When did you last see an angel?

Thinking about angels

I love the idea of angels. My larder door is papered with postcards of them.

Postcards of angels on a door
Door full of angels

The peculiar metal light fitting in our kitchen is festooned with little angels, so that I have a chandelier full of them. They vary from paper to wood, to ceramic, to metal, to glass, to fabric; they are all completely different.

Small angel figures attached to a light fitting
Flying angels


Some have faces, some just a suggestion of features, some not even that.  Most have wings, but not all; some are male, some female. Some have musical instruments, a couple hold stars, some have music sheets, one has a fish and a bucket (possibly Tobias’ angel?).  They come from all over the place.  I have another large collection which goes on the Christmas tree, and we have extra angels on duty around the various family cribs.  The feasts of the Archangels (September 29th) and of the holy Guardian Angels (October 2nd) are just coming up and I’ve been looking at the psalms for them.

…and where we get them from

From our early years, when we hear about having a Guardian Angel, into later life listening to them crop up in Sunday readings, they are a mysterious but real presence, and a very comforting one. Our ideas about them are shaped partly by the pictures we see, just as I discussed in the blog on musical instruments. They range from the cuddly little cherubs (with or without bodies), through the strange six-winged seraphim, to the much more anthropomorphic named Archangels (Michael, Raphael etc) and the important but unnamed great angels in the Gospel narrative (the Angel of the Annunciation, the Angels in the garden of Gethsemane).

More complex figures than we might think

Apart from Guardian Angels and cuddly cherubs, angels can be quite intimidating.  In the Old Testament, they occur in slightly odd stories, like the visit to Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, where the number of people and the pronouns keep changing.  Here I think the angels are being a periphrasis for God himself, and the writer is trying to be hyper-respectful and cautious.  The angels are shadowy figures.  The information we think we have turns out to be traditional rather than scriptural.  Even the original angel who bars the gates of Paradise is not actually supported by the text in Genesis. King James Version :’he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way’. Jerusalem Bible : ‘in front of the garden he posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword, to guard the way to the tree of life ‘ (Genesis 3, v 24).

What angels are for

The basic meaning of the word angel is a messenger.  God sends them with a message or to do a specific task (or both).  The mechanism is left unclear.  The angel turns up, gives the message, and leaves.  It is usually described as ‘the’ angel, or ‘his’ [God’s] angel, ‘the angel of the Lord’, only occasionally ‘an’ angel and they are usually singular in the OT and plural, funnily enough, in the NT.

Angels in the Psalms

The Psalms are the exception here, as they talk about angels mainly in the plural, almost in the lump, and they don’t actually mention them very often at all.  I think this is because the relationship between the psalmist and God is so direct (I talked about this before in the yearning psalms).  Where angels occur elsewhere in the OT, they are an agency of God, whereas in the psalms, God simply does everything himself with his own hand (Ps 145/146, for example).  Angels do crop up a few times.  There are destroying angels (carrying out God’s will) in Psalm 77/78.  More usually the angels are there to protect and to rescue (Pss 33/34; 90/91), but their main purpose is to praise (Pss 102/103; 134/135; 148/149), and to be there to do God’s will (Pss 34/35; 102/103; 147/148).

Agents of God

The idea of the angels being God’s agents makes sense if you have a lively fear of the Lord (the beginning of wisdom, Ps 111/112, and also Proverbs 9,10), because God is too much for us to cope with. There are some fascinating references to this in modern films and even sci-fi.  In the story Hell is the absence of God by Ted Chiang, even the angels appearing causes death and destruction.  The same thing happens in the film Dogma, and in The Adjustment Bureau, the angels cause havoc (while wearing suits and hats), but this is clearly nothing compared to what might happen if the boss were to intervene.  There is a wonderful line in Psalm 38/39,v 14 : ‘Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to be no more’, where the psalmist cannot withstand even the look of the Lord to whom he prays.  I warmly recommend both these films because they accept a basic religious premise and take it seriously (that’s why I like Ghost, as well, but he’s not an angel).  Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is a bit too cuddly for me, but he raises an interesting question.

