Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day in the Church’s year when we give thanks for those mysterious, perplexing heavenly visitors which flit in and out of the Biblical story, messengers from God, signs of his presence to those who encounter them.
Michael is one of four Archangels who are named in the Bible. We heard him mentioned in the reading from Revelation this morning. The others are Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, if you are interested.* But Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions have included and named others – in varying numbers with varying names. Angelology has never been very precise. It’s something that developed gradually and there’s never been any real agreement about it.
It’s not just Judaism, Christianity and Islam that talk about angels, and the idea of them didn’t originate with these three linked faiths. Angels in some form or another – supernatural beings - are a part of almost every culture and faith, and sometimes they are very strange creatures indeed. Biblical angels are sometimes just as strange – huge, powerful winged beings – but surprisingly often they seem to those who encounter them utterly human. It’s only with hindsight that they realise what they are.
Abraham welcomes three apparently ordinary travellers, and only realises they have come from God when they tell him that he will finally have the son God had promised him. Jacob wrestles with a man as he tries to cross the river Jabbok, a man who is so strong that he eventually has to concede defeat. It is never quite spelled out who he is, but Jacob knows that he speaks with authority that is more than human, and that, in him, he has come into contact with something of the divine. It’s not the first time Jacob encounters angels. In today’s Old Testament reading he dreams of them while he is on the run from his family, having cheated his brother out of his inheritance. He is out in the middle of nowhere, surely far from God, alone and abandoned. But as he sees the angels ascend and descend a ladder between earth and heaven, he realises that even here, God is with him.
The common factor in every story of angels in the Bible is that they come bearing messages. Both the Hebrew and Greek words used of them – malak and angellos – mean “messenger, and that’s what they are. Whatever form they take they communicate something from God and of God to those they appear to. They tell them something or show them something that they need to know, and otherwise would have missed.
So that’s a brief overview of what the Bible tells us about angels, but what are we to make of these stories today? Are they just quaint and interesting relics of a worldview that is long gone, fine for adding colour and interest to faith, but not something any sensible person would take seriously?
We might be tempted to think so. In fact we might wonder whether angels were actually an obstacle to faith today, making it seem irrelevant and outdated.
But the odd thing is that when I talk to people outside the church, who might not describe themselves as religious at all, the one belief I find they often do cling to is belief in angels. Messages on funeral wreaths and at roadside shrines often mention angels – angels caring for the one who’s died, or even that the dead have become angels. Angels are popular on Christmas cards even when the rest of the nativity story is ignored. New Age philosophies commonly involve guiding or protecting angels. Trinket shops know that figures of angels sell like hot cakes, and people often really treasure them. It is easy to write all this off as sentimentality, but my experience is that for many people, their attachment to angels is deep and real, and it is surprisingly common for people to swear blind to me that they have seen one or felt one. It’s tempting to dismiss this as nonsense, but I’ve learned to be very cautious about writing off other people’s spiritual experiences and beliefs too quickly and easily as wish-fulfilment, imagination or a trick played by brain chemistry that’s gone temporarily awry.
An encounter from early in my ordained ministry rammed this home to me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I was stopped in the street in Gosport by a middle aged lady of Chinese origin, who had wound up in this country after marrying an English sailor. Much to my surprise she came straight out with a request to be baptised. She didn’t know anything much about Christian faith, but she’d brought her daughters to a carol service at the church and something had touched her deeply.
So we arranged to meet, and she told me her story. She’d been born in mainland China, but as a young child her family had given her, or perhaps sold her, to a family in Hong Kong as a domestic servant. They’d taken no notice or care of her, and she’d never had any formal education. She couldn’t read, either in English or Chinese, and she had no religious education at all in any faith. So I just had to start at the beginning and simply tell her the story of Jesus – she couldn’t read it for herself. It was all news to her and she was all ears to hear it. I began with the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary, and I was rather apologetic about it. This was just how people thought then, I said, implying that now we would be much too sophisticated for all this angel talk. But this lady came back at me, quick as a flash. “No, no,” she said, “I have seen angels…” There was a lot she didn’t know about faith, but this was something she was definite about, even if she had only now been given a way of naming her experience.
