“I am the light of the world”
In November David wrote about saints in the context of All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day. This month I follow that with a few thoughts on angels. After all, Jesus said that in the resurrection men and women neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven.
Now I appreciate that I am straying into an area where some might say that angels fear to tread! It is undoubtedly a difficult topic. But when Anne and I were in the Dordogne in September we visited a small Romanesque parish church at Besse, which has a fine west portal. One of the most striking aspects of the ensemble is the plethora of angels, nine in all on a relatively small doorway, emphasising their importance in the portal’s theme, salvation through the Incarnation. At the apex of the arch there is an inscription: The angels of the Lord. This spurred me on to investigate angels further!
During Advent and Christmas, we find angels in many aspects of the gospel story as well as our worship. First we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary. So one of the Advent Prefaces: “And now we give you thanks because your Son our Lord was awaited by the prophets, announced by an angel….” The word angel means messenger and there are the messengers to the shepherds at the Nativity. An angel then warns Joseph, in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
There is also the angels’ never-ending praise of God. Another Advent Preface: And so with angels and archangels, … we join in their unending hymn of praise; and a Christmas prayer: Angels dance and the bright star shines. All creation bows to the Lord of all. Lord, bring us today into Christ’s light. All God’s people shout: Amen!
On the portal at Besse, there is Isaiah’s vision with two seraphim: And one cried to another and said Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory,” a part of the liturgy since the third century. One of the seraphim brings the burning coal to touch Isaiah’s lips (anticipating the bread and wine in the Eucharist); this takes away his iniquity so that he can become God’s messenger on earth.
And then there are angels as guardians and helpers, such as in Peter’s release from prison, Acts ch. 12: Peter was bound with two chains and, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shined in the cell: he awoke Peter saying Rise up quickly. And the chains fell from off his hands. This event is also depicted on the Besse doorway, the chains covering the whole of the portal’s semi-circle.
The principal protector, in life as in death, is the Archangel Michael, and he too is on the Besse doorway. He is spearing the dragon, the body of which is contorted as a simile of the chains that have fallen from Peter’s hands. Thus Christ through the angels frees us from the shackles of our sins. Finally, in the story of Lazarus, angels escorted his soul to the bosom of Abraham and angels carrying an ascending soul are depicted at the apex of the Besse doorway.
So, what can we make of all this? Some stories of angels suggest that those who experience them only “realise” they were angels after the event, as in Tobias and the Archangel Raphael. Imagining spiritual beings is difficult, if not impossible, and anthropomorphic representations are surely no more than man’s inadequate attempt to comprehend or at least represent this mystery. Even so, such images can be valuable aids for meditation and contemplation.
For me it is significant that the appearance of angels is often associated with light, as in Peter’s liberation. An image of Peter in prison appears in ninth century Byzantine Psalters beside psalm 97, verse 11: You who love the Lord, hate evil! He guards the souls of his devout; from the hands of sinners he will rescue them. Light dawned for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.
Perhaps our understanding of angels may be helped by the early translation, known as the Septuagint, of Deuteronomy, 33:2. Instead of: Moses said, The Lord came from Sinai, he came with flaming fire at his right hand, we find in the Greek translation of the last phrase: At his right hand the angels accompanied him.
In this way, angels may be understood as one part of God’s immanence as The Light of the World.
A very happy Christmas,