The Venerable Dr. Christopher A. Brown
My daughter was a wayward angel. She was three years old; the youngest child in the Christmas pageant. Shepherds, angels and wise men flocked around the manger on the chancel steps as they faced the congregation. Behind them, under the vaulted Gothic ceiling was the stable and a large gilt star on a pole. My daughter, the littlest angel, suddenly broke rank. She hopped off her step, and began to amble around the front of the church. She inspected the poinsettias that were carefully arranged at the chancel steps, and waved at people she knew in the congregation, oblivious to efforts of the older children to get her back in her place. No one minded; it added to the atmospheric charm of Christmas Eve.
Angels as a Problem
Yet once Christmas is over, we are not sure what to make of angels – at least those of us who have moved beyond the Christmas pageant stage in our faith development. Some of us may still be intrigued by the idea of unseen spiritual beings at work behind the scenes, but we are not inclined to probe the matter further. After all, how are we to correlate the existence of unseen spirits with the rationally ordered worldview of modern science and the fruits of empirical investigation?
For some, angels are actually a stumbling block to a viable adult faith. John Shelby Spong has said, “I cannot say my yes to legends that have been clearly and fancifully created. If I could not move my search beyond angelic messengers, empty tombs, and ghostlike apparitions, I could not say yes to Easter….Angels do not invade time, space and history to roll back a stone, to make a historic resurrection announcement.”
John Spong delights in theological provocation. Most modern interpreters of scripture are more circumspect, and would not deny outright the existence of angels. Nevertheless, it has become a commonplace for the more liberal Bible scholarship to treat scriptural texts that speak of angels as fanciful elaboration, fictional embellishments added in order to make a theological point. The underlying presupposition is that angelic beings are by definition fanciful and hence their appearance in the narrative inevitably reflects an imaginative insertion by the biblical writer.
Angels in Popular Culture
While liberal scholarship is uncertain about angels, popular culture displays a continuing interest – but at the cost of trivializing angels. We have made angels cute and innocuous, like the cherubic infants depicted in baroque painting and statuary. Greeting cards and inspirational prints render them as ethereal beings of uncertain gender, dressed in gauzy white robes as they clutch golden harps and hover in mid-air. Then there are the Hollywood angels; the earnest do-gooders from “Its Wonderful Life,” or “Heaven Can Wait,” or John Travolta’s dysfunctional angel, “Michael” – carousing away his time on earth and awkwardly trying to hide his large wings under his coat.
Angels have become New Age spirit guides with little connection to the biblical narrative. A few years ago a friend who calls herself a “Post-Christian” took a course on how to communicate with angels for spiritual guidance – but without reference to Jesus or scripture. More common are the plethora of anecdotal accounts in which mysterious persons – taken to be angels – appear at just the right time in a crisis and then disappear just as mysteriously. Increasingly angels have become a conveniently non-sectarian cipher for benevolent spirits that we can turn to for help.
The common denominator is that none of these versions of angels bear much resemblance to angels as they appear in the Bible. The result is their trivialization, since they become whatever we want them to be – markers of our spiritual longings, perhaps, but entirely apart from the robust and incisive role that they play in the biblical drama of salvation.
Visible and Invisible
The Gospel of John makes the radical claim that Jesus Christ is responsible for the work of creation, “all things were made through him, and without him there was nothing made that was made.” The Epistle to the Colossians agrees that “by him all things were created,” but then elaborates, “in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The work of the Creator – the Father working through the Son – is not just the great expanse of nature as we encounter it, or even the immensity of the physical universe. God did not just create Earth; he also created Heaven; not just the visible, but the invisible as well. We affirm this every Sunday in the Creed when we declare that God is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”
The recognition that creation includes the unseen spiritual world as well as the immediate physical world is the basis for our understanding of angels. Angels populate this unseen but created spiritual world that we refer to as “Heaven.” Yet what makes angels significant for us is the fact that they are not limited to the heavenly sphere. They traverse the distance between the heaven and earth. In biblical Greek, an angelos is a messenger. As messengers, angels function as intermediaries. They effect the intersection of heaven and earth – which lies at the core of God’s redemptive purpose.
