ANGELS AMONG US
FEAST OF SAINT MICHAEL & ALL ANGELS
September 27, 2015 (transferred from September 29)
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
Revelation 12:7-12 Psalm 138:1-5
Colossians 1:9-20 John 1:47-51
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Angels are everywhere. In the Bible, angels are ubiquitous from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation. You may recall that when Adam and Eve left Eden, God placed an angel to guard its entrance. An angel appeared to Hagar in the wilderness to save her and her son Ishmael from starvation. Angels appeared to Abraham on several occasions. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder between earth and heaven. Angels were also instrumental in the ministry of Moses, appearing to him at the burning bush, and when Moses led the Exodus through the Red Sea. Angels are copiously present throughout the prophecy of Zechariah and the Psalms. Through an angel, God called Isaiah to be a prophet. And as we heard in today’s first reading, Michael the archangel waged war on God’s behalf against the Evil One. Michael is also identified in the Book of Daniel as the protector of the Jewish people, our forebears in faith.
In the New Testament, we continue to find angels. An unnamed angel came to the Zechariah the priest (not the same Zechariah of the Old Testament, who lived several centuries earlier) to proclaim that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist, and of course, we all know that the archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she would conceive and bear Jesus. Angels fed Jesus after he fasted 40 days in the wilderness. In the garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion, an angel appeared and gave Him strength to face the upcoming ordeal. An angel told the people who went to the tomb of Jesus after His crucifixion that, “He is not here. He has been raised,” and to go tell the other disciples Jesus was on His way to Galilee. An angel freed St. Paul from prison. An angel sent the apostle Phillip on the road to see the Ethiopian he would later baptize. And of course, in the Book of Revelation, angels are very active in ways too numerous to recount in detail for a homily. The primary function of angels in scripture was that of warriors, guardians and messengers.
Angelology, or the study of angels, has been part of the tradition of the Church since almost day one. Tradition divides angels into three spheres, each with three choirs. They are supposed to sing to God all the time, just like we do in church.
The angels in the topmost sphere are the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, in that order. Seraphim are the most elite angels closest to God and are the first to communicate God’s message to the rest of the angels. They are said to have six wings and four heads. You’ll find that description of them in the sixth chapter of Isaiah, when God called Isaiah to be a prophet. Next are the Cherubim. The name means, “fullness of knowledge.” They are filled with divine wisdom which they impart to other angels. God uses them to perform specific physical tasks. The Cherubim were the angels that drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and remain on guard duty there. They were also dispatched to the Holy of Holies, that is, the most sacred area, of Solomon’s Temple. Thrones, unpolluted by earthly things, execute a primary mission to fulfill the divine justice of God. They channel the energy and purpose of God to others.
The middle sphere of angels encompasses Dominions, Virtues and Powers. The primary duty of the Dominions is to regulate the duties of lower angels. They are also said to preside over human nations. Virtues are responsible for maintaining the physical universe. Their primary duty is to supervise the movements of the heavenly bodies, in order to ensure that the cosmos remains in order. Virtues possess great strength, and appear to be “workhorses” of the angels. The Powers are bearers of conscience, and keepers of history.
The third, or lowest, sphere is populated by Principalities, Archangels, and just plain Angels. The function of the Principalities is to carry out the orders given to them by the Dominions, and grant blessings to the material world. They oversee groups of people. Principalities are beings related to the world of ideas, and inspire art and science. The Bible contains stories about four archangels, Michael in Daniel and Revelation, Raphael in Tobit, Gabriel in Luke, and Uriel in the apocryphal book called Second Esdras. Finally there are the plain, ordinary Angels, those who attend each one of us as guardians on God’s behalf. Recall Psalm ninety-one, verses eleven and twelve, where we hear, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee: to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands: that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.” Angels, however, are not solely a Jewish-Christian thing. In the Muslim tradition, two angels are assigned to each person at birth. One angel records the person’s good deeds, while the second records bad deeds. In my own case, the second angel keeps quite busy, as I am far from perfect.
Our atheist and agnostic friends would call all of the foregoing information myths not worthy of the time of day. For them, the scientific, concrete material world is true reality. In their world, any alternative modes of existence should not clutter our thoughts. Atheists and agnostics are not, however, evil people. Rather, they perform a valuable function, by challenging us religious people to think and feel more deeply about the way we perceive the world, and in so doing, we deepen our own spirituality. But despite the best efforts of atheists, agnostics, and other assorted secularists, angels remain part of our popular culture. Nowhere is this more true than at Christmas. In Luke’s Gospel, angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds in the field and sing “Glory to God in the Highest.” Each Sunday, we commemorate the incarnation by singing the same thing.
