Angels: setting the record straight
Our culture has an angel problem. Lots of people talk about angels. Guardian angel this, Hallmark card that. Angels appear on TV shows. Angels are regular features in all manner of popular culture, high brow and low brow. You hear about them sometimes in sermons. And all of this chatter is, almost without exception, contrary to the picture of angels that emerges in the Bible.
So I thought I might clear up a few things on this Feast of St. Michael & All Angels. In no particular order, here goes.
Angels are not comforting. They are scary. There’s a reason nearly every time angels appear to humans in scripture, the angel begins by saying, “Be not afraid.” Aside from a thing appearing out of nowhere, their appearance is not what you might think. Which leads me to point the second.
Angels do not look like fat babies or cute wing-people. Generally speaking, angels are described as having loads of eyes and multiple faces. Put that on a Hallmark card.
Angels are not dead people who got a promotion. Sometimes you hear people say something to the effect, of, “When so-and-so died, I’m sure they became an angel.” No. Angels are beings in the created order, quite different from humans. Angels are as much like people as people are like dolphins. Sure, we’re all made by God. But angels are heavenly beings with different tasks than those given to humans.
The Bible does not talk about guardian angels. Sure, angels sometimes help out humans. But they are doing this at God’s bidding. God is the real guardian. There is certainly nothing in the Bible which would suggest that angels are assigned one-on-one to watch over particular people.
Cherubim and seraphim are plural words. These creatures may or may not be angels. The Bible lists a whole plentitude of orders of created beings. While some people would maintain that cherubim and seraphim are kinds of angels, it’s also possible to make the case that they’re as different from angels as are humans. In any case, if you are going to talk about one of them, it’s a cherub or a seraph. Given the uncertainty of the cosmic order, we could at least get grammar right in this realm.
Angels probably don’t sing. Yeah, I know, there are scores of hymns about angels singing. But there’s not much Biblical warrant for it. They seem to shout a lot. While we join our voices with angels and archangels in our celebrations of Holy Eucharist, there’s nothing that would suggest we all have to be singing in four-part harmony. Maybe they’re shouting color commentary. (More likely, they’re shouting God’s praise.)
The primary task of angels on earth is to carry messages for God. Most of the time when angels appear, it’s to bring news. Usually this is stunning news that only looks good with a bit of hindsight. Sure, we can celebrate the Annunciation now, but imagine how Mary felt that day. Zoinks.
Gabriel shows up a lot. He appears to Daniel. Then he shows up talking to Mary and Elizabeth (separately, of course). Muslims say that Gabriel appeared to Muhammad and revealed the Qur’an. (And legend has it that Gabriel appeared to Joan of Arc.) How cool is that? Gabriel is important to all three Abrahamic faiths.
Angels are awesome. Literally. Next time you have a few minutes, read about angels, cherubim, and seraphim. You’ll find yourself in Genesis, Isaiah, the psalter, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Gospels, and Revelation among other places.
So today, let us celebrate angels. But we should do that with some trepidation. If they show up, it’ll scare the @#$!*% out of you. But then they’ll probably have some amazing news to deliver.
UPDATE: Sherilyn reminds me that angels have excellent hold music.
UPDATE 2014: Here’s my sermon for Michaelmas 2014, continuing some of these themes.