Imagine I came to you and told you the following story.
I was out in a remote place, and I saw a windstorm coming from the north, an immense cloud full of lightening, surrounded by light. The center of the cloud glows with four living creatures, that look a little like human beings, but each has four faces: one like a man, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like an eagle. They each have four wings which touch the wings of the other creatures and when the wings move it sounds like rushing wind and roaring water. Fire flashes back and forth between them. On the ground beside each of these creatures are sparkling stone wheels intersecting each other so that they can go in any direction without turning. And each of these wheels is covered with eyes.
Okay. Would you
- Ask what I’d been smoking?
- Call the bishop and have me committed?
- Assume I’d seen too many science fiction movies?
- Or say, “Oh! You saw the cherubim”?
What I just read to you, the description of beings with many faces and wings and wheels covered in eyes—that’s how cherubim are described by the prophet Ezekiel. Not sicky-sweet baby angels with wings too small to lift a fly. The cherubim are the angels that support the throne of God. Ezekiel has this vision as he contemplates how the God of Israel can still be their god when they are in exile. He sees the cherubim lift the throne of God out of Jerusalem and follow the people into Babylon, to be where they were, not limited by geography. If you think about what has to be overcome for God to take up residence in places hostile to God, you can appreciate why this kind of angel had to be so imposing and even frightening.
Okay. So try this one. What if I said:
I was praying, and suddenly found myself in the presence of the living God. God was surrounded by the seraphim; each one had six wings: two covered the face, two covered the feet, and two were used to fly. The angels are all said to be intensely bright, fiery, seeming to burn from within. (The word seraphim appears to be related to the Jewish word for burn) The seraphim call to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” I am terrified by them, because I know that I am in the presence of the holiest of all holy things. One comes up to me, touches me with a burning coal and assures me that I have now been made clean and can bear the presence of God.
That vision is found in the 6th chapter of the prophet Isaiah. When we sing the Sanctus—“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord”—during the Eucharist, it is a reminder that we are entering that holiest of holy places, that we are about to encounter the presence of the living God in the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We are invited to sing with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
To be honest, these two descriptions were probably influenced by other, pagan, religions. But there was something in their ‘weirdness,’ their otherworldliness, that helped the people explain what it was they had experienced but didn’t know how to describe. I don’t believe it’s any accident that the first words we usually hear out of an angel’s mouth are, “Do not fear. Don’t be afraid.”
Today we are celebrating the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. It doesn’t very often fall on a Sunday, and technically in the Episcopal Church I’m supposed to push it to the following Monday. But we won’t all be together in church tomorrow, and the Lutherans allow it to be celebrated on a Sunday, so I’m leaning onto my Lutheran foot today, to give a chance to reflect together about what we have learned and think about angels, those divine messengers of God.
Yes, messengers. The word in Hebrew is malakh, and means messenger. One who brings a word from God. As much as we’d like to think it’s a word of comfort and reassurance, it’s much more often a word of challenge and call. Jacob is offered the chance to claim the God of his forefathers as his own God, and later wrestles the angel and gains a new name in the process, Israel. Moses hears a voice from a burning bush, telling him he has to lead the people out of slavery. Gideon is greeted by an angel as he threshes wheat in a winepress, the symbol of his own cowardice—and is told to gather the tribes of Israel and throw off the Midianites who had conquered them seven years before. Mary is told she will give birth to the Son of God. Joseph is told to bear the shame of marrying a woman who is pregnant but not by him, and later told to take that woman and her young son and flee in the middle of the night. Angels are messengers, and the message they bear is never easy to hear and accept.
I’m sure this comes as news to many of you, who probably think primarily in terms of ‘guardian’ angels. That’s not wrong. Angels do also provide protection; we heard in today’s reading from Revelation how Michael led the armies of heaven into battle against “the dragon.” A word of note: Revelation is not meant to be taken literally. It was written at a time when it was dangerous to challenge the power of Rome, and so the book is written with imagery borrowed from earlier scriptures, from some non-biblical sources, and imagery created by John of Patmos. It’s more like the parables that Jesus used to criticize the Pharisees without naming them directly. John writes Revelation to reassure us that God has not abandoned us, and so we should not abandon God. The point of the story about Michael is that we have to trust that when we find ourselves fighting “dragons”—however each of us defines that for ourselves—we are not alone. The power of God is fighting with us, to help us when we can’t do it alone.
The third major task of angels, according to the Bible, is to “minister” to us, to heal us and give us strength to do whatever it is God is calling us to. Remember that story of Elijah hiding in the cave? We are told that angels ‘ministered’ to him—they brought him food and water. They restored his strength and made it possible for him to go back and challenge King Ahab about his injustice and infidelity to God.
The Bible gives us the names of three “archangels,” each embodying one of the particular roles I’ve mentioned. Michael, “warrior of God.” Gabriel, whose name means “Bringer of the messages of God.” Raphael, “one who brings healing from God.”  Angels deliver messages from God and provide us with protection and healing. But they are not here solely for our benefit. They are created to serve God and God’s purposes in the world.
There is a belief among some people that humans become angels when they die. This is incorrect. When a person dies, he or she joins the communion of saints (we’ll celebrate that in about a month). Angels are something else, a separate order of creation. The medieval church spent a lot of time categorizing the ‘types’ of angels, and we hear some of those names in one of the hymns we’re singing today: ye watchers and ye holy ones, bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones, cry out dominions, princedoms, powers, virtues, archangels, angel choirs…Did you know, when you sing that hymn, that you are calling on all the different types of angels to lead us praising God?
Today we celebrate that God created something different from us, with a different purpose and different abilities. Beings that help us, reassure us—and occasionally give us a little push in the right direction. We celebrate that God finds ways to communicate with us, if we are willing to see angels as something more than pretty winged people in flowing gowns. Today we celebrate that even when our voices falter and our praises grow faint, the angels will be there to continue the song, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Open your eyes and ears, and I bet that in no time, you’ll realize there are angels all around, reminding us of those important things God wants us to hear: There’s nothing to fear. I am with you. You are loved. We’ll get through this along the way—and maybe we’ll feel better if we sing along the way.
 From the article “Angels” by Sister Mary Angela, St. Mary’s Convent, Greenwich, NY in The Anglican Digest, Michaelmas A.D. 2007