Fast-forward to this past Monday morning. I found a small piece of paper on the piano, authorship anonymous, that laid out nine categories of angels. But those categories were not the same traditional nine orders of angels I explicated to you today. They were: Charlie Angels, Fallen Angels, Blue Angels, Angels of the Morning, Angel Baby, California Angels, Bad Angels, Good Angels, and My Angel. What they all have in common, is a horizontal, qualitative view of angels, rather than the traditional hierarchical view. The non-hierarchical view is useful to us, given the impotency and irrelevancy of arguments about “who is the greatest” we discussed last Sunday.
Being a baseball addict, I am of course familiar with the California Angels, perhaps they are so called because their owner expected them to play flawlessly and win all the time. Of course, they don’t, and that is the lesson for all of us: we don’t win all the time, and after a loss, we are to look at how we can improve our game, so that we win the next contest. As you well know, many aspects of life remain competitive.
And, I’ve seen the military stunt pilots known as the Blue Angels on TV news programs. After all, angels are supposed to have wings. However, given their well-publicized and often fatal aerial mishaps, perhaps the message is that God gave wings to angels and not to humanity, and that we should recognize that difference by sticking to ground transportation – long live the steel wheel on the steel rail!
“Charlie’s Angels” was a TV drama series from the nineteen seventies and eighties featuring three attractive women, working as private detectives on behalf of criminal defendants. This was a contemporary take on the traditional role of angels as defenders and guardians we find in scripture. Sometimes others need us to play that role for them, and vice versa. I see it as people helping people, something we all should be doing. If you help others, others will be there to help you.
“Fallen Angels” was a television series from the nineteen nineties about life in Hollywood in the nineteen forties and fifties, involving people in the film business confronting the monsters within themselves. In today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation, Michael made war on God’s behalf in heaven and defeated the Evil One, traditionally known as Lucifer, or the Devil. He and his buddies, fell out of favor with God, and were cast into Hell. These were the so-called “Bad Angels”, who rebelled against God by sinning. “Bad Angels” are those whose radical and irrevocable rejection of God and his reign, freely chose evil, even though they were created as good. Hell was conceived in traditional Christianity as a most unpleasant place for unrepentant very evil people after death. Contemporary theologians don’t think of Hell as such a place, but as a state of being estranged from God. The television series “Fallen Angels” explored the personal Hell into which the characters fell due to their personal flaws, and as a result were estranged from the good part of themselves. My observation is that kind of thing occurs outside the film industry, and is still part of many people’s lives in the form of addiction, personality disorders, and deviant behavior. The message for Christians is that our mission is not to exclude these people from our lives, either individually or as a community, but to provide inclusion and support.
“Angels of the Morning” is a popular music song sung by a female singer with long blonde hair named Juice Newton with the refrain, “Just call me angel of the morning angel, Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby. Just call me angel of the morning, angel. Then slowly turn away from me.” That is very good advice for those of us in a relationship.
“Angel Baby” was a love song from the early 1960s, first sung by Rosie Hamlin as part of “Rosie and the Originals” and later sung by John Lennon, but Rosie’s version touches my soul more poignantly, with her ethereal high notes. In this song, we see how people in love idolize their loved ones as perfect. The lyrics are, “It's just like heaven being here with you. You're like an angel too good to be true, but after all, I love you, I do, Angel Baby, my Angel Baby.” For Christians, these thoughts go beyond our earthly love life. To be with Jesus, in our heart, soul and mind, is perfection. Jesus loves us, and we love Jesus. He cares for us as we care for Him by making the Kingdom of God a reality in the here and now, by loving others as we love ourselves. We tend to see the loved ones in our lives, be they lovers, children, parents, or friends, as our good angels. We recognize and idealize their positives, but often blind ourselves to their negatives. Sometimes looking past someone’s faults make sense, other times it doesn’t. There is no hard and fast rule. It is situational, requiring application of the Wisdom Tradition we discussed two weeks ago, to make wise choices in relation to the situation on the ground.
All of us need our own angels. Sometimes it is our spouse or lover, other times one’s parents or other relatives, and often our financial benefactors. Some people, however, don’t have anyone else in their lives as their own angel, and for these people, we must help where we can, and always pray for them. The Jewish author, Karen Goldman, in “The Angel Book, A Handbook for Aspiring Angels”, tells us that all living creatures have the potential to be angels, and described for us what makes an angel, which I will share with you. An angel is a whole being. An angel is not a thing. An angel is someone like you. An angel's song is sweeter than any bird's, any river's, any sound known on earth. Their music is not based on sound. They are the instruments of love. The sound of an angel's voice can unlock your hidden feelings. Angels sail through our lives like ships of light visiting us through the portals of our hearts. Angels reveal the presence of goodness in all things. Angels make us feel welcome in this world. Angels give us direction. Angels bring out the goodness in us that is ours already.
Ms. Goldman is Jewish, but all of that describes what for Christians can and should be, heaven in the here and now for all of us. We don’t have to wait for the next life, or even for tomorrow, to experience that. We can be angels now. We, too, can be celestial beings, in our own heaven, right here on earth. AMEN.