The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Year A, St. Michael and All Angels
September 28th, 2014
On my first Holy Week as an Episcopalian, I remember coming to that somber moment when we chant Psalm 22. We used the Coverdale Version, which says, “Lord, save us from the unicorns!” This distracted my worship. I giggled as I thought to myself, “Check! God already addressed that request already—by not making them!”
Do you believe in unicorns? In griffins? How about in angels?
Jorge Luiz Borges’ says in “A History of Angels”:
“From the beginning to the end, the Old Testament throngs with angels. There are ambiguous angels who come along the straight paths of the plain and whose superhuman nature cannot immediately be divined; there are angels brawny as farmhands, like the one who fought with Jacob a whole night until the breaking of the day; there are regimental angels, like the captain of the Lord's host who appeared to Joshua; there are angels who threaten cities and others who are like expert guides through solitude; the angels in God's engine of war number two thousand times a thousand. The best-equipped angelary, or arsenal of angels, is the Revelation of St. John: there are the strong angels, who cast out the dragon; those who stand at the four corners of the earth so that it does not blow away; those who gather up the clusters of the vine of the earth and cast them into the great winepress of the wrath of God; those who are implements of wrath; those who are bound in the great river Euphrates and let loose like tempests; those who are a mixture of eagle and man. … Here we arrive at the near miracle … what we might call the survival of the angel. The human imagination has pictured a horde of monsters (tritons, hippogriffs, chimeras, sea serpents, unicorns, devils, dragons, werewolves, cyclopes, fauns, basilisks, demigods, leviathans, and a legion of others) and all have disappeared, except angels. Today, what line of poetry would dare allude to the phoenix or make itself the promenade of a centaur? None; but no poetry, however modern, is unhappy to be a nest of angels and to shine brightly with them. I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long, quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colors are like memories or premonitions of other colors. We must not be too prodigal with our angels; they are the last divinities we harbor, and they might fly away.”
Borges was right: the near miraculous of the survival of the angels in the modern world. You could even see a modern fascination with them.
A good many faithful Christians have a hard time believing in angels. A good many faithful Christians, who believe in angels, have a spirituality that simply overlooks or forgets about angels.
And yet angels are all over the Bible:
Genesis 18 and the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah
Genesis 32 and Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord
2 Kings 6 and Elisha taking courage in a terrible situation by seeing a vision of an army of angels
Daniel and the angels primary role in the heavenly battle
Matthew 1 and the angels appearance to Joseph in a dream
Luke 1 and the angels appearance to Mary
Acts 13 and the church assuming Peter had not escaped from prison, but that it was his guardian angel.
Hebrews 13 and the Christian surprise hospitality toward angels
Revelation 12 and Michael expelling the dragon out of heaven by the blood of the lamb.
… and hundreds more.
Yet, despite this surplus of biblical references, to be candid, the liturgy is just about the only thing that preserves a role for angels in my spiritual imagination:
The first is one of the collects for Compline:
Each night our liturgy teaches us to pray: “Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The presence of angels is associated with the PRESENCE of God and PEACE (esp. connected with sleep). Think about our Old Testament reading in Genesis 28 and Gospel reading in John 1: the angels going up and down the ladder signify God’s presence among us and his protection, especially during the struggles of the night.
We are reminded that we can live in a prison of our own fear or we can choose to trust, because in either case we cannot completely control the world around us.
The second is in the Santus: In a few moments we will come to the Great Thanksgiving. And when we do, I will say, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee and saying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth of full of they glory. Glory be to thee of Lord most high.’” Do you know why we say that? The liturgy is modeled on the few places in scripture where the worship of heaven is described. In that moment, the liturgy implies, heaven and earth of drawn very close. In heaven, the angels worship God—and we join them. We enter into the worship of heaven—with Michael and all his angels, with the saints of old, with our loved ones and family members who have fallen asleep in Christ, and we praise God with them, following their lead, declaring God to be holy and worthy of praise.
So let us not be too prodigal with our angels, lest they fly away. Let us imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long, quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colors are like memories or premonitions of other colors. With a holy and poetic imagination, let us follow the angels into the holy of holies. Let us follow them to the altar of God, even unto the God of our joy and gladness. Amen.