Thursday, 29 September 2016

Guest post: Fr Gareth Powell preaches at Michaelmass

“Humanity should strive towards the Angelic life. By imitating the Angels. Who are exemplers of faithful worship, of doing good, by this imitation we too are lifted up to the generous source of all good, where all things, according to their measure, share in the infinite light of God.” - Dionysius the Areopagite

“If we imitate the heavenly angels in this way, we will find ourselves always worshipping God, behaving on earth as the angels do in heaven.” - S. Maximus the Confessor

What might it mean for you here to have the St Michael and all the angels as the patrons of this community? To some it might seem odd. Having supposed celestial beings as patrons. How might they encourage us in our Christian faith? How might they build up our common life in this place as we seek to be witnesses to the Gospel? So often we feel as though
Which feels rather odd because scripture is full of angels… from the angels guarding the Garden of Eden to them in myriad form in the throne room in the book of Revelation.  Angels with Abraham, angels with Lot, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel all named angels in scripture.  Hosts of them at the Birth of Jesus.  They appear to kings, to the poor. They glorify God in heaven and roam the earth.  They’re messengers speaking for God.  Each instance of their appearing seems to be imbued with awe.  They don’t look different, but their power and presence means that they usually have to start their messages with “Do not be afraid.”  Fearful and wonderful! Some are righteous and some are crooked. Some bear good news others mutiny and rebel. So you would have thought more would be made of them from the pulpit. But alas no it seems. Why? Well, perhaps we’ve become so rational and so intellectually elite that we scorn such quaint ideas.  Unless, of course, we’ve gone off the deep end and into that place where people see angels everywhere… guarding their cars, in the garden like gnomes and fairies, or hovering over babies.
We’ve given up the angels!  We have let them go to those we call superstitious or naïve.  We have turned angels into shadows of themselves and stolen their power.  Their mystery and beauty have become suspect, not fit for our modern times, slightly embarrassing if the question of the existence of angels ever comes up in conversation.
Yet prior to the last century angels figured large in Christian belief. Clement of Alexandria, who lived at the end of the second century, wrote “the spiritual man prays in the company of angels....and he is never out of their holy keeping. Although he prays alone, he has the choir of the holy ones standing with him.” And John Chrysostom, who lived in the third century wrote when speaking of the eucharist, “On high, the armies of the angels are giving praise. Here below, in the Church, the human choir takes up after them the same doxology. Above us, angels of fire make the thrice-holy hymn resound magnificently. Here below is raised the echo of their hymn. The festival of heaven's citizens is united with that of the inhabitants of earth in a single thanksgiving, a single upsurge of happiness, a single chorus of joy.”
And we affirm this same belief every time we gather together to break bread. For at the Eucharist there are a myriad of statements where we declare our belief in that unseen world, present with us, heaven and earth drawn together around the banquet table of our Lord: in the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, we hear – with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven; in the Creed, we say- We believe in one God ...maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen; our confession is sometimes introduced with the words – since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. So here throughout our own liturgy we speak of angels and angelic powers, of heavenly beings gathered around God’s throne.
Yet the likes of Dawkins, Hitchin’s and other so called new atheists suggest that they only possible explanation for our world must come solely through the work of rational science. That we have within our rational grasp, the very working of the whole universe. Such belief in our powers of discovery could seem agreeable given the current rate at which physicists are discovering more and more about our universe, ever expanding the limits of human knowledge and discovery. Yet to place ourselves at the centre of the known (and unknown) universe is to revisit that most ancient of sites - the garden of eden, that story where human pride is depicted as the very birth of sin, where humanity strove for knowledge, to comprehend. A pursuit not un-virtous yet one that alone places us dangerously close to where God should actually be. Saint Athanasius writing in the fourth century warned against exactly this when he said, “I have ever wondered at the curiosity of the bold men, who by their imagined reverence fall into impiety. For though they know nothing of Thrones, and Dominions, and Principalities, and Powers, or the workmanship of Christ, they attempt to scrutinize their Creator Himself. Tell me first, O most daring man, tell me what is a Principality, and what a Power, and what a Virtue, and what an Angel: and then search out their Creator, for all things were made by Him.” Athanasius was concerned that even trying to fully comprehend the nature of angels, and principalities and powers was impossible, let alone trying to fathom the inner mysteries of God.
For Angels represent the very mystery of God’s creation, those unknown elements, that come to us fleetingly through scripture, that speak of the wonder of creation, of its extraordinary character, that is beyond even our own thoughts and capacity to see or grasp. As our dear former Archbishop Rowan Williams said: “Round the corner of our vision things are going on in the universe, glorious and wonderful things of which we know nothing. If we try to rationalise all this away, we miss out on something vital to do with the exuberance and extravagance of the work of God, who has made this universe not just as a theatre for you and I to develop our agenda but as an overwhelming abundance of variety and thing that are strange to us.” To rationalise our world, our universe, is to suggest we can box it in, know it fully.

This is not to suggest that rationality, scientific enquiry are incompatible with Christian faith, it is to say that they have limits. For we know that when we love someone, that even if spending a lifetime together, whether they be our family, a friend, a partner, that they are an inexhaustible fount of learning for us, that we cannot exhaust our knowledge or experience of them, or of their love for us, and that is just one human person. How much more mysterious is the whole of creation? Were we to limit it, were we to dismiss the very notion of angels, we are cutting ourselves off from wondering at creation, wondering at the gift of life and its abundance, that all that is, is from God. So take time today to give thanks for this wondrous gift of creation, for the things seen, for the things unseen, and pray that St Michael, St Gabriel and all God’s holy angels might surround us and that we might raise our voices with theirs to cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

- Fr Gareth Powell, Mission Priest, The Community of St Margaret the Queen

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