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!

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Music for Easter (Saturday Vigil and Easter Sunday)

The Easter Vigil is the greatest event of the Church’s year, the celebration of the most dramatic and exciting moment in human history. So it should be celebratory, dramatic, exciting.  And it is long. Not all parishes do all seven OT readings with their accompanying psalms, but I don’t know which you will choose, so we have settings for all of them.  But even if you only do a few, with a full Mass (including the Gloria, of course) to follow, and starting at night, this is a musical marathon. I have tried, then, to give you lots of variety to keep people interested, but also not to make the music too strenuous to sing. Above all, though, I have been striving after joy, because it seems to me that it is the hallmark of the Easter readings.

Not just Psalms

We’ve got some of the best words in the Bible available to sing here, and not just Psalms but also Canticles, bits out of Exodus and Isaiah, and there are even alternatives to choose from for individual readings.  Choose early, because then you can concentrate on what you are actually singing.  I have done compacts wherever possible, to limit the sheer bulk of your folders for the Vigil, but some of the texts are too irregular to compact and I had to give up or try separating out the instruments.

Vigil Readings : salvation history in a nutshell

We start with the Creation (Pss 103/104 or 32/33) and canter through the whole of salvation history so fast that it’s not surprising we get a bit out of breath.  I love the creation psalms, there are lots of them, where we tell God all about the wonderful things he made (which he knows already, but it’s like telling your children how beautiful and clever they are, or your husband that you love him.  Just because you both know something already doesn’t stop you repeating it).  These psalms give me a chance to play with the music, to make the water ripple and the birds sing, to go up for the mountains and go down for the depths of the sea.  It may be unsubtle, but it feels right.

Then there’s Abraham and Isaac, and the ghastly choice Abraham faces, to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loves, as God says to him, piling up the facts which make it so ghastly… but then God stops him,  Abraham unties Isaac and they go home rejoicing.   We are left remembering how God had to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved, and he had to go through with it, all because of us.  So the psalm following this reading is a more reflective one (15/16), with words of comfort in the middle verse.

Then the crossing of the Red Sea, so exciting, and the wonderful canticle after it (Exodus 15), all trumpets and triumph.  I really mustn’t go on about all the readings and psalms, or the Webmaster will make acid comments about writing a book rather than a blog, but my other favourites are the Isaiah canticle, where you can hear the water being heaved up out of the well, and the yearning deer after the Seventh Reading, where the CAN convention of using both psalm numbers means we have the longest psalm label on record (41,42/42,43).  This is a brand new CAN psalm, and I was aiming for yearning, but the rhythm of the response words was too strong, so we definitely have a leaping deer here, but still yearning as it bounds.

During Mass

After all this excitement, we have Psalm 117 with a simple Alleluia response.  This psalm comes up a lot over the Easter season, in various permutations, but this is the first time, so I’ve gone for a sober joy here, the great news is still sinking in.  It’s simple, so everyone can join in, but strongly rhythmic, and it’s a three-fold Alleluia as it replaces the usual Alleluia before the Gospel.  No more Lent Gospel Acclamations till next year!

Easter Sunday, Mass during the day

This is the same psalm as in the night, but with a different Response, although you can of course substitute the triple Alleluia version.  I do feel the mood is different now, daylight and daffodils instead of darkness and bonfires, and I would take it a bit faster now that everyone has had a sleep and is fresh again.  I have a very soft spot for this psalm response, as our youngest son was born during Eastertide, and his father had to go off to church that morning leaving me and the very new baby in the hospital, and sing it as cantor.  New life, new hope; indeed ‘this day was made by the Lord; we rejoice and are glad.’  Happy Easter (alleluia alleluia).