A belief in the presence of spirits – both good spirits and bad spirits – is unmistakable in many, if not most, communities around the world. Whilst here in Australia the art of ghost hunting and paranormal detection has become something more of an entertaining past time, and our neighbours dabble in all kinds of spiritual pursuits, often without any real understanding of what they are doing, in many parts of the world a belief in the presence of spirits at work is fundamental to how people see and understand the world that they live in. The power of witch doctors and those who are close to the spirits is unmissable in many cultures.
On almost every street corner in Phuket in Thailand, where Luisa and I have just returned from our holiday, you can see small spirit houses, which are believed to be the dwelling places of good spirits, what we in western culture might name as guardian angels. Through a mixing of Buddhist thought and local customs that have developed over the centuries many Thai people believe that by being attentive to these little shrines – offering food, and venerating them, they can please the good spirits who come to live in them and who will, in turn, keep evil spirits away. One of our tour guides explained to me that the good spirits who live in these houses can help with all kinds of things, including winning the lottery! So people decorate these little houses, and leave food and drink and other offerings in front of them in order to gain favour from the spirits that they believe will come and live in them. This is one example of many ways around the world where people seek to respond to the good and bad spirits that they understand to be at work.
I wonder how we react to these kinds of beliefs as we stand back and look at them from a distance? More than likely we will want to dismiss them as the kind of primitive superstitions that we in Australia have grown out of. But in doing so we need to remember that the Bible, and our Judeo-Christian tradition is full of stories about good spirits – angels – some of which we have heard about once again in the readings at this Eucharist. The Church teaches us that good and bad spirits exist. With Christians around the world we celebrate the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels today. Our readings and our hymns point us to those celestial beings, those good spirits, who worship and minister in the presence of God.
In the Bible and in early Jewish literature Michael is named as one of the angels of the presence of God, and he is depicted as a warrior prince leading the celestial armies against the forces of darkness. Indeed he is named as the Guardian Angel of Israel. Another of the great angels, the angel Gabriel is depicted as the great messenger of God, who in the Christian story of salvation is the one who announces to Mary that she will bear God in her womb. In both the Jewish and Christian stories of faith it is the angels of God who act like great flashing pointing neon lights, turning up at the right moment to let people know that God is at work. Just think for a moment of the whole story of the incarnation: the Blessed Virgin Mary will at some point find out that she is pregnant, but it is the angel beforehand, who helps her to interpret, through the message that he brings, what is going on and why. A little later it is the angels who announce to the shepherds the message of the extraordinary events that are taking place near them as Jesus is born amongst us, which they were completely unaware of. In the same way, an empty tomb is transformed from an experience of terror into the promise of resurrection through the message that the angels bring to those searching disciples on Easter Morning.
In past times in our Christian tradition there were separate days to commemorate the Archangel Michael, the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God, and for the Archangel Raphael, who has held a strong place in the Christian tradition as one who heals. Nowadays all of the angels are celebrated in this one feast that the Church observes this weekend.
What do we think about these good spirits, these angels? We are obviously not about to start to leave food and drink out for them as offerings as the people I observed in Thailand do. Who are these angels, and how should we seek to imagine them and connect with them in our Christian walk of faith?
Saint Gregory the Great, one of the four great Doctors of the Church, preaching about angels in the Fifth century, said this:
You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels. Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform… personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when the come among us. Thus, Michael means “Who is like God?”; Gabriel is “The Strength of God”; and Raphael is “God’s Remedy.”
Saint Gregory says that angels are those good spirits of God who become known to us when they bring us a special word from God. We have no idea really what form they take in their continual worship of God in heaven, but when they come amongst us to bring us God’s message, we know them as angels who have the power to declare what is taking place around us. Think of the young Mary, think of the shepherds, think of the disciples gathered at the empty tomb. The angels are there in each of those extraordinary moments to declare the message that God is at work, and that things are not happening by chance.
But if we are honest these accounts also offer us a dilemma, that no well argued formula from one of the Church Fathers can easily overcome. We see the angels in Christian iconography and artwork. We hear about them in the scriptures. We can understand the theory of them from such teachers as Saint Gregory the Great, but the dilemma is this. Unlike people in some other cultures who have a heightened sense that they live amongst spirits – both good and bad – most of us have never experienced angels in our daily lives, and most of us haven’t particularly been hoping to, in this life at any rate. So how do we respond to that reality? Does this mean that there are no angels, or simply that we have failed to see them?
In the stories that we find in the Bible the angels bring heaven to earth and earth to heaven. They connect us on earth to the joy and glory of heaven. They give us an encouraging moment when we can see the reality at the heart of things, when we see it all clearly. They bridge the gap. They remind us not of our disconnection from all that is real, but of our connection and purpose. They are messengers, signposts, to help those they encounter in their chief vocation to become all that God intends them to be.
When I reflect on the angels of God I am encouraged that they are signs that we are not alone, and that there is a God who loves us personally, who has a purpose for our lives and the lives of those who live around us, who is always trying to reach us where we are despite our best attempts to avoid his message of challenge and love.
And so I wonder, given that we are not prone to seeing angels ourselves, what it would be like to imagine ourselves to be people who continue the ministry of angels today: not with wings and a halos. but to live lives that try to emulate all that we affirm about angels. To be people who seek to share God’s message of love with others. To be people who assure others that God is present with them, at work in them, loving them, and to be a Church that lives out that angelic vision of loving and worshipping God with our whole hearts because we know the truth of it deep within our beings, and messengers of his purpose for others.
Today we pray that the angels of God may watch over us, and that we, inspired by them, may be messengers of the grace of God for others.