Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Michael & All Angels (transferred) – October 2, 2011
After a week of reading about angels – from philosophers like Plato to Thomas Aquinas, after a week of looking at art books filled with images of angels from simple etchings on stone dating from the 1st century through the thicked-thighed musculature of the angels painted during the Renaissance and the “putti” – those fat-cheeked babies with wings – to one of my favorite children’s books in which angels are wearing work boots – I am still filled with a sense of my inability to grasp what has been an important part of most religious traditions from their beginnings.
The history of how people of God understood the presence of angels – their origin, their purpose, their essence – has changed as often as artistic and theological ideas have changed over the centuries. In the visual arts, the depiction of angels as men at arms morphed into androgynous creatures touting wings and halos, then morphed into smiling cherubs – first with infant charm and then with more mature faces that, frankly, are downright disturbing. When the emphasis changed to a focus on angels as the “heavenly host” – those who filled the heavens with orderly worship, artistic representations became more effeminate and then were finally and clearly female.
My guess is that it is through the arts and through theological reflection that many of us have come to our own individual notions of what we celebrate today: the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
That has been the case for me, anyway. Personally, I have neither seen nor heard anything I would identify as angelic. That may very well be because the religious tradition that I was raised in never mentioned angels – except at Christmas when we were all hoping to don the most embellished white sheet and play the part of Gabriel in the annual Christmas pageant.
So, in preparing for today, I’ve done a lot of studying – and I’ve talked to a lot of people – trying to get a handle on what this day is all about.
First, I learned that there are nearly two hundred references to angels in the Bible and, according to St. Augustine, these creatures can be – and perhaps should be – divided into categories according to the roles they play. The various roles include messengers, warriors, ministering spirits, guardians, healers, those that make up the “heavenly hosts,” and those whose role includes fighting it out with human beings – formidable wrestlers.
Most of the angels that appear in scripture are not named: the strangers who visited Abraham, the host of angels who share the news of Jesus’ birth with the shepherds, the angels that tended to Jesus in the wilderness, the ladder-full of beings that ascended and descended back and forth from heaven while Jacob slept. But there are several who have names: Gabriel the Herald, Uriel the fire of God, Raphael the Healer and Michael, which means “like God.”
Philosophers and theologians have long been interested in these created but body-less spirits and eventually folk like Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Milton all subscribed to a hierarchical kind of classification, (though others had their own schema) in which three different ranks of angels were identified. The first rank, composed of seraphim, cherubim and thrones is unconcerned with anything earthly – rather, they are completely absorbed in the love of God. The second rank, consisting of dominions, virtues and powers is concerned with the government of the world and of nations. The third rank, the lowest rank – the principalities, archangels and angels are those who are mostly concerned with earthly goings-on. They are the guardian angels and the creatures that appear to people.
Our lessons today include a story of each type – the unnamed and the named. Jacob has a dream – a traffic jam of angels clamoring up and down a ladder that reaches to heaven. The writer of the book of Revelation has a vision of Michael engaged in a heavenly but fierce battle in which the evil forces are soundly defeated and banished.
Both stories – emanating from the imaginations of regular old human beings – are illustrative of human nature’s desire and the divine’s willingness to bridge the gulf that exists between earth and heaven – the gulf that exists between good and evil.
And then there’s the Gospel story of Nathaniel – a godly man who meets Jesus for the first time and finds out that Jesus had some previous knowledge of him. Confused, maybe even a little frightened, Nathaniel wonders – how can this be – who is this – how does this all work?
Those were my questions regarding angels this week. How can this be? Who are these creatures? How does it all work?
For the most part, my questions remain. While my knowledge about what others think about angels has increased, my own understanding and experience seems woefully lacking.
I know there are those who admit to seeing angels regularly. And there are those who see other human beings as angels (that would be you, David). But I’m not ready to mix up that which is mortal with that which is spiritual, and though I’ve tried to be open to experiences of angelic visitation, that has not happened for me…yet.
I feel like Nathaniel – unaccustomed and somewhat leery of the mystery that surrounds so much of our faith. I want to hear the words of Jesus – to let them soak in – to simply trust and not worry about figuring it all out. “You will see greater things than these,” Jesus promises.
I say, Bring it on. Bless me. Show me. Guide me. Accompany me. Wrestle with me, if you must. Amen.