Our popular culture has an obsession with angels. Everything from Hallmark cards and ornaments, to bumper stickers telling us to “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly,” to movies like “Angels in the Outfield” and “Angels in America” to TV shows like “Highway to Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.” Of course, we talk about angels in the Church too but we often only think of them within the context Christmas. That’s why I love the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – it gives us a chance to explore the wider world of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
The Bible (including the Apocrypha texts) refers to angels and archangels 393 times. Five angels are named within these texts: Michael (whom we heard about today and whose name means “Who is like God?”), Gabriel (the quintessential Christmas angel who appeared to Mary and whose name means “God is my Champion”), Raphael (whose name means “Healer of God” from the apocryphal book of Tobit), Uriel (“Light of God”) and Jeremiel (“Mercy of God”) both appear in the apocryphal text of Esdras. Islam also speaks of angels and it is said the Quran was revealed to Mohammed by the angel Jibriel (Arabic for Gabriel). Our word “angel” derives from the Greek word angelos which means “messenger” or “emissary” and can refer to either a heavenly being or a human being.
This leads me to pause this homily for a brief “theological service announcement.” There are misconceptions about angels in our culture and I would be remiss as a priest if I didn’t address two of the most common ones. The first one comes from a movie which will start showing on television continuously in … oh … about 8 weeks. That’s right – the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” marathon. [How many of you have seen “It’s a Wonderful Life?”] Most of us know this story of redemption where an earthbound angel named Clarence Oddbody who tries to earn his wings by helping the distraught George Bailey see all the good in his life – and we know that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” That’s good Hollywood, but poor theology. Angels do not earn their wings – this isn’t the Air Force or United Airlines. Meritocracy is not how things work in the Kingdom of God. The Bible says some angels have wings like the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah’s vision or the winged cherubim with four faces Daniel saw. But just as often, scripture says angels look … well … a lot like humans: the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre and the two men in the tomb tell the women Jesus is alive are certainly angels … but they don’t seem to have any flying gear. We can surmise that angels either have wings or don’t and perhaps this is why the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us to always show hospitality because some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13.2).
The second common misconception is that humans become angels when they die. This one is a hard one to address when it arises because it is often said at funerals – especially funerals of children or those who die tragically. It’s usually said by a well-meaning friend or family member who’s trying to bring comfort and meaning to a senseless loss: “God must have needed another angel and that’s why …” Funerals are obviously not the time to address this. Instead we clergy bite our tongues (and I think I have a row of permanent teeth marks to prove it) and we wait … for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels so we can talk about it. For the record, we do not become angels when we die. I can no more turn into an angel upon my death than I could turn into a giraffe right now. People and giraffes are different species – so are angels and humans. When I die, scripture promises I will be taken into God’s presence to serve God as a transformed, resurrected human … not an angel. In fact, we humans enter God’s presence with something angels do not have: a tested faith in God. Angels never know what it is like to live apart from the full presence of God, but we do and in this life must walk by faith and not by sight. So when we enter God’s glory it is with a faith which has been tried and tested in ways that angels don’t quite understand. So now you know and we can return to our regularly scheduled homily.
All this talk of “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” might be a bit hard to swallow in our post-modern, evidence based scientific culture. We might be tempted to rationalize away their existence by categorizing them as colorful metaphors of ancient people. Most of you know me well enough to know that I tend to be a pretty rational, logical person and I confess that I cannot see angels directly … but I do know people who can and I believe them. Let me tell you about two people who’ve told me about their encounters with angels.