Be an angel

If angels are simply one way in which God carries out his will, can we stand in for angels? Or to put it round the other way, have we come across angels and not realised that they were?  The confusion between angels and people isn’t only in the Old Testament.  Paul encourages the Hebrews to be hospitable to strangers ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Heb 13, v 2), which is the other way round, being nice to people because they might be angels, like Baucis and Philemon in the Greek myths.  I think I’ve met angels at least a couple of times, where I needed help and someone just appeared, contributed it and then went away.  Even if they were people, they were angels for me.  And once or twice when talking to someone who was upset about something, when I’ve been able to comfort, I’ve wondered afterwards whether that was getting a chance to be an angel for someone else.  We even say, ‘Be an angel and …’ when asking for help.

Sensible angels with their feet on the ground

NT angels tend to be less scary than OT ones.  They start by saying ‘Fear not’ (the angel at the Annunciation, the angel to the shepherds, Joseph’s angel).  They give sensible advice about avoiding Herod.  They come in a chorus, to sing (I like this version, and when the congregation seems scanty, remember they aren’t the only ones singing). They come to comfort Jesus, to minister to him.  They are practical, rescuing Peter from prison and reminding him to put his cloak on.  They talk in a friendly but firm way to the women after the Resurrection and to the apostles after the Ascension  –  more sensible advice.

Scary angels

There are frightening angels in the book of Revelation, which borrows a lot from Daniel, but in both books they are there to do God’s will and it is clear throughout that he lets them go only so far and no further.  And it’s the wicked who suffer.  Those of us who are trying to be good should be comforted by the idea of angels.  They are on our side, so long as we are on God’s side.

Musical angels

My favourite musical angels are the ones in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, the Guardian Angel who exults over the saved soul she has cherished for so long, and the Angel of the Agony (in the Garden) who pleads for the soul before God.   Wonderful music, quite impossible to have on in the background, because it’s so gripping you have to stop what you are doing and just listen.  There are angels in Messiah, of course, solo and en masse, and I really like that they are the whole of the Chorus instead of being the rarefied version that Mendelssohn gives us in Elijah, with just three female voices (Elgar has a female-only chorus of ‘Angelicals’, but the main group nearer God is all the voices together).

One of my favourite hymns is Angel voices, which was written to celebrate the installation of a new organ in Lancashire in 1861.   I especially like the third and fourth verses, with their references to ‘craftsman’s art and music’s measure’ (verse 3 ) and ‘our choicest psalmody’ (verse 4), where I really feel that it’s written for me.   Sometimes we can be angels for each other, but maybe our most frequent angelic activity is joining in the singing!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Psalms of yearning, few but haunting

Longing and yearning in the Psalms

This week’s psalm is one of my favourites, 62/63, because it is one of the psalms that expresses pure longing.   I was thinking about this group and why I find them so attractive and distinctive.  It’s not a big group in itself compared with some other topics, only half-a-dozen or so psalms, but they do make a recognisable sub-set, and I love them, so I want to write about them.

Different sorts of psalm categories

The Bible psalmists were clearly all sorts of people, and they wrote all sorts of psalms.  Psalms can be praise songs, appeals, requests for help (urgent and less so), celebrations, either of victories in battle or more abstract, e.g. the joy of the Law; litanies, pilgrim songs, accounts of real events (history in digestible and memorable form, like the Kings of England in rhyming couplets), catalogues of creation, curses upon enemies, songs of repentance and there are other categories too.  Some psalms are one topic only, but mostly they cover more than one.  The Book of Psalms is truly an infinite resource.  Some groupings are obvious, like the psalms of repentance – usually counted as seven, but there are different opinions as to what to include;  but the yearning psalms is my classification rather than anyone else’s, and they are easier to recognise than to define.

