The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels: Michaelmas
Sunday, 30 September 2018
O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I seem to remember in the 90s that there was a craze for Angels. Back then a graduate school colleague even took a commission to write a popular, glossy, coffee table book with lovely illustrations, on angels in art. We all sniggered to ourselves that this was not a serious project; but it sold, and even though it wasn’t prominently featured on his c.v. it was no impediment to his career, and he is now a distinguished professor of art history at a major research university. Angels fascinate people—and in a different way from faeries and other magical creatures. They speak to us of a connection to the divine, close by, even, perhaps, right next to us at this very moment. They enter into our lives and show us something about the eternal. They signal for us the closeness of heaven, of the life of God that is indeed happening always and everywhere around us. And in this way, I can understand why they have such a powerful hold on our imaginations.
The vision of the angels with which we are presented in this morning’s reading from Genesis is a striking one:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants.”
Jacob envisions a place where heaven and earth are connected by a ladder, a two way ladder upon which angels were travelling between the two realms. The ladder leads Jacob’s eyes skyward and he beholds God in heaven, who promises the land of Israel to him and his descendants. When Jacob wakes, the image leads him to exclaim: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
The presence of angels, the presence of the ladder, of a connection between heaven and earth signals the holiness of the place—that is has been set apart by God, set apart as God’s, and that here at least, there is the possibility that earth can touch heaven, and heaven touch earth. The two realms are not so far off. The world of the eternal pierces the present moment, reaches into our lives, and changes us. It creates the conditions where true repentance can take place; not repentance in the common sense of being sorry about the things we have messed up, but the kind of repentance that involves a complete reorientation of our lives towards God and God’s unfolding Kingdom.
This is what Jesus is telling Nathaniel when he exclaims:
“Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
In short, Jesus wants Nathaniel to know, that he “ain’t seen nothing yet.” In his passion, death, and resurrection, Nathaniel, and the world, will see the heavens opened, will see earth and heaven joined, will see God’s immanent presence, God’s majesty in its fulness. We will have a glimpse of the Court of the Kingdom of God, and it will change us.
The presence of angels signals to us, in wonderfully figurative language, God’s majesty in its fullest, this vision of court of heaven defended against the devil and his apostate angels, continually praising God, singing that hymn we know so well, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are filled with thy Glory, Hosannah in the highest.” The angels, all the different kinds of angels about whom we will sing at the end of the liturgy when we join in that wonderful favourite, “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” all those different angels serve God in God’s Kingdom and glorify God and God’s glory. They reveal to us the extent of God’s rule over all creation and they reveal to us the Greatness and Magnificence of God.
For the Kingdom, while not fully realised here, exists in all time and in all places and for a moment, perhaps in a special place, we come to know its reality, its proximity. This is what happens for us when we celebrate the Eucharist and we join our voices with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, as we laud and magnify God’s glorious name, evermore praising God and saying, “Holy, holy, holy.” As we unite ourselves with the choirs of Angels and Archangels and all the Company of heaven in this celebration, with all others who celebrate the Eucharist all over the world, we break through and heaven is opened to us. The angels ascend and descend, and God’s immanence, the Kingdom’s immanence is manifested. We come to know that truly—if even just for this moment—heaven and earth are joined and we receive a glimpse of God’s glory in its fullness.
Angels may stretch the logical mind. They may seem like fanciful creatures not suitable for serious study. Nevertheless, stories of angels, images of angels help us understand God’s relational nature, God’s connection to creation, and the closeness of the eternal world of the life of God to our world, bound by time and space. In scripture, angels praise God in the Heavens, mark the space of the divine, and serve as the messengers whom God has sent to us over and over again. The angel came to Jacob and wrestled with him, the Angel walked with Tobit, the angel came to Mary and told her that she would conceive and bear a Son. Angels connect us with God and show us how God seeks to engage with creation.
We mark this Michaelmas in the knowledge that God is not remote, that heaven is close, that the Kingdom of God lives around us at all times and in all places. God comes to us, seeks us out, over and over again, and has given us this Eucharist that we will celebrate together, in which we will connect heaven with earth, and become united with Christ’s risen body. May we behold the angels and archangels singing “Holy, holy, holy” and allow ourselves to be transformed, like Nathaniel, proclaim the advent of the Son of God, and engage the life of the world as bearers of divine love.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Michaelmas, 29 September 2018
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume