Published on 01 Oct 2012
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – September 30, 2012
The Rev. Chris Dierkes
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
Today we remember the angels. Angels are a fascinating topic of study. The official branch of theology that studies angels is known as angelology. What I’d like to convince you is that the study of angels is really a study of the God who has called angels into being.
The Hebrew word for angel is Malach, meaning messenger. Malach got translated into Greek as angelos (‘messenger’) which is where our word angel comes from. There is a prophetic book in The Bible called Malachi (“My Messenger”, my ‘malach’). Angels are depicted as messengers of God the King’s heavenly court.
In the scriptures, angels very often accompany a manifestation of God (the fancy theological term for that is a theophany). In our first reading this morning the patriarch Jacob has a dream of angels descending and ascending on a ladder connecting heaven and earth. At the same moment God speaks to him. God is present and God’s presence is highlighted by the simultaneous presence of angels.
Other examples of angels appearing during a theophany. The Angel of the Lord appears as cloud and fire (by day and night) traveling with and protecting the people of Israel during their flight from Egypt. The Ark of the Covenant has two angels whose wings are touching each other creating the seat of a throne for God. If you can’t picture in your head what that looks like I’ll just mention Raiders of the Lost Ark is being re-released on Imax.
The Prophet Ezekiel has a vision of Chariot descending from heaven. The chariot is constructed by angels and the chariot is driven by “one like a human being” (also known as the Son of Man, a term Jesus later applies to himself). At the birth of Christ, when the shepherds arrive at the manger, angels are overheard singing praises. At Christ’s resurrections angels are prominent.
This is why I said that the study of angels leads to a study of the God of the angels. They are messengers and therefore by studying the messengers we get a clue about the one who sent the messengers and the message that they are sent to convey. We may think of spiritual realities known as angels but also that humans may be said to be angels, that is messengers of the divine (e.g. human prophets are sometimes called angels, messengers in the Bible).
Angels point to a belief in a benign and wondrous universe with a loving Creator. This is I think why angels poll really well. A surprising number of people believe in angels. In a 2008 poll, 2/3 of Canadians said they believed in the existence of angels. Angels are often described as having protective and healing energies about them. Interestingly, if someone ever describes having experienced an angel, the most common experience in which they claim such an experience is being near someone who is dying. The angels go between this world and the spirit world–that’s what the symbol of the wings is about–as they ferry the soul of the deceased across to the other world.
The other classic domain in which angels have often been portrayed is as powers of the universe. They are seen as guardians of the elemental forces. And this brings me to my favorite contemporary narrative regarding the angels. It comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings saga. Tolkien wrote a series of texts that take place long before the Lord of the Rings which include stories concerning the creation story of Ea (The Universe) and Arda (The Earth). Arda contains what would later become Middle Earth, the setting for all the Lord of the Rings tales.
Tolkien’s story of the birth of the Universe (Ea) is found in a book called The Silmarillion.
Illuvatar, who is God in this cosmology begins singing a song. Illuvatar sings and the first manifestation of Illuvatar’s song are powers or spirit-intelligences….angels. They are known in the story as Ainur (“The Holy Ones”). They are referred to as “the children of Illuvatar’s thought.” This is quite close to the Hebrew Bible which often refer to angels as the ‘sons of God’ and also as the ‘hosts of the Lord’ (holy ones).
The Ainur, these angelic beings hear Illuvatar’s song and are encouraged by Illuvatar to add their own compositions and harmonies to Illuvatar’s themes. Each angel manifests a certain kind of quality and therefore each angel adds improvisations based on the theme Illuvatar has sung which calls them into being.
So the angels actually join in the process of singing the universe into being. The process become collaborative as the angels hear both Illuvatar’s song and they begin, however imperfectly, to pick up on each other singing.
The angels are a chorus. They are a choir. This again has roots in the Hebrew tradition where the Prophet Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on a throne shrouded by angels who are singing, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of hosts, all the earth is filled with his glory.” We will join the angels later in the service in precisely that song. It’s why our choir wears white robes–they are meant to invoke the angelic hosts who are metaphorically depicted as a choir.
In Tolkien’s tale, one angel, the greatest in power, named Melkor, begins to sing out of tune, asserting his own independence in pride. Tolkien is here referring to the tale of the fall of Satan, who it is said was originally an angel of Light who turned away from God. It is this story of ‘singing out of tune’ that introduces the existence of evil into the Universe–a theme Tolkien of course explores in great depth in the rest of his writings.
