Saturday, September 26, 2009

St Michael & All Angels

I’ll never forget the day I was overtaken by a car driving at something approaching the speed of sound along Albany Highway.  As often happens in these situations, a few moments later I pulled up to a red light right behind the driver who had been in such a hurry to get in front of me – and had a quick read of the bumper stickers.  There was a back window sticker too – one of those fake traffic sign notices that warned me there was a baby on board – presumably the logic is that if we don’t know the car in front has a baby on board we’ll all start driving like hoons - and on the bumper bar – “don’t drive faster than your guardian angel can fly”.  Clearly this guy had more faith in angels than I do.

I’ve never really found the Internet a particularly good source of inspiration for sermons, except on the subject of angels.  In fact, the other day I did a Google search for angels and got 103 million references to angels in .16 seconds – this is true - including a short video clip on Youtube supposed to be of an actual angel, Hells Angels, cute, chubby Christmas card angels and sexy angels in bikinis.  I also found a website that told me who my guardian angel actually is – actually, the idea of a guardian angel goes all the way back to St Thomas Aquinas, though his idea wasn’t of a fast-flying bodyguard so much as a personal heavenly intercessor – St Thomas also thought the job of looking after individual human beings would be a job for the very lowest orders of angels, but this Internet site says that every one of us has an archangel on the job.  Mine apparently is St Barachiel – has anybody ever heard of St Barachiel?  I wonder if it means I'm supposed to be channelling the spirit of the United States President?  In fact, there are only three angels actually mentioned by name in the Bible - Michael, the warrior and commander-in-chief, Raphael the healer and Gabriel the bearer of dubious good tidings. Obscure apocryphal Jewish writings provide a couple of other names, such as Uriel - and Barachiel of course comes to us courtesy of the Internet.

As well as the idea of personal protection, Western popular spirituality around the eighteenth century started to link angels with the inconvenient and annoying whisper of conscience – the counterpart of the personal demon who simultaneously tries to tempt us with attractive but not very wise suggestions for getting ahead in life.  Islam came up with a very similar idea, though here the angel and demon sitting on our shoulders just take notes of the good and bad ideas we come up with for ourselves.  I guess it’s a way of suggesting that human beings are little more than pawns in a power struggle being played out by the invisible forces of good and evil.  As they so often do, the writers of The Simpsons show the idea at its whackiest with Homer Simpson, tempted in one episode to run off with an attractive co-worker, listening to the arguments of the little angel Homer and the little devil Homer.  He likes the arguments of devil Homer a whole lot better, so he tries to swat the angel while the devil also has a go at it with his miniature pitchfork.  Homer’s son Bart has his personal angel under even better control – tempted to steal some cookies, Bart’s personal demon says to him “steal the cookies, man!”, while the angel says to him “Yeah, man, steal the cookies!”.

So, here we are on the feast of St Michael and All Angels – the only saint’s day in the calendar which is not for an actual flesh and blood human being however extravagant their actions or however exaggerated their mythology – but a day for celebrating the unseen, angels of whose existence the Bible unequivocally assures us in dozens and dozens of places, in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, in psalms and poetic literature, in parables as well as in the supposedly sober historical bits.  And we, of course, because our parish church is named after the host of angels, need to ask ourselves fairly seriously what it’s all about.

The idea of angels seems to point us toward a reality that’s deeper than the surface of our lives, a spiritual reality that we can’t see or touch but which affects our lives, a spiritual landscape superimposed on the visible one.  We know this is how reality is, we know that creation is loaded with spiritual energy but in our supposedly rational modern age most of us have become embarrassed by the old-fashioned language of angels and demons.  Many Christians prefer to enlist the new-fashioned language of psychology to dispel the religious superstition of an earlier age, to relegate it to the metaphorical and the colourful images of medieval Christianity that we no longer take literally but want to hold onto like a much-loved childhood fairy-tale.

And yet we also know that the struggle between what gives life and what takes it away is always going on, beneath the surface of our lives as individuals, as well as right out there in the open within and between groups and communities as well as nations.  The spiritual landscapes of our lives do involve a struggle between positive and negative forces, and the stakes for individuals and for societies are significant.  We might think, for example, about the negative spirituality of consumerism, that shapes the lives of men and women by orienting them towards the ownership of things as what gives their lives direction and meaning, and that encourages them to think even of human beings as commodities to be owned or manipulated.  And the language of angels has got something to say to this.