In the Book of Revelation, the Heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband” and God announces his dwelling place in the midst of the new humanity. In this climactic redemptive act, the gulf between heaven and earth is erased. As early as Genesis, the ministry of the angels anticipates this final reconciliation of heaven and earth. We see this expressed in the dream of Jacob, “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” Jesus employs this imagery, and links the angels with his vocation as the decisive mediator of heaven and heaven, when he tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics offers perhaps the most robust theological discussion of angels of the modern era. Barth takes angels with utter seriousness and refuses to sideline them as fictional embellishments of the sacred text. According to Barth, angels are the means by which God directly engages with our sphere, thereby enabling heaven and earth to connect. He goes so far as to assert that there is no intersection of heaven and earth, no encounter between God and His creation, apart from the active involvement of angels. He asks,
“…whether and how far there can be any experience of God and his Christ, any encounter and co-existence with Him which does not take place in the presence and with the participation of his angels…. the visitation of the earthly creation by God its Creator means its visitation by its heavenly fellow-creation. And its encounter with God – whether it is aware of it or not—is its encounter with angels. Where God is — the God who acts and reveals himself in the world created by Him—heaven and angels are also present.”
What are Angels?
Angels are not divine beings. They are not, as Barth says, “emanations of God.” Like us, they are created. Unlike us, they dwell in the immediate presence of God. Says Barth, “as heavenly creatures...they belong to God.” Christian tradition identifies angels as purely spiritual non-corporeal beings. Thomas Aquinas contended that angels are “intellectual creatures,” and hence, “angels do not have bodies naturally united to them” and “are quite separated from bodies.”
Yet as incorporeal spiritual beings, the angels are curiously able to assume physical form within in the human sphere – a capacity that flows from their vocation as messengers and mediators of the gulf between heaven and earth. Here lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the angelic nature: a certain transparency in regard to the presence and utterance of God. Their activity is so entwined in God’s redemptive purpose, that in those narratives in which angels appear to human beings, it is not always clear to the reader whether the speaker is the angel, or the LORD Himself.
By the Oaks of Mamre
The classic example is Abraham’s encounter with three mysterious visitors, the incident that lies behind the admonition of Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” We read first that “the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre.” The Lord does not “appear” in a burst of transcendent light. Rather, as Abraham “lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing in front of him.” Who exactly are these figures? The Old Testament scholar, Gerhard Von Rad, states the obvious: the narrative shows “a certain lack of clarity regarding the visitors.”
According to Genesis, “They said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’” When Abraham indicates that Sarah is in the tent, the response comes not from the “they” of the preceding question, but from “The LORD.” Has the LORD suddenly appeared and taken over the conversation initiated by the three visitors? Or is the LORD actually one of three visitors? This might seem to be indicated by the fact that after dinner, two visitors depart for the city of Sodom while “the LORD” remains and converses with Abraham. It is at this point that Genesis tells us that the two travelers to Sodom are actually angels; but what of the third? Is the third the LORD himself in human form? Von Rad concludes rather that “Yahweh appeared in all three.” None of the three are “The LORD,” as such. But as angels, the three visitors are so transparent to the presence of God that God is able to speak and act through them.
The Hosts of the Lord
The biblical role of angels extends beyond their functioning as message-bearers to an active involvement in the human sphere. Operating behind the curtain that separates the seen and unseen, angels act on behalf of the people of God. The popular notion of “guardian angels” has biblical foundation in the words of Jesus, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven,” the possessive case indicating a personal association between the human and angelic. Similarly, when Peter is miraculously released from prison in Jerusalem, he goes to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. His friends do not believe it is really him. “It is his angel!” they say, indicating a common belief in New Testament times in angelic guardian spirits.
More often the Bible speaks of angelic involvement in broader more collective terms. The angels contend for Israel as a people, or for the Church. The Book of Daniel depicts the Archangel Michael as the “the great prince who has charge of [God’s] people” as he contends with the “prince of the Kingdom of Persia,” – who, like Michael, is not an earthly king but of one of the “powers and principalities” operating behind – or over and above – the sphere of earthly history.
In the Second Book of Kings, the Syrian King goes to war with the King of Israel, but his adversary seems to anticipate his every move. A spy tells him, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” So the Syrian army surrounds the city of Dothan where Elisha is living. Elisha’s servant wakes up that morning in terror. “Alas, my master!” he says, “What shall we do?” The prophet responds, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then God opens the servant’s eyes, “and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” This is the “Host of the Lord” – not an angelic choir, but a great army, mobilized to contend for God’s people.
In presenting a sort of angelic profile, I have stressed the complex and potent role angels play in the scriptural narrative as they bridge the distance between heaven and earth. I have not directly answered the question: “Are angels actually ‘real’?” That is part of a larger question about how we interpret scripture; whether we find it necessary to “demythologize” these texts to fit them into our post-enlightenment outlook, or, instead, allow the text to challenge and broaden the assumptions that we bring to it. (But even to state the problem in these terms, of course, is to opt for the later approach.)
Once we have sifted through the scriptural witness to the angels, the key theological message is that we have not been left to our own devices – “Those who are for us are more than those who are against us.”
Publishing in the Fall 2012 issue of The Albany Episcopalian