Today is the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. When I was a seminarian back in the far-off Sixties, angels were distinctly out of fashion. It was the time of Bishop John Robinson’s controversial book “Honest to God” and of the “God is Dead” debate. Everything that did not accord with the rational was under suspicion. So angels and miracles, mystery and heaven, and much more were side-lined in favor of a “religionless Christianity,” a religion shorn of all the fun bits (or so it seemed to me!). Thankfully the dean of my seminary was a person of deep faith with a robust prayer and liturgical life. This meant that he could talk about the contemporary theological scene in the context of historical and catholic theology and of his disciplined life of prayer and worship. But that was fifty years ago and much has changed since then including theological fashions as well as those regarding biblical interpretation. In those years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in prayer and healing, in angels and miracles, and above all in the theology of the Spirit.
Let me share a story with you dating from my early ministry. I was a curate in a church located in a blue collar area of Melbourne in a rather bleak suburb. However there was a remarkable group of parishioners there who taught me a great deal. One day I was to say the regular Wednesday Eucharist at 10am. Normally the majority of the congregation was made up of a bunch of women who voluntarily cleaned the church each week. This particular day there was only one woman present since all the others were away on vacation or suffering winter colds. When Miss Ellice saw me setting up in the Chapel she said to me: “Don’t say the eucharist just for me.” To which I replied somewhat piously: “Miss Ellice, it is not only you and me who will be present for the Eucharist but “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven”. She replied, somewhat doubtfully: “Yes, Father.” Yet for all my youthful enthusiasm and piety I still believe I was right. Because as we enter into worship and prayer we do not do so alone for we join with all the faithful, living and departed, with all the saints throughout the ages and with the whole heavenly company which includes angels and archangels. We are all part of a great community of faith which bridges time and space and eternity.
For me angels are an important part of our religious imagination: that God’s presence and communications are “embodied” in angelic form. They are part of our “embodied connectedness” to God. By ancient tradition their leader is Michael the Archangel. The other named favorite is Gabriel who announced the forthcoming birth of the Christ Child to Mary.
I find the angelic metaphor really helpful around the time of death. The words of the “In Paradisum,” often beautifully set to music, say it all: “May the angels lead you to paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city, Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.” Amen to that.