Revelation 12.7-12; Hebrews 1.5-14; John 1.47-51
Patronal Festival 1st October 2017
About fifteen months ago I noticed a significant increase in the number of people walking through St Michael’s churchyard. What was this new phenomenon? Was it a religious revival or a merely more people enjoying the pleasures of St Albans summer?
It didn’t take long to discover the demographics of this footfall. The new visitors tended to be young, male, and in groups. And even more than the general populace they were glued to their mobile phone screens. A little further investigation uncovered that these teenagers were playing Pokemon Go. Now for the uninitiated, Pokemon Go was a craze that began in the summer of 2016. It is a computer game in which people capture little cartoon sprites and use them to battle one another. The Pokemon characters actually appear on the phone as if they are in the real world, the game using each phone’s camera and gyroscope to create an Augmented Reality, in which colourful electronic avatars appear alongside the built and natural environment of the world around us.
Pokemon Go was devised in Japan and its characters (I am told) derive from Shinto. Pokemon are to Shinto what angels are to Christians, invisible agents of the holy, present and ready, whether perceived or not by humans – with or without a mobile phone.
You can’t see angels on your phone, but I wonder what pictures you have of them in your head? What do you think when you hear the word angel? Perhaps the most pervasive image is the angels of Christmas: white fluffy things with tinselly wings and halos. In the nativity play, the role of angels is usually if not universally taken by girls. And these Christmas angels are seen as creatures of harmony, gentling piping the good news above the fields of Bethlehem:
Still through the cloven skies they come,
with peaceful wings unfurled;
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
Christmas angels risk tipping into the fairies of folklore. In reality biblical angels are rather different. Remember that Gabriel is a male figure – and the angeloi in Greek are masculine. And remember that Gabriel’s visit to Mary does not bring comfort and reassurance but fear and doubt. “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘do not be afraid’…”
Angels in other biblical stories also call question the popular misconception of angels as fluffy. Supremely, angels are warriors. They appear right at the beginning of the Bible, as the cherubim with flaming sword who block the return of Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden. And they are there at the end of all things, armies of heaven in the Book Revelation.
This is where Michael comes in. As leader of the heavenly forces he is often shown in armour and wielding a weapon against the dragon. Less commonly, Michael is depicted as enforcing God’s statutes. Judgement and justice; sword and scales; the Michael in our west window carries both.
Today’s reading from Revelation 12 in which Michael leads God’s armies against the dragon is an important passage in a central chapter of Revelation. In the picture-code of this whacky book, the war in heaven is none other than a metaphor for the crucifixion. Revelation does not view the cross from ground level, the perspective of Mary and John. Revelation views the cross from above and recognises it as the greatest battle of them all. Michael is a celestial counterpart for Jesus and the defeat of Satan an expression of the victory of good over evil won through the cross. No wonder the result of this victory is proclaimed with such adulation:
Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down!
Angels such as those in Revelation 12 are a far cry from the homely chintz of the nativity play. Far from reminding us of God’s closeness they actually underline his Otherness. The angels in our second reading from Hebrews fulfil a similar function. Hebrews was written to a Jewish Christian readership who were starting to have doubts about Jesus. So Hebrews chapter one opens with dramatic panegyric, stating why Jesus is so special. And the writer uses angels to drive home his point. The angels, he says, are higher than humans – but Jesus is higher than the angels.
Of the angels God says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
Wow! We’re meant to think. Those angels are amazing. But, hang on, the writer continues, Jesus is greater still:
Of the angels he says,
‘He makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.’
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
To which of the angels has he ever said,
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?
So angels emphasise difference and distance, reminding us of God’s Otherness. They challenge us to look again and they remind us just how much further we have to travel.
That same implication is an unappreciated aspect of Jesus’ vision in our gospel reading from John chapter one. ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ By this line, Jesus is claiming to be a new Jacob, the founding father of the Israel, who saw a ladder of angels between earth and heaven while he slept under the stars. Jesus in John establishes a new community for God because he is that point where heaven is to be found on earth. But that ascent and descent, whether spatial or moral, sets up a gulf between God and us. It’s a gulf that only Jesus can bridge if humans are to enjoy the privileges of the angels.
So angels are windows onto the celestial realm – whether we believe in them literally or allegorically. They help us ponder the immensity of what we do not understand. They add new dimensions and colour by extending our perceptions of reality.
Angels call us back to a vivid child-like imagination. Someone who enjoyed this par excellence was the poet William Blake. One day, as a young boy he escaped the bustling metropolis where he lived in Soho and walk out to Peckham Rye – which in the 1760s (believe it or not) was a rural backwater. Blake was only eight but already he was accustomed to walking long distances like this on his own. And at Peckham Rye, Blake saw, quote, ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.’ This was the first of many such visions. Was this madness or extraordinary insight, the origins of that creativity which poured itself into Romantic verse and art in the years that followed? Angels were a subject which Blake painted and sketched again and again, presumably drawing on those formative experiences at Peckham. Indeed, in his poem The Angel Blake insisted that it was only his childlike self who could sense the angel’s presence:
[when] my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.
It’s an interesting thing that a recent poll by ICM  found that belief in angels was more prevalent among the young than the old. Maybe there is something more than mere pixels behind the popularity of Pokemon.