26 September 2021
Michael and All Angels
Ezekiel 1.4-12 | Psalm 138 | Revelation 12.7-12a | John 1.45-51
Today as a church, we celebrate the feast day of Saint Michael and all angels. Today in our readings we heard things such as the memorable depiction of some rather bizarre four-faced angels, who are also known as cherubs. We are told of a vision of a heavenly war where Michael and the army of the angels of heaven defeat the dragon (Satan) and his angels. Do you think of angels as part of your understanding of God or are they something of a bygone era, left in the basket of unpopular things at the back of the cupboard?
If I were to ask you how you picture angels, would you think of human like figures in long gowns with feathery or glittery wings, as can be seen in children’s story books, gift shops and TV shows. Are they like chubby little child-like figures, like the one depicted in the recent Quilton toilet paper ad or sinister and threatening like those in Doctor Who? Perhaps you might think of the somewhat frightening and bizarre depiction of angels that we heard of in Ezekiel’s highly symbolic passage, with a likeness of four faces, two sets of wings, calf’s feet and straight burnished bronze legs?
These living creatures or cherubim of Ezekiel’s vision is similar to other such forms throughout the ancient Eastern world, fulfilling a similar role as throne-bearers or guardians of temples and palace thresholds. These creatures, sharing in both human and animal likeness (with faces of human, lion, ox and eagle), were believed to hold the attributes and powers of each creature (such as strength, speed, intelligence and courage) they were awe-inspiring guardians of holy things, although these descriptions are impressionistic as Ezekiel attempts to describe indescribable holy things. Ezekiel’s description of the wings of these indescribable creature is also highly symbolic. The symbolism of the angles wings – one set of wings were extended, while the second set covered the body of the creature – could be suggestive of both reverence for and submission to God.
Scripture tells us that angels (from the Greek aggelos) were the messengers of God and are often hard to describe. Angels often appeared to humans uttering the phrase ‘do not be afraid’, as in the visitation of Gabrielle to Mary in the gospel of Luke.
One of the few named angels in scripture, is Michael, who was considered to be a special guardian angel for Israel. In Revelations, we hear of a heavenly war between Michael and the angels of God, and the dragon and his angels. This is the second of seven signs during the trumpet judgments. In this apocalyptic scene, the dragon is defeated and cast down to earth.So, what is this apocalyptic vision, better yet what is the apocalypse? Is it a time of fear and judgment? A violent act of God, to end violence or something that may have been wrongly be used by the church throughout history as a means of instilling fear and maintaining control? Wrongly used, apocalyptic writings can be used to justify violence. Instead apocalyptic visions should not be at odds with our understanding of a peaceful and loving God, but rather seen as a way of unveiling violence. In this apocalyptic unveiling of violence, we are able to break free from the cycle to perpetual violence. We break free from the pattern of violence creating more violence. G.B. Carid likens this pattern of self-propagating violence to that of the many headed Hydra, cut on heard off and another grows in its place. Salvation and the end of this continual cycle of violence is present in the act of Jesus Christ, the Lamb.
This relatable vision of an ultimate, cosmic conflict of God’s agents against an evil would have been familiar to the Jews, with their history of conflict. Jesus brings about a new way, a way of peace and nonviolence. This vision is not a literal prediction of the future, or a message about the unimportance of the world around us, but an unveiling of the vicious cycle of violence using familiar images and poetry to reveal God’s presence and truth in the world.
As frightening, shocking and other worldly as these images may be, they may in fact be calling us to the present, here and now. Kathleen Norris uses the western Dakota idiom ‘next-year-country’, which can be summed up in phrases like ‘next year the rains will come at the right time’. It is both a hope and a call to action. To engage in the communal call to stand against violence, to break the cycle and be examples of God’s non-violent action in the world.
As we remember Michael and all the angels and the apocalyptic visions of Revelation, we are not lost in violence and despair, but in hope of the coming of God’s kingdom as we actively participate in this truth of God’s presence in our lives. Our God is a God who is bigger than our violence, who wipes away all tears (Rev. 21:4).
God / Jesus were non-violent participants in the reality of a crucified Christ. This may seem to be in contrast to this vision of angelic conquest, and may leave us with questions as to the nature and appearance of angels and the place of violence in the world. The cross reveals to us that the nature of this defeat over sacred violence is decidedly not by violent overthrow. The divine solution recognises that sacred violence cannot be overthrown by more sacred violence. Rather, God’s answer is the power of forgiveness and sanctification in the face of the powers and principalities of violence. This is something we too are called to participate in, as we look to and become part of ‘next-year-county’.