She told me how as a child she had fallen gravely ill. The family that employed her wouldn’t get her any medical treatment. They just left her in bed to take her chances. She got worse and worse and thought she was dying - maybe she was. She was utterly alone and terrified. But as she lay in her bed she suddenly became aware of shining figures all around her, walking to and fro around the bed. And they turned their faces towards her, she said, and looked at her with kindness. And somehow she knew that, whatever happened, all was well. She had no words to talk about this, and no one to hear her anyway, but this vision had sustained then, and continued to do so throughout her often appallingly difficult life.
She knocked me right off my rationalist, educated, confident perch that day. We might say it was just an hallucination, the product of a literally fevered imagination, but the fact was that whatever caused it, this experience had communicated to her, as nothing else could have done, that she wasn’t alone, that she was loved, that she mattered to someone somewhere, even if she didn’t know who or how. And in a way it doesn’t matter where that vision came from or what caused it – it was the message it conveyed that mattered. We have many experiences which are more than the sum of their physical parts. A hug, in physical terms, is simply someone putting their arms around us, but it’s what the hug tells us that’s important matters, the message of comfort, concern, connection, care it gives…Whatever happened to that sick and lonely Chinese girl, it was quite literally angelic, bringing her a message she couldn’t have received any other way in the isolation and neglect of her life.
Whether we believe in the literal existence of angels or not, they are powerful reminders that what we see is not necessarily all there is. Rowan Williams once wrote that angels remind us that “Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing.” ** Whoever we are that’s an important thing to realise. If we think we already know all there is to know, we may never discover the things we really need if we are to live life to the full.
In today’s Gospel reading Nathanael has fallen into that trap. When Philip comes to him and tells him that he has met with God’s Messiah, his chosen one, Nathanael is dismissive. “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” For some reason - we don't know why - he is sure this isn't a place the Messiah could come from. His meeting with Jesus blows that assumption right out of the water, when Jesus seems to know more about him than is logically possible. But Jesus says that if he sticks around there is far more and far better to come. He’ll see angels ascending and descending - as Jacob did – not just in Nazareth, but wherever Jesus is, in the things he does and says. In Jesus himself he’ll see God at work, heaven touching earth, love working miracles. Nathanael’s tidy view of the universe is busted open. “Round the corner of his vision” “glorious and wonderful things are going on”, in the person of Christ, someone he'd never have thought could be God's Messiah, as Rowan Williams puts it, and it changes him completely.
Today we might have come to church complacent, certain that we have our faith all sewn up, armoured against questions and doubts. We might desperately need a glimpse around the corner of our vision of a God who is infinitely greater and more mysterious than we’d imagined. Or we might have come to church anxious or afraid or weighed down by burdens or crushed by regret, and sure nothing can ever change. We need to see round the corner of our vision the possibility of joy and hope for the future, and of consolation now. We don’t always have all that we need in our own grasp already. Sometimes it needs to come to us in messages which we weren’t looking for, weren’t expecting, borne on mysterious wings.
None of this might explain who or what angels are – if you were hoping for that I apologise. But as we celebrate their feast day, perhaps we will at least be reminded that what we see is not necessarily all there is to see. Perhaps they will bring us a message that God is closer to us than we think, with hope and joy we thought was out of reach, and love that was bigger than we could imagine.
*Michael: Daniel 12.1: Jude 1.9: Revelation 12.7
Gabriel: Daniel 8.16 Daniel 9.21 Luke 1.19 Luke 1.26
Raphael: Tobit 5.4 (Apocrypha)
Uriel: 2 Esdras 4.1(Apocrypha)
**Rowan Williams. Tokens of Trust