Over the last five days Alison and I have been treated to a feast of the senses, as we attended and took part in a retreat sponsored by Anglican EcoCare in the Stirling Ranges. We more than had our fill of climbing mountains, and celebrated the Eucharist at the top of Bluff Knoll in driving sleet and subzero conditions – at the other extreme we were entranced by the annual spectacle of wildflowers at lesser altitudes – Fr Trevor Burt as a walking encyclopaedia of all things botanical and geological identified spider orchids and donkey orchids – even snail orchids which we found growing alongside actual alpine snails – rocks still bearing the ripple of ancient ocean beds – an extravagance of birdsong, reflection, prayer and fellowship, which is what, in the Church, we always mean by a feast. A celebration of a high point in the spirituality or the history of God's people, always accompanied by a profusion of sensory inputs, music, vestments, wild claims and solemn liturgy that – when it is well done – really does lure our spirits into a foretaste of heaven. And when we're really lucky, the feasting of the Church also includes food. To feast is to aim for the top, to pile it on, to outdo ourselves in generosity and beauty and remind ourselves – that's what God is like!
On the other hand there's also 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. There is, of course, also an element of fasting in making a spiritual retreat – a getting back to spiritual basics and reminding ourselves where our real priorities lie. The good news, of course, is that there will also be an EcoRetreat next year – a feast and fast that helps us reconnect our Christian spirituality with the beauty and fragility of God's creation.
A few years ago, on the eve of the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, 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 Roger that fell into place for me as the context for the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day of reflection on who we are as God's people in this particular place and time.
Ramadan – the fast that is also 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 reality of God is distorted by the heavens of our own narrow and self-serving visions. 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 our archetypal representatives who embody pretty accurately our time-honoured human propensity of secretly believing and acting as though it's not God in control, but 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 nurture and protect the goodness of God's creation, or to live in right relationship with God and one another. 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, is 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 so long as 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.