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