List of yearning psalms

This is my list of yearning psalms.  Sometimes you catch the same note in other psalms (e.g. 60/61, 100/101), especially if the Response has been chosen to emphasize the wanting and waiting, but these particular psalms seem to me to be the classic ones.

Ps 41/42 : Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God

There is a most beautiful setting of this single verse of the psalm by Palestrina. He did also set the next verse, and may have done the whole psalm, but we don’t have it (though it might still turn up).  His setting accentuates the waiting and longing, and ends with everyone reaching the word for God and just hanging on in perfect, blissful harmony.

Ps 62/63 : O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting  (Sunday psalm for this week)

The second verse of Ps 41/42 is ‘My soul is thirsting for God’, so the same image keeps recurring.  It’s interesting that Jesus uses so much water imagery for the good news he is bringing (John 4, 1-25).  People can put up with being hungry for a while, but thirst is somehow much worse. I tried to set it so that it’s beautiful and thoughtful, but doesn’t come to a satisfactory finish, because I felt that was more appropriate.  Different country Responses triggered different tunes, more wistful for CAN and OZ, possibly a bit too upbeat for UK – it’s difficult to get the tone right.

Ps 72/73 : How good God is to Israel, to those who are pure of heart

This one is wordier than most. It dissects the problem of wicked people thriving and the innocent suffering.  The author has clearly grappled with this for a long time without solution, but the psalm ends with complete confidence that God knows what he is doing.  This is included in my list because of vv 25-26 : ‘What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth. My body and my heart faint for joy; God is my possession for ever.’  Heaven is nothing, everything is nothing; only being with God matters.

Ps 83/84 : How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of hosts

which goes on ‘my soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord’, not because of any other reason, but because God is there. ‘One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’

Ps 129/130 : Out of the depths

This is usually classed as a repentance psalm, but I include it here because of vv 5-6 : ‘My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak. (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.)’  This illustrates beautifully what I was saying about confidence.  The psalmist longs for the Lord, knowing that he will be coming; – so nothing else matters, even down in the depths.  He knows that joy will come in the morning.  On this basis, I could almost include Ps 136/137 (By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept),  because it is yearning for the return to God’s house that is the motor spring of the whole psalm, but the feeling of desolation is so strong that it takes over.

Ps 130/131 : O Lord, my heart is not proud

This might be regarded as cheating, but it’s a tiny psalm which I include even though the word yearning is not mentioned, because of the beauty and serenity of its central image.  ‘Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.’  Note the detail of this image.  It’s a weaned child, so it’s not fussing or trying to feed; it’s at peace, knowing everything is all right.  But this is a living person speaking, with all the daily problems that everyone has, so it’s an act of will : ‘I have set my soul’.  The child still has enormous needs, but it is totally confident that they will be met.

Ps 138/139 : O Lord, you search me and you know me

I can’t not include this one, even though here the focus has shifted right round, and this amazing psalm talks about God’s yearning for us rather than the other way round.  It portrays someone so in love that he literally can’t take his eyes off the beloved.  God’s knowledge is total; he knows my resting, my rising, all my ways, everything I say before I say it, he pursues me, he besieges me.  There is nowhere to hide from him in the whole of Creation: ‘If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there [..] your right hand would hold me fast.’  There are a couple of verses praying for the downfall of the wicked but they seem very peripheral; what stays in the mind is the picture of God pursuing, overwhelming, almost intimidating, the Hound of Heaven, in Francis Thompson’s beautiful but unfashionable poem.  The only reason the psalmist is not overwhelmed and intimidated, is because he knows that love alone is the cause of this pursuit.

