SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 30TH, 2012
In 1992 an angel appeared in Birmingham. I know. I was there. Not just one, but two great winged cherubim. They had been chosen to stand guard over the city and, in so doing, fulfilled their ancient task as sacred guardians. How awesome is this place!
Their appearance, as you would expect, caused a stir for they were not the pretty, podgy cherubs of popular culture, but huge stone creatures with the face of a man and the body of a bull whose ancestors stood guard of the entrance to cities in Babylonia.
TYPES OF ANGEL AND OTHER FAITHS
Angels, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Seraphim and cherubim; thrones, dominions, powers; principalities and powers – all forming part of the hierarchy of angels. We sing about them in the hymn, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones.’ Their existence is affirmed in every religion: Islam, Like with Christianity, inheriting its understanding of them from Judaism. Hindu’s, Sikh’s and Buddhists all recognise the powerful place of spirits we would call angels. And the rise of secularism has done nothing to halt belief in angels. If anything, there has been a growing sense of their presence to the extent that in 1994 a Gallop Poll found that 76% of American teenagers believed in angels - a greater percentage than those who believe in astrology, ghosts, witchcraft, clairvoyance and even vampires!
MYTHS ABOUT ANGELS
In the Bible there are 600-plus references to angels but nowhere does it say that cherubs are little baby angels (they’re properly called putti) nor does it say that people become angels when they die.
Angels comprise a wholly different order of creation and not all have wings - while some, like seraphim, have as many as six. It was a flaming seraph that appeared to St. Francis of Assisi when he received the Stigmata thirteen days ago, and it’s seraphs who surround God’s throne and cry, Holy, holy, holy…
But, if all this sounds a bit fanciful, don’t worry. Belief in angels is not an article of Faith. All we affirm is that we believe that God is the ‘maker of all things, visible and invisible.’
ANGELS AS MESSENGERS OF GOD
Whatever we might think about angels the word itself means ‘messenger’ or ‘envoy’ or ‘representative.’
Of the great archangels, Michael leads God’s armies; Gabriel is His messenger; Raphael brings healing; Uriel brings God’s enlightenment; Selaphiel aids us in our prayer; Jegudiel aids us in our endeavours, and Barachiel is responsible for our Guardian Angels. (Now I bet you didn’t know that!)
It’s hardly a wonder that we might say “You’re an angel” to someone when they have done something of value to us, or “Be an angel” when we want something done. Nor that we describe nurses as ‘angels’. What is more surprising is when people are eulogised as ‘angels’ when we all know they were real criminals and one begins to sense that the idea of an angel is being debased.
However there are also angels of darkness as well as angels of light. Those spirits who were cast down from heaven together with Satan, the great Deceiver. In his Spiritual Exercises, S. Ignatius Loyola recognises the fact that there are bad as well as good angels and, whilst the task of the latter works to move us towards God, for the benefit of our souls, the former (what he describes as the ‘evil angel’) desire to lead us in the opposite direction towards our “damnation” – or, to put it slightly less dramatically, lead us away from God’s deepest desire for us. More complicatedly, in order to get its own way, the evil angel will even assume the appearance of an angel of light (which is what evil spirits do; after all, they are fallen angels.)
THE WORK OF GOOD ANGELS
We may not have any great sense of the presence of the angelic host, but many of us have a sense that we have a good and evil angel sitting on our shoulder whispering into our ear. And it’s often the evil spirit that gets our attention – anything from, “Another cream cake won’t hurt” to “What’s the harm in a bit of gossip / taking that from work / ignoring that persons need…” Then that little good angel has to work overtime! That contrary voice with a message from God. Yet how easy it is to ignore…
There are angel-spirits around us all the time, for God is always present in His world. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.’ Whilst some places, like this House of God and all holy places, are gates of heaven, our Faith affirms that God is in all places and fills all things.
Jesus told Nathanael that he would see “the angels of God ascending and descending” and, in so doing, reminds us that that is the importance of angels – that they live in dynamic relationship with God and are present to those who seek Him, wherever they are. Those angelic spirits work with our spirit to keep us at one with God. Perhaps that’s their most important, day to day, ministry.
I have never heard the flutter of an angel’s wings, but I am aware of their presence in my life. I may ignore them at my peril or I may seek to lean into their movements. And, should I be attracted by one of those bad angels, then I have only to recognise where they are leading me to know what angel I have encountered.
‘When I consider the heavens,
the work of your fingers’, says the psalmist,
‘What are mortals,
that you should be mindful of them?
You have made them little lower than the angels;
You adorn them with glory and honour’ (Ps.8:4-6)
We are mere mortals who sense and seek God; earthly beings who desire heaven; creatures of dust who have an intimation of Divinity. God created us from the earth in His own image and likeness. And he created angels – pure spiritual beings – from the fullness of His love. And it is that Divine Love which is constantly seeking us to draw us into union with that Love. Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven dwell in God’s presence and come to our aid when we are in need, most particularly at the point of death when we stand at the gate of heaven.
In the Roman Catholic Funeral Mass there is a wonderful Prayer of Commendation, which confidently expresses this ministry:
Saints of God, come to their aid!
Hasten to meet them, angels of the Lord!
Receive their soul and present them
to God the Most High.
May Christ, who called you, take you to himself;
may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.’
may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.’
Whatever angels are, they come from Love and are pure beings of that Love who seek to unite all things in that Love. That is the great ministry of the Holy Angels to us poor mortals. May they guard and defend us on earth and lead us to our divine home.