Readings Daniel 10.4–end, Revelation 5
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
‘Angels dancing on pin-heads’ has for ages been a byword for everything that gets theology a bad name: earnest people speculating about things that are irrelevant, or without consequence, or both. So a preacher should be cautious on this day in the Christian year specially reserved for the discussion of angels, dancing or stationary. When Abba sing ‘I believe in angels’, can you honestly join in? And if you can, what difference does believing in angels make to you? I believe in black holes, but that belief does not shape my life.
We talk of angels quite often, but usually the metaphorical kind, for instance as an exaggerated image of everyday kindness – ‘Be an angel and put the kettle on’ – though interestingly this is an image usually used by or of women. ‘Be an angel and hand me the spanner’ is never going to be a line coming out of the pit of Phil Mitchell’s garage in Eastenders. Angels (as we have seen) also make frequent appearances in lyrics. The Abba song is unusual in having a faint echo of one characteristic of angels in the Bible, as signs of unexpected blessing, though it’s largely lost amid the Scandinavian schmaltz. Lyrical angels usually crop up when men are singing about women they fancy, Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ being typical and Annie Lennox’ ‘There Must be an Angel’, being an exception. More sombre is the appearance of angels in the vocabulary of bereavement, especially when a child dies, when angels serve as an image of purity and innocence. In the funeral tributes to April Jones, the little girl murdered in Machynlleth, the language of angels seemed to provide words to speak and write in the face of an unspeakably terrible thing.
In all this, the angel is essentially passive, a screen on to which we project attributes that we most desire in human beings, rather as the angels in our stained glass windows here are images of undemanding, northern European beauty. So what can we say about angels beyond that? At least two things.
First – in the Bible, angels are not divine, but are creatures of God who do God’s work: ‘ministering spirits,’ the letter to the Hebrews calls them (Hebrews 1.14). In tonight’s vision of Daniel’s, the angels are God’s enforcers; more often they are God’s messengers, which is what the word ‘angel’ literally means. We see this too in Daniel’s vision, and the classic instance is the encounter in Luke’s gospel, where Gabriel brings Mary the news of the birth of Jesus (in which we then find Mary’s song, which supplies the Magnificat for this service of Evensong).
We talk of God ‘speaking’ to us, and of God ‘acting’ in our world, but the promptings of God are often mediated; and the activity of God, the prime Cause of everything, bears on us indirectly, through the secondary causes in our world: creatures of God speak for God and act on God’s behalf (whether they realise it or not). Today, then, is not a day not for speculation but for attention: in the coming week, when will angels cross my path? Who will speak to me for God? Who will act towards me on God’s behalf? Perhaps the unlikely, the despised, the person I usually ignore or dismiss. But this time, if I take notice, then – like Mary – I might receive my own Annunciation.
Second – the collect today speaks of the God who has ‘ordained and constituted Angels and men in a wonderful order.’ This is a reminder that we humans need not be the sole point of this colossal and lengthy project of God that we call the Creation. This day of the angels is a day for us to know our place. And that lead us to point 2.2 about angels, which is that none of us should try to be one. Daniel’s angel may appear in human form, but biblical angels are purely spiritual creatures (‘ministering spirits‘ says the letter to the Hebrews), while you and I are not. Or, rather, we are spiritual creatures but we are also material, corporeal, physical. And we aren’t spirits trapped in bodies, we are creatures whom God has given both souls and bodies, and each gift is good.
From time to time during the Christian centuries, theologians have take time off from pondering the irrelevant and the inconsequential to teach the faithful to despise their bodies, with their needs and their appetites, rather than see them as God’s gift and as temples of God’s Spirit. Our thinking is pretty secular now, but what we might call the angelic heresy may have played its part in creating two of our modern temptations, to push the body as though it needs no rest, and to fill it with stuff that does it no good, as though the body were irrelevant to the real ‘me’, as though you were a caged angel, a spirit trapped in inconsequential flesh.
There may well be other creatures in the universe whose way of existing is different from ours, but you and I are beings of soul and body, and that is how we are to be with God. And (as the letter to the Hebrews also reminds us, Hebrews 1.1-5) when God comes to be with us, it is not as an angel, but as Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.