Why yearning psalms are distinctive

Some of the most frequently-recurring themes in the psalms are hurrah for God and the Lord hears me whenever I call upon him (Ps 4 and passim), and those can still be threads in a yearning psalm, so what makes them special, what makes them so recognisable?  I think it’s because they are the psalms in which everything else is simply not enough.  They are a celebration of longing.  Not a hopeless love, like troubadour songs or La Belle Dame sans Merci; they are even confident and secure in the knowledge of love, but it’s not enough.  They aspire to union with God, and nothing else will do.  It’s not a question of distress or current danger, just an unsatisfied yearning, which the psalmist even knows is unsatisfiable now, but it’s the only thing he wants to focus on.

Some subjects of yearning

The psalmist longs to be in God’s house, to savour his sweetness and behold his temple in Ps 26/27, but this isn’t a real yearning psalm, because it turns out that his main concern is protection from his enemies.  The upright long to see God’s face (Pss 10/11, 16/17, 23/24, 26/27); they seek God’s name (82/83);  but often in these early psalms the longing for God is overtaken by a clear and present danger, and the psalm switches to a cry for help.  Obviously that is going to be the focus if you are in trouble, so one of the distinctive features of the yearning psalms is that the psalmist is not in dire need and has time to reflect.  He has won through to that state of confidence where he is not afraid of what is happening to him, because he is confident in God’s loving mercy; but he is still unsatisfied.

Always wanting more

Waiting on the Lord is a normal situation for the psalmist, as we’ve seen before (Ps 39/40), similarly wanting to fly away to be with him in his house (54/55), wanting answers (76/77), wanting deliverance (114/115), but in the real yearning psalms, the psalmist doesn’t want anything specific except God.  This is what sets these psalms apart.  They are breath-taking when you think about it.  ‘What is man, that you should keep him in mind?’ (Ps 8), and yet here he is, one puny individual creature, demanding nothing short of union with the Almighty Creator.  Heroic; impressive; terrifying.  Paul, out of his personal experience, blinded and knocked off his horse, tells us that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31), and he was a person of enormous self-confidence, far more so than these reflective and gentle psalmists.  In spite of every possible drawback, the psalmist wants to be with God, nothing more, but nothing less.

Zeus and the importance of disguise

One of the recurring stories in the Greek myths is that the sight of a god can consume you.  This is why Zeus appears so often as something else, a shower of gold, a bull, a swan; because when he appears as a god, the human frame of his partner cannot cope.  There is an important truth in this myth.  God in the Bible appears safely swathed in a cloud, or disguised as a bush, or warns people to cover their faces.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; the psalmist knows this better than we do, and he still wants nothing else other than to be united with him forever.  The differences of scale and everything else seem to him to be totally irrelevant.  And remember that this is all Old Testament, not the loving Father that Jesus tells us about.  Perfect love casteth out fear, but we are far from perfect yet.

Common factors of the yearning psalms

One striking feature of all the yearning psalms is the simplicity of their language.  The diction in the book of Psalms varies considerably, partly, obviously, because they are written by several authors.  Some are high style, some are simple and direct, some are allusive and mysterious, but the yearning psalms all tend to be written in simple language which expresses the longing very directly.  And they address God very directly and on a level, unlike many of the other psalms.

The language is often very physical.  The body of the speaker is consciously present, even though often the words concentrate on the feelings of the mind, soul or heart (more or less equivalent at this stage of human understanding).  This is striking if you compare Ps 118/119, where the language is simple but not intimate.  The psalmist there expresses great love for God’s las, but it’s all the mind and the heart, and not the body.  In the yearning psalms, ‘my body pines for you…..your right hand holds me fast.’

There is almost a sense of stasis, of having come through rough seas but now reaching smoother water with time to reflect, as I said earlier.  The attitude is one of conscious, patient, confident waiting (the Advent/pregnancy nexus again), also marked by singlemindedness.  God alone can satisfy this wanting.  This is the better part, that Mary chooses, sitting to listen and be with the Lord.

The reason we yearn for God is because he yearns for us.  We can’t rescue him, or save him from his enemies, or protect him, or even give him somewhere safe to live, but we can love him and long for him, as he loves and longs for us; and that is why the yearning psalms are so special.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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