Recently an article of mine called “The Spirit-Drenched World and the Renewal of the Episcopal Church” was published by the online publication, Earth & Altar Magazine. It’s something of a provocation and a little bit provocative. It’s not necessarily something that I would write for my weekly parish column. The article is about how the wider church is in need of spiritual renewal. This wider renewal will of course have ramifications on the parish level. One implication, I wrote, is that in the parish “We need to teach and preach again about the existence of angels, demons, and miracles.” I thought maybe I should practice what I preach. As Christmas nears and we hear and recall stories of angels appearing to Mary and to shepherds and wise men, I thought I would spend some time sharing with you about angels.
I am not a materialist. That is, I don’t believe the material world which is experienced by our five senses and explored through the scientific method is all there is to reality. I believe there is something more. I would call this additional aspect of reality the spiritual world, or the spiritual dimension of our world, of our universe. The existence of spirits—beings without physical bodies but with wills, minds, and agency—cannot be ruled out for those who believe in the existence of God. If you believe in God then, from a logical standpoint, you must at least entertain the possible existence of spirits. Scripture is full of stories and ideas about spirits. Among them are angels. Our word “angel” is taken directly from the Greek word for a divine messenger. This is also the meaning of the word that gets translated as angel in the Hebrew Scripture, “malak.” An angel is a messenger from God. Angels, like everything else, spirited or bodied, is a creation of the one true God. Angels were created separately from humans. Humans do not become angels when they die (maybe I’ll write more about this, but one of the Scriptural references that points this out is Hebrews 1).
Angels were created for specific purposes. We glean these purposes from Scripture. True to their etymology, many angels in the Bible are bearers of divine messages. The archangel Gabriel seems particularly exemplary to this task. He is the one mentioned in Luke who bears the greatest message ever messaged to a young woman in 1st Palestine named Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:26-31) A host of angels appear to shepherds announcing the birth of the savior (Luke 2:8-14). Before this, an angel appears to an aging priest, Zechariah, to announce that he will have (naturally conceived) a son (Luke 1:11-13), echoing the story of Abraham and Sarah, who also received mysterious messengers from God announcing that God would fulfill God’s promise and give them a son, Isaac (Genesis 18). Some angelic messages take on the form of a warning. An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary, (Matthew 1:18-21). Again the angel warns Joseph, this time to flee with his young family from the psychotic and murderous King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).
Another function of angels in Scripture is protection. Psalm 91, says “[God] shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Psalms 91:11-12). In the book of Revelation, Michael the archangel and a company of angels under his command, are tasked with protecting a woman who has just given birth. The woman represents Mary and the church, and the Michael defends her against a great dragon (Revelation 12:1-8). Angels are associated with a mysterious passage in 2 Kings, where the prophet of God, Elisha, is caught in a besieged city. The armies of Aram have surrounded the city of Samaria and there is no escape. Elisha is unperturbed. When his companions ask him why he’s so chipper, Elisha responds, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” He then prays that God gives those inside the city the spiritual sight to see what is going on. Suddenly, those present see a vast army of horses and chariots of fire protecting the city. When the attack of the Arameans finally comes, though, this mysterious army fights in a unexpected way. God strikes the attackers with blindness. Elisha comes out and, with kinds words, leads the sworn enemies of his people into the city. When the king of city asks Elisha if he should kill them or not, Elisha responds, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” The Arameans never bother Israel again.
There are other functions of angels in Scripture, some of them shrouded in mystery. Angels guard, as in the angel who is placed at the gate to the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). Angels come to bring sustenance to Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). Jacob sees a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, (Genesis 28:10-19) and Balaam’s donkey sees an angel with a flaming sword blocking the way when its human rider (and tormentor) did not (If you’ve never read this story you really should, it’s great. You can find it in Numbers 22).
Perhaps the most important function of angels, however, is the constant, perpetual praise and worship of God. This function is mentioned every week in our liturgy when we say, “Joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to praise the glory of your Name: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty…”. In my next “Note” I will explore the biblical passages from which we derive this part of our liturgy, and this will lead us to explore some of the different types of angels/spirits, and the way they are described by those who had spiritual visions of them. Spoiler alert: angels don’t look like chubby babies artfully draped with tiny wings holding them aloft.