Message from Father Nick 89

Angels we have heard on high

We have already seen Andrei Roublev’s famous icon of the Trinity. Painted in the early fifteenth century, it depicts the three “angels” who visit Abraham (Gen 18:1-15) and prophesy that his wife Sarah will bear him a son, Isaac. Roublev lets us glimpse in these three angels the three divine persons. His painting is a work of true spiritual beauty.

We might wonder whether angels actually exist, whether we have not grown past them now. If so, it is to our own impoverishment. In his book, A Rumour of Angels, Peter Berger quotes a comment on our situation: “most present-day Anglo-American philosophers have the same concept of reality as that held by a slightly drowsy, middle-aged businessman right after lunch.” 

Whether or not middle-aged businessmen – and women – still take lunch, the point is well made and it affects our own thinking too. Angels and fairies can be too easily mixed together in our childhood minds and just as easily abandoned together as we grow to adulthood – even if there is a current New Age interest in some kind of angel world.

As Roublev depicts the mystery, “angels” show and serve God’s own action. They make his purpose manageable for us – Moses’ burning bush and Elijah’s “still, small voice” are part of the long tradition of individuals being shielded from God’s ineffable greatness. They are given just enough for their needs. So, with angels: from God to humanity, angels communicate a deeper truth.

As Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604) put it, “It must be realised that the word ‘angel’ is the name of an office, and not of a nature. For these holy spirits of our homeland in heaven are always spirits, but in no way can they always be called ‘angels’ or ‘messengers’, since they are angels only when something is announced through them.” He explains the names of the so-called “Archangels”: “Michael means ‘Who is like God’, Gabriel ‘Strength of God’, RaphaelHealing of God.’

In a sense, we need to reclaim the idea of angels, taking it beyond all superficial prettiness. Even if we keep the well-known imagery of wings and gowns, when we think of angels, we can remember three things:

1)Their beauty and garb reflect transcendent truth. Like the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision of the temple, they both screen and communicate the sheer wonder of God.

2)They enable human beings to understand God’s purpose, which is always beneficent to us and never coercive. In whatever way the Good News might have been communicated to Mary, Gabriel was the process by which God’s greatest message was given to his world.

3)God’s message to us is immediate and universal (hence the significance of angels’ wings) – and once communicated, the Good News must be shared. Like Mary hurrying to visit Elizabeth, we are each given a responsibility of our own.

Advent offers us a special opportunity to welcome the Good News. This year, may we allow it to take on a new meaning for us all.