Thomas Seville cr
It is a matter of Christian faith, part of the doctrine of creation, that human beings are not alone as intelligent creatures in the creation. There are the angels, part of the invisible, the unseen of the first article of the creed. At the end of September, there is the feast of Michaelmass, of Michael and All Angels, and I do not think I am casting doubts on the orthodoxy of readers if I own to the suspicion that it is a feast which is much enjoyed, but at which to preach makes us queasy. Our world is all but disenchanted, messed up, and the places for those things beyond our grasp are few.
The role of angels
Yes – there are all those wonderful paintings and the narratives in Scripture which figure the messengers from God, which bring things otherwise unknowable to sinners or which bring healing and guidance. They worship God and do his bidding. They do so unfailingly.
Angels guard the presence of God, one of their functions; they watch, not in the way of protecting, but in the way of preserving those for whom God is there. Without them, some of the awe is lost, perhaps not even possible. Without them, Christianity becomes functional at best and we misunderstand the freedom which is God’s and the depth of his mystery.
Angels are from God and, in the words of a great theologian of the Reformation,
are ‘as it were, God in a mirror’; they reflect with reduced light that God who sends and heals and speaks. Between them and God, there is nothing other than the glory of Christ, around whom they worship and do. They serve that love of God for sinners.
If we wish to see them, we cannot, or rather we see them when we draw close to Christ and are as close to him as we can be here and now, namely when, in faith and penitence, we are at the Eucharist, ‘with angels and archangels.’ Charles Wesley wrote: Angels in fixed amazement around our altars hover, / With eager gaze adore the grace of our eternal Lover.’ Because they are so intimately connected with that mystery, they will escape our attempts at understanding them.
The natural world
Despite the sinful abuse of the natural world, it is perhaps there that one can get an idea of an angel. Many years ago, the Visitor of our community came to Mirfield and brought his wife, an intelligent woman and a keen birdwatcher. In those days the Calder valley was brown, not green, and the smoke of the mills still covered the land; the river was mucky. At dinner there was talk and they talked about angels. The good bishop’s wife said that she did not believe in angels. The discussion went on until the bell that ends dinner.
That afternoon, the good bishop went with his wife and binoculars down to the Calder; the weather was bright, late autumn sun. Suddenly there was a splash of bright blue, a kingfisher (a kingfisher on the Calder in the 1970s!), a flash of blue beauty. In great delight, the bishop’s wife returned to the house, saying, ‘Now I believe in angels’