Christ Church, New Haven
Dale B. Martin
September 27, 2015, Michaelmas, 11am
Psalm 103 (or 103:19-22)
I’ve never met an angel. Or at least I’ve never seen an angel I knew was an angel. Perhaps it is true what some people believe: that the person who suddenly appeared out of nowhere when your car broke down on a lonely country road in the middle of the night—perhaps that was an angel after all. But I don’t know what I believe about all that.
I know I do not believe in the kinds of angels so regularly depicted in modern popular culture, the kind of sugery, syrupy, or saccharine angels (I say “saccharine” because their sweetness tastes just a bit false), the kinds of angels in the TV drama of several years ago, “Touched by an Angel.” For those of you too young to remember the show that began airing around 2003, look it up. It is an abiding curiosity that modern, middle-class, capitalist culture can abide for the most part only absolutely harmless, milque-toast angels.
Those are not at all like the angels of the Bible. Biblical angels are terrifying, huge, often violent. It is no accident that most of the time when an angel appears to someone in the Bible, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid!” The humans are terrified. Like Michael, who in the book of Daniel wages war for Israel against the angel called “the Prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Dan 10:13). So it is fitting that in Revelation, so influenced by Daniel, Michael is the huge, militant archangel who leads an army of angels to defeat and imprison the Dragon, Satan, and to cast him and all his evil angels out of heaven and onto the earth. The scene is depicted in the rear West window of our church just behind you. Feel free to turn around and look!
So to invoke American popular culture again, biblical angels are much more like the angels in the film Dogma played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who are so motivated by zeal for righteousness that they go around slaughtering people for not being perfect. Some people thought the film Dogma to be blasphemous, but it is remarkably orthodox, at least from a Roman Catholic perspective. And one of the things that makes it much more “biblical” and “orthodox” than “Touched by an Angel” is that the angels played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are frightening and violent at times. If I’m going to believe in the existence of angels, they will be more like biblical angels than the soft ones of modern popular culture.
But let’s turn our attention to two of our lectionary passages for this morning: that from Genesis and that from the Gospel of John. At Beersheba, Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder, or better translated perhaps, a stairway or ramp, linking his campsite to the sky, with the top of it in heaven itself. He saw “angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Jacob believed he had found the very doorway into heaven. Jesus, in the Fourth Gospel, alludes to the passage. He tells Nathanael that he will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
I have always been confused by these images. Why do they have the angels first “ascending” from earth to heaven only then to “descend” back to earth? Why do the angels need to “ascend” before they can “descend”? You would think they would first “come down” from heaven and only then “go back up.” In my teaching, for example, I’ve often reversed the order when talking about the passage from John. I would point out to my students that a theme in the Gospel of John is the “descending” of Jesus from the Father to the world, and then his “ascending” back to the Father after his resurrection. So I would often, mistakenly, bring in this parallel where Jesus mentions angels “descending” and “ascending” from and to heaven. But that is the reverse of what’s in the text, a reversal I unconsciously made because it seemed counter-intuitive that the angels would first “ascend” from earth to heaven, and then “descend” back to earth—in both Jacob’s dream and Jesus’ prophecy to Nathanael. Why do our texts have the angels “ascending” before “descending”?
Finally, it struck me this week, when thinking all week about these scriptural passages, that it is meant to teach us that the natural place where angels live is not in heaven with God, but here on earth with us. Our world is not a place they visit on missions from their home in heaven. Their true home is here, all around us, perhaps hiding in forests or trees or dark corners or churches or cemetaries. The angels in the scriptural citations have to “ascend” because they usually live here, around us. They “ascend” just to report to God, worship God a bit, and then get their next marching orders, their next mission instructions. Angels, you see, are part of our world before they are part of God’s realm. That’s the teaching of these passages today. The angels are here already.
Now, before you forget that I’m a very critical, modern, or perhaps postmodern, scholar, I have to admit that I’m not at all sure we Christians today must believe in the literal, physical existence of angels. After all, we never confess, in any of our major, ecumenical creeds, that we “believe in angels.” Angels get no place in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the “Definition” of Chalcedon, or even the creed often called that of Athanasius, all found in our Prayer Book. So it is not necessary for Christians even to believe that angels exist.
But if you do believe they exist, you must believe, I think, that they are physical creatures of our universe. Contrary to beliefs and assumptions that really only developed in early modern Christianity, there is no realm of the “supernatural” that exists higher than and apart from our universe, populated by angels, demons, Satan, and whatever other so-called “supernatural” beings people imagine. God is the only being transcendent from the universe. Every other thing that exists was created by God as part of the universe. The angels cannot be thought of, in orthodox Christianity, as something like “junior gods” that exist in a “supernatural” realm. If they exist at all, they are created, physical beings of “nature,” not “supernatural.” The whole idea of the “supernatural” is not part of the Bible or ancient Christianity. It is a relatively modern invention. Sorry to get all “theological” on ya’ll, but those are the facts, ma’am.
Angels are, though, in that now common academic phrase, “good to think with.” If we imagine them, as I’ve suggested this morning, having their natural “home” here on earth among us rather than up there in heaven or in some non-natural, “supernatural” realm, we may begin sensing their presence more and more. Yes, angels may be fearful or sometimes terrifying, but they are a sign that God is all around us, ready-to-hand to minister to us, ready to help us, if necessary through innumerable myriads and multitudes of super-human ministers. Angels may still represent for us modern or postmodern Christians the ever present presence of the loving and helping God. In fact, if we dwell on these ideas that angels surround us unseen, perhaps we can “re-fascinate” our world with powers we normally cannot see. God is here to help us. Perhaps through angels.