Saturday, September 29, 2007

St Michael and All Angels

Feast days – always thought it a bit odd because there wasn’t any food.  (though today it looks as though we are getting something a bit special ... ) Stuffing yourself silly, McFeast (contains two ¼ pound beef patties – replaced during the 1990s by the Megafeast which we can only imagine) – quantity not quality (actually the opposite of what I’d call a real feast, bland, served in buckets) – overload, feasting your eyes on something, sensory overload, entertainment, jugglers, dancing girls, clowns, music, crackers, balloons – the wedding feast – anticipation, celebration and delight – or royalty, ostentatious displays of wealth and power, the peasants in the snow outside pressing their noses against the pane, now that’s a feast.  So what, I wondered, was it about the church’s celebration of St So-and-so that made it a feast, and did our celebration of it really live up to all the hype that the name implied?

On the other hand there’s what we call a fast, specially the weeks of Lent which, in my early Church days I was quite relieved to know didn’t literally mean bread and water.  Paring away, peeling back the layers to allow what’s grown comfortable and self-serving to be challenged again by the prickly truths of the gospel, the giving up of something good in order to focus on the real desire of our hearts, allowing ourselves to acknowledge our emptiness so that we can find room in our lives to receive God’s overflowing love.  So fasting for us can be even more metaphorical than feasting.  Sometimes, of course, fasting is undertaken by Christians quite literally, as an act of prayer, or as an act of protest, as Archbishop John Sentamu famously did for a week in August last year, giving up a week of his holidays to camp in a little tent inside York Cathedral fasting for peace in the Middle East.  When he was here just a few weeks ago for our sesquicentenary celebrations, Archbishop Sentamu spoke of his surprise that during that week he never actually felt hungry, the daily Eucharist with its dissolving scrap of bread and sip of wine, he said, really did provide all the nourishment he needed.

On Friday evening, Alison and I were honoured to be invited to a Ramadan dinner, an Iftar meal, which is the meal eaten just after sunset to break the daily fast – and we found ourselves amazed by a wonderful kaleidoscopic blend of cultures and foods that seemed more feast than fast, and a feast, too, of friendship and spirituality, of prayers and verses chanted from the Koran and read from the Book of Lamentations, a beautiful and agitated young woman speaking of her dream of Muslims and Christians living together in peace; a profound and gentle reflection by our own Archbishop that fell into place for me as the groundwork for what I wanted to say to you today, on the feast of St Michael and All Angels that is also our patronal feast day, the day of reflection on who we are as God’s people in this particular place and time.

Ramadan – the fast that is a feast – calls Muslim people to acts of generosity and prayer, to acts of vulnerable hospitality, to recognising as sisters and brothers those of other faiths who accept the simple invitation to sit down and eat together.  The recognition that the shared DNA of all humanity is the DNA of God.  And finally to the profound and disturbing recognition that the DNA of God is distorted by the heavens of our own narrow visions and making.  Perhaps that, Archbishop Roger suggested, is what we really need to fast from, from the heavens of our own imaginations.

Two powerful images compete for attention, for me, in our reading from the Book of Revelation today.  St Michael doesn’t really get a major starring role in the Bible, just a brief mention in the Book of Daniel, in the letter of Jude, and then, stunningly, here in John of Patmos’s dreadful vision of war in the heart of heaven itself.  ‘And there was war in heaven’. 

Can we even comprehend that?  War in the very presence of God!  In all the visions of heaven that we hold onto as a hope, that we comfort one another with at times of trouble, both the Christian and the Muslim images of heaven, the breath of heaven that sustains and nourishes our lives would seem for most of us to be the very antithesis of war – the nearer we are to God the more remote all our earthly troubles like competitiveness and conflict, suspicion and violence become.  We desperately want to believe that heaven is the home of peace.

And yet, Archbishop Roger said, just take a look at the heavens of our own imagination.  Just look at the war that breaks out when the fundamentalist religious fantasies of Muslim and Christian heavens collide.  Just look at the secular, scientific heavens we make for ourselves, the capitalist heaven of middle-class consumption in wealthy nations that condemns the two-thirds developing world to poverty, the greed for minerals and energy and medical breakthroughs and gadgets.  The ideological heavens of communism or humanism or postmodernism that hollow out the lives of men and women of meaning and dignity.  The heavens we human beings make out of narrow visions and universes that ultimately revolve around ourselves – and that inevitably fall prey to the worm of self-absorption and distrust.  What if in our fascination with the heavens of our own imagination, our fantasy worlds with rules for keeping us in and other people out, Archbishop Roger wondered, what if we’ve forgotten that the hospitality of heaven is God’s prerogative alone?  On the feast of St Michael maybe we need to fast, the Archbishop suggested, from the presumption of making heaven in our own image.

And so I was reminded of my second powerful image, jumping from the very end of the Bible to the very beginning, where an angel with a flaming sword is involved in another eviction.  If, as Bible scholars suggest, the dragon of Revelation is loosely modelled on the serpent of Genesis, here’s the shock, because in Genesis it’s not the serpent that gets shown the door, it’s us – or at least the archetypal representatives of the human propensity of thinking it’s not God in control, it’s us.  If the dragon of Revelation stands for the arrogance of reconstructing heaven in our own image, the angelic eviction in Genesis reminds us of our failure to live in right relationship with God or to nurture and protect the goodness of God’s creation.  Like scary bookends, angels with sharp objects at either end of the Bible stand as a permanent reminder of the presumption that needs to be banished from us before we can be ready to live in community as God intends us to.

Equally pyrotechnic, white and bright and wonderful, the angel that not only in St Luke’s gospel but also in the Holy Quran announces the birth of our Lord.  This angel is sheer gift, the hospitality of God who as St John puts it, chooses to pitch a tent among us.  This is the angel of over the top generosity, despite our inability to live in peace with one another or with God, God chooses to live among us, to learn our language and our ways – a feast of sheer delight that changes forever our relationship to God and to one another - but that comes at a terrible cost.

But there are also other, less flashy but more psychological, images of angels in the Bible.  The name itself, malachim, means simply ‘messenger’, one who bears the burden of God’s word to us; and the encounter with God’s malachim  typically takes place as God’s people struggle to understand what it means to be fully human.  In the Old Testament we see the encounter with God’s angels coinciding with the struggle for personal integrity – for example in the near sacrifice of Isaac or Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with himself as he prepares to cross the river to ask his brother’s forgiveness; or with humour and the offering of costly hospitality, as for example in the story of Abraham who hears and believes the unlikely promises of God from the lips of three strangers who have just polished off his best fatted calf.  The encounter with angels wounds us and transforms us and opens us to new possibilities to the extent to which we are prepared to be open and vulnerable to God and to one another.

So what is it with angels, and what does it mean for a parish church to see itself not through the human lens of this or that saint but of all God’s malachim, both seen and unseen?  First and foremost, I think, it means a commitment to believing in the angels of God that fill our lives with possibilities for transformation and grace.  A commitment to accepting the discipline of limitation as well as the wonder of new experiences of God’s goodness.  A commitment to living humbly and vulnerably with one another, open to the angelic in the familiar as well as in the unfamiliar, ready to take the risk of welcoming and being welcomed by strangers.  A commitment to recognising the hospitality of heaven in the middle of the everyday.