Once, when I was a child – I've forgotten how young – I found my bed made, and I was sure I hadn't done it myself: it was too neat, crisp and smooth, with hospital corners. I thanked my mother for doing it, and she denied having been anywhere near my bed that morning. Since no-one else in the house was a likely candidate, I decided that my guardian angel must have done it. I don't know where I got the idea, since we weren't a church-going family, and I'd never been exposed to Sunday-school, but apparently it made sense to me that an emanation of the presence of God would have come and sorted out this little domestic chore for me. I never worked out what had actually happened, but it must be said that it never happened again.
I was reminded of this rather embarrassing childhood episode occasionally when I was working at the Anglican Book Centre, and we would get in popular books about angels. We’d hope that there might be something about angels in scripture and history, but almost everything in that line was about getting the most out of angels – harnessing their power, if you like – for fun and profit, especially your own personal guardian angel.
Now it's true that the tradition of guardian angels – one assigned to every human being – can be said to have roots in scripture, and I think we may all have had moments of feeling inexplicably watched over, or cared for, and whether you ascribe that protection to a personal angelic guardian or directly to God probably depends on your own cultural conditioning and temperament. But really, to “domesticate” angels is to miss several important points. In Hebrew, the word for angel is malakh, “something or someone sent”; the Greek is aggelos, a herald, or messenger. An angel, then, is a messenger of God, or, in some interpretations, an emanation of the divine Will. The angels whom Jacob sees ascending and descending the ladder, in our first reading, are passing, in a very literal way, between heaven and earth, signifying communication between God and humanity, a point of contact between the visible and invisible, the known and the mysterious. That’s what we, like Jacob, desire from God (or think we do): knowing the limitations of our understanding, the gulf which seems to lie between us and perfection, is one of the great frustrations of being human, and the angelic visitations of scripture are a sign that the barrier is not completely impassable – at least in one direction.
The promise Jesus makes to Nathaniel echoes this earlier story, but now it locates the medium of communication precisely in his own person – he has become the ladder by which God descends to be with us, and upon which we are summoned to ascend to God. He joins himself to our human life, so that we can be drawn into the divine life. In both of these stories, there is a promise made to an individual, but its ramifications are far greater than that individual's own comfort or instruction. The promise is made to generations yet to come, and the individual is drawn into the fulfilment of that promise as part of a greater community – Nathaniel's promised vision is not for himself alone, any more than Jacob's was. Think of other great angelic visions in scripture – Ezekiel and the wheel, for example, or Gabriel's visits to Zechariah, to Mary, and to Joseph – in each case, an individual is commissioned to be something more than him- or herself, and to manifest God's power and God's love for others.
In some ways, the whole book of Revelation – bizarre as it is – presents us with a highly complex and elaborated version of that same sort of vision. What John describes is a huge metaphor for the Incarnation of God as a human being, with promises of God's ultimate triumph over evil, and John’s own commissioning to reveal this good news to others. One of the centrepieces of the vision is the battle between Michael and Satan, which we heard in our second reading. Probably because of the way he experienced conflict in his own life, John presents this cosmic struggle in terms of a human war – an instrusion of human violence into the kingdom of heaven. If you read carefully, though, you'll see that most of the detailed imagery we have associated with the conflict in art – weapons, armour, and details of the combat – is supplied from our own imaginations, and from a lifetime of seeing images of Michael with a spear or a sword, casting down the serpent; Milton’s account of celestial warfare coloured by his own experience of Civil War... Elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, John praises the non-violent resistance of the martyrs, and this re-echoing of Christ’s self-offering is of far greater consequence in the triumph of love over evil than any feats of arms, however cosmically irresistible they might appear. It is possible to imagine other, less crudely obvious, forms which the triumph of the angels of God might take, and it's up to our own prayerful imaginations to find them and make them known in the world's search for peace.
Prayerful imagination is also what we are called to use in our own lives, as individuals and as communities. And as we strive to discern, to discover the will of God for us, it's worth remembering something about encounters with angels, the messengers of God. First, we need to be open to hearing the voice of God, in ways less literal, more subtle, more discreet, more intimate, and also more prosaic, than the sudden appearance of a radiant being with a twelve-foot wingspan (although not, perhaps, as prosaic as I imagined as a child). Second, we have to remember that we don’t seek divine guidance just as individuals: like Jacob, we are part of a living inheritance; like Nathanael, we are part of a community, part of the Body of Christ. Finally, we already have an experience of God coming to meet us, week by week, in Word, and prayer, and sacrament – God comes to us, speaks to us, and feeds us, providing the angelic ladder on which we may also ascend into his risen and glorious life. Therefore with angels and with archangels, and with all the whole company of heaven, we laud and magnify God’s holy name, looking with joy and hope to the kingdom which lies before us, in whose building we are called to share. Amen.
The current Humphrys Chaplain to the University of Trinity College and the Saint George campus of the
University of Toronto is the Rev'd
|The Reverend Andrea Budgey|
Ms. Budgey completed both an M Mus (performance: oboe) and an MA (medieval studies: Celtic languages and literature, music) at the University of Toronto, and in 2006 obtained her M Div from Trinity College. She was ordained priest in January of 2008, and was Assistant Curate at Saint Simon-the-Apostle in Toronto until the end of that year, continuing to serve as honorary assistant, and later as interim priest-in-charge; she is currently an honorary assistant at the parish of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, close to campus. She has been involved in community outreach and advocacy for a number of years, and retains a strong interest in ecumenical and interfaith work; she welcomes constructive engagement with both seekers and skeptics. She is also advisory board chair of the University of Toronto unit of the Student Christian Movement. As a member and co-founder of the SINE NOMINE Ensemble for Medieval Music, she sings and plays harp, fiddle, recorder, and percussion, and has directed a number of medieval liturgical reconstructions. She has been an instructor (in Celtic Studies, music, and English) for Saint Michael's College, the School of Continuing Studies, the Faculty of Music, and the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, a freelance writer and researcher, bookseller, and calligrapher, and has also worked in radio music production and concert management.