Maybe the first thing to notice is that what makes any spirit into an angel is how it operates, whether it is a messenger or in Greek, an angelos that discloses something of God’s purposes.  So, however we want to conceive of angels, they have certain characteristics. Writer Megan McKenna in her book Angels Unawares suggests we can think about angels without getting caught up in unhelpful literalism by focusing not on what they look like, but on what they do: "Angels”, she tells us,  “are the processes by which human beings apprehend the presence, the knowledge and the will of God...Angels are evidence that God is taking notice of us." 

In our reading this morning from Revelation we are reminded of the reality of the struggle within and around us, in which what is at stake is what it means to be human, what it means for us to have been created in God’s image. And in this struggle the malignant must be confronted by the good.  Michael – whose name Pope Gregory the Great reminds us means “Who is like God?” and who also stands guard in the Book of Genesis with a flaming sword at the gate of Eden – at both ends of the Bible Michael stands as the archetypal reality check – his presence, like his name reminding us that there is no God except God, that the contest between good and evil defines the boundaries and the limits of human existence, the integrity and purpose of what it means to be human, placed by God within the web of creation to nurture and protect – that human stewardship of creation involves the struggle to overcome our own greed, that to have dominion over creation means to understand our own lives within its context not as insatiable consumers but as self-limiting agents of life and flourishing.

Mythologically, the great war in heaven starts at the exact same moment God breathes life into human beings and endows us with the choice to seek either for our own good, or for the good of God’s creation.  The angels also are given a choice, to serve either God’s creation or their own power.  Both angels and humans make bad choices, the angels cast out from heaven set out to subvert God’s desire for creation by leading human beings into the same traps of seeking power over others.  Both angels and humans end up expelled, alienated from God and from one another.  It’s an allegory, a true image of the state of alienation as well as the state of yearning and potentiality for wholeness that characterises what it means to be human.  If all this sounds a bit grandiose we need to remember that self-aggrandisement is what human dreams of power are all about.  Just think of the demonic dreams of Nazi Germany, Pol Pot or Kim Jong Il.

Another writer, Walter Wink, suggests we look at the beginning of the Book of Revelation to think about angels as a mythological way of understanding our own spirituality.  In the first three chapters of Revelation he points out the letters addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor, each one addressed to the “angel of the church”. Scholars have argued long and hard about this, one suggestion being that angelos or messenger is no more than the job description of the local pastor.  (If so, it’s a job I’d hesitate to accept!)  But Wink reminds us that every human institution has a ‘within’ as well as a ‘without’, an actual spirituality that represents the history and the collective world-view and experience of its members.  So every human institution has its own angel.  Perhaps the angel of Australia is the archetypal ideal of the jolly swagman, with its unresolved tension between individualism and the fair go.  Maybe the angel of James Hardie Industries is its struggle to balance the desire for profitability against the need to take responsibility and receive forgiveness from the victims of its asbestos products.  The angel of an institution shapes its culture and gives actual substance to its corporate identity.  The angel of an institution is its health or dysfunction projected outwards, reflecting what it is, and determining what it can become.

In Revelation, John of Patmos takes the seven churches to task in no uncertain terms.  I’ve heard it said that the seven churches are a mirror in which we can see ourselves free of self-distortion.  Have we in fact fallen out of love?  Are we paralysed by the fear of opposition?  Do we practice double standards? Are we just going through the motions?  Are just lukewarm?  Or might we become like the Church of Philadelphia, that punches above its weight, remaining fearless and faithful despite being small and powerless?  Or in different ways and at different times, might we be all of the above?

Our Patronal festival is a good day to ask the question, what is our angel?  What do we stand for, what does our activity and our shared life reveal about what we really believe?  What is our angel?  How well are we attending to it?  Can it still fly, or is it limping?  What is it whispering in our ear?  How is our Angel reflecting to us what we are, and how is it whispering to us of what God wants us to be?