I was pregnant with our youngest daughter when Claire was only three years old. Now we all know how long pregnancies are for adults, let alone three year olds, so Stu and I decided to wait until the pregnancy was obvious to tell Claire about the new baby coming. So we were extremely careful not to talk about the “b-a-b-y” in front of Claire (we didn’t even spell it in front of her). One morning when I was about 10 weeks into the pregnancy, I was pulling on my stretch leggings (because my pants were starting to get uncomfortable) and Claire came into my bedroom and patted me on the stomach. I said, “Yeah, looks like I’m getting a little fat, huh?” She just smiled and said, “No, it’s not fat, it’s just the baby in your tummy.” I was dumbfounded … “What?” Claire looked a little exasperated with me … “It’s just the baby in your tummy.” I asked, “How do you know about that?” She said, “I just know these things. And I know where babies come from too.” (This ought to be good, I thought). “Really? Where do they come from?” “They come from God Mommy.” (Good answer!) “And God is sending us a girl baby – I’m getting a sister!” Hmm … “Well honey, we don’t really know if God is sending you a sister. We might have a boy baby.” Claire was adamant, “NO! God is NOT sending us a boy baby! I’m getting a sister!” … OK …
When Stu got home that evening, Claire ran up and threw her arms around him. As Stu hugged her, I said, “Guess who knows about the b-a-b-y?” He looked at me and said, “Did you tell her?” “I didn’t tell her, I thought you told her!” At that point Stu looked at Claire and asked, “So who told you about the baby in Mommy’s tummy?” Claire was very matter-of-fact, “The Angel.” I about fainted … but she was very clear. The angel told her God was sending us a girl baby – and she told people about this very plainly … for about two years. One day when she was about 6 years old, I asked her if she remembered the angel who told her about God sending us a “girl baby” and she said, “No Mommy.” The memory may have faded for Claire, but I am blessed to hold it for both of us.
In my time as a hospice chaplain, I observed that when people come to the end of life, they often are living in between this world and the next. When death is near, they often see long deceased relatives and friends. But just as often, they see people they don’t know – one patient asked me about the “shiny people.” I believe these people they do not know are quite likely members of the heavenly hosts and one of my patients had such an encounter. Jean was from England. When she was enrolled in hospice I visited her and she told me much about her life and her family that was factual – she had six strokes and could not walk, she was married to her second husband Charlie who has Alzheimers, she had two sons, she was a stalwart member of the Church of England who loved the Book of Common Prayer and the old hymns, and she didn’t understand her youngest son and his wife who attend one of those “happy clappy churches” – “they don’t use a prayer book, imagine that!” But about ¾ of the way through our first visit, she turned and said, “Oh, excuse me, did you get that list I gave you last week?” I turned and looked … but there was nobody there. At least I couldn’t see anyone there. Her son chalked it up to medication – I wasn’t so sure.
One day as I entered her room, Jean was lying in bed and staring at the wall with a very troubled look on her face. I said, “Jean, you look like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. What’s troubling you?” She said, “It’s that staircase.” I said, “Which staircase?” She said, “That one … the one right behind you.” I looked behind me and saw a wall … but I said, “Oh … THAT staircase. What’s wrong with it?” (I didn’t really see the staircase … but she did and that was most important). She said, “The man at the top of the staircase says I have to go up the stairs. I’ve had six strokes and I can’t walk. I can’t go up those stairs. And he says Charlie has to go up the stairs too and he’s in a wheelchair. We can’t get up the stairs!” I asked, “Did the man at the top of the stairs say you have to go right now?” She looked up … “No … not right now.” I took her hand, “Well, then you don’t have to worry at all because when it is time for you and Charlie to go up the stairs, God will strengthen your legs and you will run up those stairs and be light as a feather.” She said, “Really? How do you know?” I said, “Jean, I know because God will never ask you to do anything that he won’t give you the strength to accomplish.” She looked upward towards the top of the staircase and said, “Well … that’s a relief.” I asked her later if she knew the man at the top of the stairs, she said, “No. I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of holy death and the dying. Was he the man at the top of the staircase? I don’t know – perhaps he was. What I do know is this man came to give Jean a message. Four months later, Jean ran up the stairs – light as a feather, unburdened and free. This is our hope and the hope we baptize Vilhelm into today: that one day we too will run up those stairs and join the saints in light and live in the company of angels.