Saturday, September 28, 2013

St Michael & All Angels

So who is your guardian angel? The idea that everyone has a personal
angel first got started – not, as you might expect, with some mawkish
American telemovie but with the very serious and incidentally
spectacularly fat medieval theologian, St Thomas Aquinas. St Thomas
thought the job of looking after individual human beings would be
handled by the very lowest rank of angels who would function as
full-time personal intercessors for their allocated charge. I rather
like this idea – no matter what I get up to in the course of my day,
no matter how often I forget to say my prayers, there is one very
junior angel with absolutely nothing else to do all day but pray for
me. I can just imagine my angel with a worried look on his face! St
Thomas, of course, didn't have the Internet – that source of all
knowledge - one web site I discovered a while ago informed me that
guardian angels aren't just heavenly office-boys but the most
important angels of all – every one of us apparently has an archangel
looking after us, though it does seem we have to share. You can even
find out who yours is – my personal archangel according to this
website is Barachiel who I must admit I had never heard of before but
it turns out he is the go-to guy for blessings and divine protection.
In fact there are only three angels mentioned by name - Michael, the
warrior and commander-in-chief, Raphael the healer who appears in the
apocryphal book of Tobit 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. Actually, we already know this - 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 twists the lives of men and women
out of shape 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
aggelos 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 the way the world
around us provides 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. The great archangel Michael appears – the one
whose name Pope Gregory the Great reminds us means "Who is like God?"
and who according to Jewish tradition is also the archangel who stands
guard in the Book of Genesis with a flaming sword at the gate of Eden
– so that at both ends of the Bible Michael stands as the archetypal
reality check. The presence of this warrior angel, like his name,
reminds 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. Not a bad reminder, in
the week in which the latest IPCC report into the slowly unfolding
disaster of human-induced global warming has been released. St
Michael silently challenges us to reflect on what it means, and what
responsibilities it implies, for us to be human.
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 aggelos or messenger of a church is no more than the job
description of the local pastor. But Wink reminds us that every human
institution has a 'within' as well as a 'without', an underlying
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 the modern Church is its struggle to
balance the desire for relevance or even just survival against the
need to take responsibility and seek forgiveness from the victims of
child sexual abuse. 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. On that
level, the angel of the parish of Canning would be the message we
ourselves send out, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the
quality of our own response to the good news of God's unconditional
love for all people. Are we brimming over with it? Or are we
half-hearted?
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? Did we start well but
somewhere along the way lapse into comfortable self-approval? Are we
just going through the motions? Are we just lukewarm? In different
ways and at different times, might we be all of the above? Does our
underlying spirituality, the aggelos of the Parish of Canning, excuse
us or accuse us? What would it take for us to become like the Church
of Philadelphia, in Revelation chapter 3, the little church that
punches above its weight, remaining fearless and faithful despite
being small and powerless?
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?