Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews, 13.2).
Angels are part of the fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, yet their identity is starkly elusive. The word ‘angel’ comes from a Greek word angelos meaning ‘messenger’. An angel then is someone (or perhaps something) which communicates the will of God to the human world. In their earliest appearances, such heralds are surprisingly ordinary. When Abraham is seen entertaining angels in Genesis, we are told that he offers them hospitality, as he would any human guest (Gen 17: 2-7). Yet, even early on in the Biblical story, there is clearly something uncanny about them. An angel calls out from heaven, to stave Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22:10). And we’re told that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder which linked earth with heaven (Gen 21:12). In this last image is revealed something of the intrinsic nature of the ‘angelic’ experience. To be in the presence of the angelic is to encounter an event which has the outlandish hallmarks of a timeless being, yet it occurs in time; amidst all the mud, blood and confusion of human history.
Later in the Biblical story (perhaps under the artistic influence of the Babylonians), the Jewish writers developed an image of angels more like the ones we see on Christmas cards today. And by the time of Jesus, Israel had a pretty sophisticated notion of what angels were like (complete with names, functions, and classes). At this later stage of their imaginative evolution, angels took on a bizarre, psychedelic quality- with glowing bodies, the faces of lions or eagles and with multiple wings. It was in this angelic-literate culture that both Matthew and Luke composed their Nativity narratives. Only the breaking in of the angelic world could be magnificent enough to mark the birth of God’s Messiah. The angels in their extraordinary appearance before the impoverished shepherds signal a new Jacob’s ladder, wrapped up in the person of Jesus. Yet, this still doesn’t shed much light on the nature of angels themselves; only that they are mysterious heralds, ushering in another grand mystery; God’s beloved son, alive on earth. So angels hang like big intrusive question marks in the middle of the Biblical universe, illustrating enigma, articulating our uncertainties, and offering us the joy of unexpected possibilities fulfilled.
Perhaps the most that can be said about angels is that they are a way of talking about God-shaped moments and God-shaped happenings, for which, in the end, only a spiritual meaning is persuasive. In some parts of the world, like Uganda, the traditional vision of angels still holds sway in the Churches. A robust Charismatic theology tells Ugandans to expect wonders, not just in the dusty pages of scripture, but in their personal lives. A Ugandan pastor once told that his life had been saved by an angelic visitation. In a rationalistic culture like ours, we are liable to take such accounts with a pinch of salt. Yet, he swore it happened to him, and told me he lamented the thinking of Western people, who refused to accept the presence of the angelic in daily life as he did. In my more rye moments, I suspect God is sensitive to our skeptical spasms, and as a consequence has scaled back his use of the spiritual fireworks. After all, it’s no good sending angels to people if so many of them are dismissed as mad. Given such intellectual hostility, how might we encounter angels today? Maybe some still experience the heavenly light on a hillside or see a flaming ladder, but I expect most will experience the angelic in more mundane ways. In the finest tradition of Protestant understatement, an evangelical lay preacher put it to me like this; coincidence is God’s way of keeping angels anonymous. The angels are with us, he seemed to be saying, but in the kindness of a stranger, the chance conversation, the hospitality unlooked for. In these convergences, God-shaped things happen and something of God is communicated to the world.
This description of angels might seem all too homespun and vague for the tastes of some- especially if we reflect on the many dramatic stories in which angels appear. What attracts people to angels is their exquisite strangeness; their ability to shake things up and shift things around. Yet, this kind of supernatural thrill-seeking portrays a fundamental misunderstanding about these mysterious messengers. The truth of the angelic is not to be found in their flaming swords or majestic wings, but in the fact that, when Jesus was half-starved and dangerously exhausted in the wilderness, it was said that the angels came and nursed him (Mark 1:12). Here we see one of the many gorgeous paradoxes of Christianity. Christians are bidden to seek out the extraordinary (the magical if you prefer) in the rhythms of ordinary life- in loving, providing and serving. In this, the angels show us the way. In that spirit of compassion, most disciples of Jesus don’t expect some Harry Potter-style rerun of the First Christmas (complete with heavenly choir-calls of ‘Glory to God in the Highest’). Instead, they seek out the continuing presence of the Christ-child in the world, amidst all its pains and problems. By living in solidarity with those who hunger after peace, justice, and righteousness, the disciple is invited into the alchemical workshop or the magician’s study, so that she might witness the transformation of the human heart from leaden blackness to glorious gold at first hand.
For most of us, however, this is a slow and arduous process (all true alchemy is). In general, the human species is pretty terrible at listening to its better inclinations. We get distracted by our own worries, anxieties, and hang-ups, so much so that we repeatedly fail to be the servants of love we know in our bones we can be. We neglect those in need closest to us, sometimes because we fear to intrude, or simply because the rush of the day just overtakes of us. And, in the end, without meaning to, we fail to do what love requires of us. Slowing-acting and difficult this process of metamorphosis might be, it is the abiding moral promise of Christianity; that we can become better, deeper, richer human beings, despite our inclination towards failure. And that’s the only magic followers of Jesus should need or expect. Anything else is a graceful bonus; gracious because it isn’t conjured up or looked for. Rather it appears unexpectedly from the depths of divine love. In this mysticism of the ordinary then, the angels are examples of service, encouraging us to heed God’s message when it is heard- not as a flashing light, but as an open door.
Talking to Angels
Yet, a niggling question remains. When all is said and done, can we actually see and talk to angels? Or are they just figurative expressions we hang on the mysterious? Many have claimed to have encountered angels- the poet William Blake and the scientist Emanuel Swedenborg to name but two. Yet for many, such testimony has never been enough. Could we perhaps summon them with incantations or special prayers? Could the materialists among us finally get something tangible to look at? The suggestion is pretty alluring, isn’t it? So attractive was the idea, that the Apostle Paul condemned early Christians for doing it. And even in later centuries, the occasional self-professed magus would attempt it (often at a great personal cost). The Royal astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I, Dr John Dee, was notorious for his arcane experiments to command and conjure angels. And it’s not just a relic of the past. Go to any Body and Mind and Spirit shelf in your local bookshop and you’ll soon see that such occult ambitions don’t seem to have abated that much in the proceeding centuries.
We seem as captivated by conjuring up angels as ever. Yet, as the old Faust legend warns us, the budding magician soon discovers that all he has summoned is a distorted reflection of his own desires and fears. Such are the perils of knocking on the doors of heaven just for the sake of curiosity. One suspects that the angels would prefer it if we didn’t spend much time trying to talk to them, since both we and they have a job to do in this world, and indulging in endless theological or occult speculation merely wastes time. It’s the holy equivalent of fussing over the latest bit of celebrity gossip in office hours. It might be fun, but it doesn’t get us very far. If you want to see angels, says the Christian tradition, you need first to get out of your own head and start living and working with others. The ‘deeper magic’ of Christianity as C.S. Lewis called it, requires no invocations, no astrological circles drawn in chalk, no black candles- only a willingness to start loving, giving and praying. Start down this road and you’ll soon discover angels around every corner- not all of them with wings.
Dedicated with love to my friend and guide Anna. I hope you are in peace Friend.