There are a few rounds that occur as Illuvatar introduces a theme and then Melkor introduces these discordant sounds messing it up. Finally Illuvatar introduces the subtlest theme yet which includes and takes into account Melkor’s discordance and begins to work with it. While it appears Melkor is the strongest and most powerful by assertion of his will, the deepest power comes yet from this ever subtler domain. Illuvatar is here doing something of aikido, taking the force of his opponents attack and incorporating it into his own movement and actually allowing the discord to improve upon Illuvatar’s own singing and composition. Which I’ll say is a very powerful and perhaps haunting image for God as Redeemer and the process of redemption itself.
Yet Illuvatar and Melkor’s dueling compositions continue until finally Illuvatar has had enough and sends out “one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the firmament piercing as the eye of the Light of Illuvatar.”
This theme, the angels learn, has become Illuvatar’s dreaming of the entire history of the universe in song with their help–including again the reality of chaos and discord. The angels get a sneak preview of Creation yet to be born but Illuvatar dissolves the vision before they see it in its entirety. The angels will, like us humans, have to make choices based on imperfect knowledge.
Each angel, each Ainu, has a realm of influence, a kind of guardianship. Some of the Ainur fall in love with Ea (Universe) and Arda (Earth) and decide to enter into the process.
Here is a list of some of the elements of which the Ainur, the angels relate to:
winds, air, clouds
the deep waters and the seas
visions and dreams
the earth and the harvest
tears and compassion
weaver of stories
In an era where human life (and many other forms of life) are imperiled by our disconnect from Illuvatar’s Creation, I find this traditional teaching of the angels very powerful. They teach us how to be in right relationship with the Heavens and the Earth.
Christianity has struggled over its history with its relationship to the Earth and the Cosmos (lest it appear too pagan). The Celtic tradition of Christianity seems (in some ways) to have understood with more wisdom the way to hold in sacred reverence and communion with the Earth and through that communion to commune with The Earth’s Creator. Tolkien’s vision of the Ainur and of Creation is very Celtic in that regard. The Angels teach us about Creation, they teach us about The Creator of all Creation.
In the Celtic tradition this is called “binding”. It is to feel oneself bound, connected most deeply into relationship with life, with the elements. The bones in our bodies are made from elements that were birthed in the explosion of stars. The water that runs in our veins is tied to rhythms of the tides. The air we breathe in is a gift from plants and trees and we return the favor to them with every exhalation.
This belief, this symbolism that the elements and human beings have angels connects us to a notion of a magical world or a sacred order of life. The world becomes dreamy, subtle.
Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis wrote about Deep Magic. It’s a primal human response to the awe and wonder of life–we see it in the proliferation of superheroes, comic book movies, science fiction, fantasy literature and tv shows.
What the stories about and reflections on angels through scripture and the tradition teach I believe is that these are not frivolous enterprises. They are not simply escapes or fun pastimes. They are in fact a pointer to a deep symbolic truth–that we live in a universe that is awake and alive. That the whole process is Conscious and that our human consciousness is only one form of that consciousness, only one kind of dreaming. And that our human dreaming, our mind and emotions is deeply intertwined with those around us. They affect us, we affect them.
Like Tolkien said, there is a song. We have to learn to hear the song of The Creator. We need to learn the song of creation responding in gratitude to The Creator. We need to learn to hear the songs of all the beings we share existence with (in whatever form). We need to hear their songs of joy and praise of sustainability. We also need to hear their songs of pain and suffering. For right now, the song of our human species is out of tune with the songs of the wider creation.
As the theologians say, to God alone belongs worship (adoration). But to the saints and angels, to the powers of The Cosmos belong veneration–deep respect, affection, admiration, honor and friendship. Our worship, in particular our Eucharistic worship, is modeled on the worship of the angels. If the angels teach us about the nature of God who has called angels (divine messengers) into being, then the angels teach us about how to worship God–the God who made the angels and us.
In so doing, as we receive the Eucharist–the bread of heaven, the bread of the angels–may we too be graced to become divine messengers. Messengers of reconciliation, justice, peace, and love. With or without wings. Amen.
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