29 Aug 2018 • From the Clergy
‘I believe in angels/ Something good in everything I see.’
‘I sit and wait/ Does an angel contemplate my fate?’
‘I’m no angel, but please don’t think that I won’t try and try.’
‘Heaven must be missin’ an angel/ Missin’ one angel, child/ ‘Cause you’re here with me right now.’
‘Baby, you’re my angel/ Come and save me tonight.’
It is safe to say that I have never before quoted any of the above singers (ABBA, Robbie Williams, Dido, Tavares and Aerosmith in case you can’t quite place them) in a sermon or magazine letter, and the chances of it happening again are quite remote. Yet this selection of quotations from popular(ish) music could have been far larger, since angels have been a remarkably attractive topic for modern songwriters. The words above bear testament to the enduring appeal of the idea of angels in a post-religious world; the concept of benevolent protectors is relinquished only with great reluctance. ‘You’re an angel’ remains embedded in popular speech as an expression of gratitude, a tribute to the idea of angels as heavenly beings overflowing with goodness.
What is an angel? Just two angels are mentioned by name in the Bible: Gabriel (who appears in the Old Testament to explain visions to Daniel, and in the New to Zacharias and to Mary) and Michael (who is usually engaged in some form of battle). One more – Raphael – can be added if the apocryphal book of Tobit is included, and there are also two fallen angels, Lucifer/Satan and Abaddon/Apollyon. Otherwise, although angels are mentioned in general in the Bible, there is nothing which goes into great detail. It was left to later Christian tradition to create an entire ninefold hierarchy of angels: from the most important First Sphere (containing the orders or choirs of Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones), to the Second Sphere (Dominions or Lordships, Virtues or Strongholds, and Authorities or Powers) down to the Third Sphere (Principalities or Rulers, Archangels and Angels). While entire theologies were constructed on this scheme, it is hardly surprising that popular culture is content to talk about plain angels and archangels, the lowest but most uncontroversial ranks.
It seems rather prosaic, but the Greek word from which we derive our term ‘angel’ simply means ‘messenger’. In the Abrahamic faiths, angels are the messengers of God, although they also take the role of divine counsellors and guardians or protectors. It is worth noting that they are not always bearers of positive messages; think about the angel of death at the Passover in Exodus. Indeed, one of the essential attributes of angels is their otherworldliness, something which often invokes a sense of uncertainty or dread in those to whom they appear.
Angels are not just comforters who make people feel better, but rather conveyers of the divine truth, however uncomfortable that truth might be. Centuries of iconography, reaching its zenith in Victorian stained glass, may have created the popular image of a human being with wings and a halo in a blaze of light, but this is nothing more than fantasy. The very purpose of angels in the Bible is to transcend the liminal space between earth and heaven, which makes them unfamiliar, even threatening, at times fearsome creatures fighting for the soul of creation itself.
That unfamiliarity is what lies behind the exhortation in Hebrews that the editors have chosen as their theme for this month: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Angels - the messengers of God - are found in many guises, and we have no way of knowing them by appearance alone. At the heart of both the Jewish and Christian faiths is a command to show hospitality, to love the stranger and show kindness towards them. If we cease seeing angels as the ethereal supernatural beings of Victorian fantasy, and instead understand them as the hidden bearer of God’s word and deeds, then it might help us to realise how much our world today needs to follow that command in Hebrews. Our country has come to revile the stranger, becoming an unwelcoming and often hateful place to those who seek refuge on these shores, no matter the reason for their coming. In a world torn asunder by warfare and poverty, should we not welcome those who come here in search of safety, and ask what message from God they may be bringing, if only we have the wisdom to seek it?