Tuesday, 29 September 2015
But they are biblical, so what are we to make of them? "Angel" of course means "messenger," from the Greek "angelos." And that's what they are in relation to us, bearers of messages from God. But they do other things, too. The angel Raphael heals Tobit, for example, and in Revelation, Michael leads the heavenly armies of angels in warfare against Satan. So Pope St Gregory the Great, who sent St Augustine of Canterbury to be the first Archbishop of these isles, says that "angel" describes their function, rather than what they actually are: it's basically a job title. (By the way, part of the reasons Gregory sent Augustine over here was that he thought the natives looked angelic. Seeing some English blonds up for grabs on the slave market, he quipped: "they're not Angles, but angels".)
Anyway, if angels are more than just their job description, what are they? The Bible does not give us a generic term, but we can glean something from how they appear. First of all, they are terrifying. Almost every time one appears, its first words are "do not be afraid," which implies that whoever beheld it was perhaps looking a trifle terrified. Second, they're hard to describe. Sometimes they appear like people, but elsewhere as six-winged or many-faced with lions' heads or eagles' beaks, even as wheels of fire. They can be described only in poetic language, because prose is too blunt a tool. So they reveal some aspect of the unknowability of God, and maybe this is why the biblical writers resist giving them a generic name.
We find creatures like these in other cultures. The Greeks called them "daimones," from which we get the word "demons," but the Greek doesn't carry the connotation that they are evil beings. The Arabs call them "Djinn" (that's "Djinn" with a D, not with T). And what these are is invisible, created, spiritual intelligences. Like us, as fellow rational creatures, they are free to choose between good and evil: and this makes some sense of the notion that Satan and his legions are fallen angels. Angels and devils are the same things, but they have made different choices. As a priest, I find that people are by and large far readier to believe in devils than in angels, and more interested in them. There's a sort of allure to them, sweetened by hokey Hollywood exorcist films. In these the Devil promises power, whether the magical powers of witchcraft and ouija boards, or political power, or the power of money, fame, sex: but it is all about power, the power to defy nature and usurp God.
Now comes the bit of the sermon where I routinely take a word or concept that is unpopular and explain why actually, it's a good thing: and today's word is "hierarchy." This word invented by a sixth-century Syrian monk who named himself after Dionysius, the pagan St Paul converted at the Areopagus, literally means 'sacred order.' There's a hint of it in today's Collect, which begins, "Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order." God is the source of all things; those spiritual intelligences which we call angels come next, in their various ranks, then intelligent creatures like us, and last of all inanimate matter. All things flow from God, and the hierarchy is the sacred order God has established to bring them back to him.
Now moderns often object to the idea of hierarchy, because the word is so often abused to mean keeping people in their proper place by the exercise of power. But an order based on power is the very opposite of true hierarchy, of genuinely sacred order. It's not a sacred order at all. It's the Devil's order, upside down from God's.
Yet it's the Devil's order that persists. There are those who confuse the Devil's order with God's and resort to terrorism to achieve it, and even British politicians who support them; and they are traitors, just as much as the young idealists who actually sign up to fight for the Islamic State. But you can see why they are seduced by it all: the glamour of the freedom fighter, of establishing a new world order, of righting all the perceived injustices of the world to forge a new order that's worth the collateral of countless human lives on the way, because history will be written by the victors, and we will soon learn to forget.
Christians used to talk about "spiritual warfare," evidenced by old marching tunes like "Onward Christian Soldiers," out of fashion now, of course. There's much to commend the idea, but one problem with it is that it risks legitimising the enemy; but the Devil isn't engaged in spiritual warfare so much as spiritual terrorism. Hhe recruits by seducing with promises of power; he attacks the innocent; he exploits our personal weaknesses to help us to justify to ourselves unjustifiable thoughts, words and deeds. We tell ourselves that what he whispers is right, that the ends justify the means. And once you are his, it is very hard to turn back.
The difference between the heavenly hierarchy and the Satanic order of violence, in a word, is - Jesus. In that ancient, pre-Pauline hymn of Philippians 2.5-11, Jesus is placed above all creatures both in earth and heaven. He is higher than the angels. If we want to find their meaning, and his, we will find it in him. And we know that the Jesus who told Peter to sheathe his sword in the garden of Gethsemane conquers not by arms but by love. We know that the Jesus who acquitted the adulteress did not stop short to condemn sinners but carried on reaching down from heaven all the way into the depths of hell itself. And we know that the Jesus who rose and ascended lifts us all up into oneness with the Father in Heaven. The means of Satan is violent discord; the means of God is forgiveness and harmony. The motive of Satan is control; the motive of God is liberation. The purpose of Satan is destruction; the purpose of God is blissful reunion.
There are times when we have to take up physical arms in this world, but we need to be absolutely sure that our motives are for the liberation of the imprisoned and the protection of the weak. But most of the time, it is the spiritual battle we must fight, against spiritual enemies within ourselves and without: against those insurgent voices that lure us to sin. In that fight, the only legitimate weapon is self-giving love; but we can always call upon our comrades-in-arms, St Michael and his great company of God's Angelic Hosts.
Posted by Tom Plant