Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 30 September 2012
Blessed be God in his angels and in his saints.
We can see God in the saints, because we know who the saints are, what saints do, and how God’s purposes are revealed through them. Angels are not so easily defined. Catholics and Protestants alike are wary of speculation about angels, although we quite like having them around, as angel voices ever singing; they’re still part of our decorative scheme. While we’ve been dozing, others have taken our angels. Angels have become popular among people who say they don’t believe in God, but have adopted a personal angel, an invisible friend, a sort of heavenly therapist who doesn’t charge. Angelology is entering a whacky secular phase. All the more reason for Christians to stop being vague and sharpen up on angels. Yesterday was the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, so let’s do it now.
Angels are messengers of God. The Old and New Testaments are packed full of angels. To begin with, we’re told the angels’ messages. The angel of the Lord appears and delivers a message. By the time we get to the later books of the Bible, the angels are formed up in large dance groups in the heavenly courts, singing God’s praises, and some even have names, such as Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. And they are real. Until our own spiritually impoverished times, there was no barrier between the world we see and the world we can’t see. Spirits moved easily between the two worlds, as in Jacob’s dream of the ladder which reaches to heaven. There are angels of God going up it and coming down. And although this ancient world seems far away and primitive to our arrogant generation, it is the psychological world you and I, as Christians, are privileged to inhabit. God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible. Angels were real to Jesus. For him they are spiritual beings who enjoy the vision of God in heaven. The writers of the Gospels show Christ as surrounded by angels at the most important periods of his life. They announce his incarnation and his birth. They minister to him in the desert. They strengthen him in his agony. They are the first witnesses of his resurrection. The angel spoke and said to the women, There is no need for you to be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen as he said he would. By the time we get to the end of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, we can hardly move for angels. They’re everywhere, getting out of hand, fluttering and swooping around, and we must acknowledge a danger here. Angels can become a bit of a cult, when they move away from their primary role as messengers of God. In the Middle Ages, the angels were a subject for endless speculation. What were they made of? They must be androgenous, both male and female, because they are complete, yet they can not precede the Creation, can several angels be in the same place? To modern critics this seems so primitive, but the medievals were the civilised ones. They lliked debating theoretical questions. The skill and the fun was in the argument, the technical side, the debate itself, not in the conclusion. But what they did agree was that angels were elevated to a state of grace, and they would then undergo a test, followed either by supernatural beatitude or eternal damnation. So just because you’d got a pair of wings didn’t mean you were home and dry. And there were great hierarchies of angels, and the higher in the hierarchy you reached, the greater the chance of a fall.
So like life, I hear you think. And that’s the point. The angels are a mirror image of what goes on on earth, the choices we make, wrong and right, the heavenly warfare in which we are also caught up, and we come, at last, to the purpose of angels in our religion today. The burning question isn’t, do I believe in angels? There are angels in our religion, whether I believe or not. The question isn’t, is there room in my life for a few angels, shall I start talking to them or listening to them, or entertaining angels unawares, domesticating them? It never quite works, because the attention is still on ourselves, what I think. The only question worth asking is this. Are we going to join with the angels or not? Are we going to look beyond our selves, to the place reserved for each of us in the order of God’s creation. Are we going to be part of something greater than ourselves, are we going to hear at last the music of the spheres, to sing in God’s presence? The decision to join the angels, is the decision to take the spotlight off myself and my salvation, and to look at God instead; this is the beginning of increasingly deep risk taking, those faith decisions which mark spiritual growth. Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name. When we join the angels our universe expands, we go beyond ourselves, beyond the expectations and demands of others, and we see our lives from the perspective of heaven and not earth. And we do need a new perspective from time to time, particularly in the Catholic wing of the Church of England, because it can get a bit grim and lonely at pew level. Do you know the Grand March from Aida? You must do, or you wouldn’t be here.The same soldiers go round and round, and they have to do a quick change into different uniforms and carry a sword instead of a spear to give the impression of a large army passing by. That’s myself and others on the High Church circuit of north west London. And it’s fine, but it makes no sense without at least a battalion of angels joining in, a connection made with the Strength and Stay upholding all Creation. Then, you see, worship can become timeless, eternal, as it should be, ordered according to the rules of the Church in heaven and on earth, not according to the whims of the worship group. Timeless, and universal, because the angels are everywhere under the dome of heaven, so holiness is for everyone. The singing of the liturgy is the music of heaven, and the music of heaven is to be heard in the present moment, it is not something we have to put off till the hereafter; the angels are messengers of present joy, the eternal made known to us now.
Angels are the poetry, art and music of our religion. Why try to manage without the poetry? The angels beckon us through Milton; they stare at us through Burne-Jones; they fly with us in Bach. A poem is real because it transforms us, changes the way we see ourselves and the world and God. Angels help us. Through the poetry of their existence, we hear God’s message of eternal life in His Son. Their obedience and order talks of peace in heaven, if not on earth. I’m not going to break my rule against quoting too much poetry in sermons; just as well, because the poem I have in mind for you is Paradise Lost, and we’d still be here at dawn. Milton was blind. All was invisible. And yet all was real, including the dark side, the attractive rhetoric of Satan. His angels are real, none more real than Lucifer, the fallen angel. And when God announces the anointing of his only Son, he summons the vast armies of Angels, Progeny of Light, Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers, to “hear my decree, which unrevoked shall stand! This day I have begot whom I declare My only Son, and on this holy hill Him have anointed..” Angels are there then, at the beginning and end of our faith, they are our consciousness of divine life, our experience of worship, of heavenly warfare, of holy ground, oflight and goodness, and our guard against what Milton calls “counterfeited truth”, the attractive falsehoods which undermine faith and order. “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” [Pope] So I hope you’ll find at least a platoon of angels to keep you from harm. “And with the morn those Angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.” [Newman]
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning