Angels and Us

Christians need to be very careful about what they say and think about angels because, in the first place, the Bible has very little to say on the subject.  It is pretty clear that the idea of angels came into Judaism and therefore Christianity from pagan religions that were not monotheistic. There were pagan religions that imagined all kinds of greater and lesser deities and angels fit in somewhere between the gods and the human race.  And that seemed to make sense to the Jews because it filled a vacancy, so to speak. Primitive Judaism had a clear idea of a God beyond all imagining.   There could be no images of God, no likeness of God, because God was so far beyond.  And true as that may be it, left the Jews feeling a little isolated. angels

Are there angels?  Well, why not?  The part of creation we know firsthand, the material, tangible part that you can weigh and measure and look at under a microscope involves such a beautifully graded series of phenomena from rocks to clouds and from microbes to jelly fish to sharks and whales and snakes and frogs and cats and dogs and horses and monkeys and chimpanzees to human beings that we should ask, “Why would the series stop there and leave us with that immense, immeasurable gap between us and God with nothing at all in between.  If God can create so much and at the climax of it all the living soul, flesh and spirit human, why not pure spirit? Why not angels and archangels and all the company of heaven?

God obviously could, so it seems likely God would.  And why?  Well, why did God make giraffes and anteaters and porcupines?  The Psalms and the Book of Job speak of leviathan, the great sea monster, the whale, which, says the Bible, “you made for the sport of it.”  Sure, just for fun.  And so why not angels for the fun of it, for the pleasure of their company, and why not give them something to do when they tire of playing their harps?  Why not use them as messengers, as guides, to provide additional help for human beings, who need all the help they can get?  Why should there not be angels?

The great hymn we will sing at the Offertory describes wonderfully the various roles of angels.  There is Michael, first of all: the commanding general of the armies of heaven: “peacemaker” the hymn calls him, “driving out conflict and hatred.”  Michael: the name means “Who is like God?”  And who better than an angel to remind us that no one is like God?

And then there is Gabriel, the messenger who came to Mary with the news  of the role for which God had chosen her.  And there is Raphael, the healer, “health bringer blessed, aiding every sufferer.”

So the angels are not “one note Johnnies.”  They play various roles,, but all as God’s agents toward us – at least as far as we know.  If there is life elsewhere in the universe, who knows what other roles they may play there?  They play various roles on our behalf but almost always invisible, unseen, even unknown.  And that’s important.  In the Book of Revelation John tells us how in his vision he saw an angel and fell down at the angel’s feet – – and was rebuked.   “Worship God,” said the angel. The last thing an angel would want to do is come between us and God.  And so we are almost never aware of angelic presence –  and shouldn’t be. The angel we see would normally be a clumsy angel. A prompter in a play has a vital role but if you become aware of the prompter, that’s not a good job.  So, too, with the angels.  Normally, we should never see them unless we are very sensitive or, as I said, the angel is very clumsy.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was very small my mother sent me down cellar one day to get something and bring it up.  Now that was back in the days when cellars were serious places, not like the modern paneled and carpeted dens and recreation rooms and TV lounges.  No, I’m talking about a dirt floored cellar with a monstrous great furnace in the middle and flues going up in all directions and cobwebs and dark corners. I said I didn’t want to go; I said it was dark in the cellar and there were wolves.  “It’s all right,” my mother said, “God will send an angel to protect you.”  “But I can see the wolves,” I said, “and I can’t see the angels.”

Now that is very good theology.   That’s the problem with angels.  Most of the time, if they’re doing their job right, you can’t see them. But I think it does help to know we are not alone, not alone when we have to go into the dark cellars and scary places, not alone when we wonder where everyone else is, not alone when we need the kind of help human beings can’t always give. Angels are there for that.

But maybe the most important thing to know about angels in God’s ultimate plan is that we are more important than they.  Angels, you know, have a pretty dull life.  They’re pure spirit.  They are incapable of sin, incapable of change, incapable of progress.

There’s an old Hasidic saying that goes:”The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve.  Man’s flaw is that he can deteriorate, and his virtue is that he can improve.”

So I think it’s better to be a human being than an angel.  They are what they are and always will be.  But hear what the Bible says of us: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them or mortals that you care for them?  You made them a little lower than the angels and crown them with glory and honor.”

Our destiny is greater than theirs.  At the last, much more clearly than now, angels will serve us.   So give thanks for the existence of angels and the help we will seldom know they provide, but keep them in their place and worship God alone.

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