by the usual constraints of time and space. Messengers, because they simybolically convey messages from God. And here we need the eyes of faith, because the messengers can come in very many different forms, and often what is required of us is the openness and faithfulness to receive their message, especially when the message comes through unexpected channels. St Benedict, a great believer in angels, speaks about the importance of being open to the message of the angels, particularly through the youngest member of the community, and of course through strangers and guests. This is particularly important in the monastic practice of hospitality based on the concept of entertaining angels unawares. We too need to be alert to this in becoming a hospitable and open community. I am very aware of having a good number of angelic visitors here today, if we use the young and guests as their archetypes. I’m also very aware that in the local response to Grenfell, the local community and other well-wishers acted in this angelic way as they brought comfort and relief to victims of the tragic fire. There is an important fifteenth century icon from the Russian iconographer Rublev which illustrates this well. In this icon, sometimes called the hospitality of Abraham, we see three angels. It is a depiction of the Holy Trinity in angelic form around a symbolic meal. The symbolic meal is of course the Eucharist, and what’s of particular importance is that the angelic figures are all outward looking as they invite the believer into this joyous feast. This is one of the ways we pray with angels and archangels as they assist the host of this Feast, Christ himself, in inviting people in to it. Eucharistic hospitality, assisted by angels, is therefore always outward focused as all are invited to this Feast.
So as Robinson wrote, an angel is what an angel does. They protect, they communicate, they guard – as in the symbolic victory of good over evil which we heard in the Revelation to John. If we allow them to, they take us to soar with them, they help set us free - which is one of the reasons I included that reference from the John Mason poem in the piece we commissioned for the blessing of the organ “If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free, angels alone that soar above, enjoy such liberty.” And today, this collection of angels, seen and unseen, like that poem and the Rublev icon, help us to celebrate that joyous feast in which all are included. For this reason, if I were in a position to make that decision, I would introduce into our church immediate inclusion into that feast upon baptism, as our Orthodox brothers and sisters practice, with baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist all in one hit. But that’s another story. Today we simply celebrate Michael and the whole company of angels. Every one of us is protected by this mighty host, especially when we celebrate the joyous Feast of inclusion in this Holy Eucharist. What more do we need?