If you told someone you had seen an angel you might just find yourself classed with those slightly odd people who say that there are fairies at the bottom of their garden. Angels are plastic dolls which sit on the top of Christmas trees or are children in white nighties in the church nativity play.
The Bible mentions angels many times in both the Old and New Testaments. If you include the Apocrypha as a source, four archangels are named: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. In the past, the feast of Michaelmas celebrated Michael only but now it has been expanded to include all angels. In the reflection at the 2pm SLT service on Tuesday I examined who the angels of the Bible are and what roles they perform.
The readings were Revelation 12:7-12, Psalm 103: 19-end, John 1:47-end.
A church near Bournemouth in England was hoping to grow in numbers and faith. The vicar asked the congregation one day to split up into groups of two or three people and to spread around the church and the grounds to pray for the congregation and for those living on a nearby housing estate. Two women prayed outside the kitchen door. As they prayed, two others joined them. The prayer time drew to a close and one of the women turned to the two who had arrived, only to find that they had disappeared. She was convinced that the two were angels. A similar thing had happened to another group in another part of the church. I suppose you could say that this is an example of what is mentioned in Hebrews 13:2 about entertaining angels unawares.
Sometimes there can be no doubt about the identity of the angels. Marie Monson was a missionary in China in the 1920s. It was a time of lawlessness which even involved the army at times. One night a group of soldiers was promised by their leader that they could loot a city as they had not been paid. Marie was in the mission compound that night with some Chinese Christians. They could hear shouting and shooting but no soldier came to their door. Instead, many of their neighbours came to take refuge, carrying with them small bundles of valuables. The next day people from nearby came to ask Marie who the protectors of the compound were. There had been tall foreign soldiers on the roof of the mission hall and one on the porch over the main gate. They had remained there all night and were reported to have shone. These angels were only seen by the non-believers, not by the Christians.
Today we celebrate the feast of Michael and All Angels. The feast was first celebrated in the fifth century when a basilica was dedicated to St Michael. In English it was known as Michaelmas, which is Michael’s mass, and was the only feast of angels that survived the Reformation. Michael is one of seven archangels, though some say there are only four. Certainly four are named in Scripture. Michael and Gabriel are in the Hebrew Scriptures while Raphael and Uriel are in the Apocrypha. In recent years Gabriel and Raphael have been honoured on this day along with Michael.
Michael’s name in Hebrew means ‘Who is like God?’. He is the leader of the heavenly armies which defeat Satan and his armies. He is often shown wearing armour and slaying a great dragon. He is thought of as the defender of the church and of individual Christians from evil, especially as they draw near to death. This reminds us that we are fighting against spiritual enemies, not flesh and blood. Michael is mentioned in the book of Daniel, in Jude, and in the passage in Revelation that we have just heard.
Gabriel’s name means ‘Strength of God’ or ‘God is my champion’. He is considered to be the archangel who carries messages to people. We are familiar with his work when we read the Christmas story. He announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zachariah and the birth of Jesus to Mary. The words of Gabriel to Mary form part of the Rosary: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. He also appears in the book of Daniel to explain Daniel’s visions.
Raphael means ‘God heals’ and he is mentioned in the book of Tobit. He is disguised as a man there and helps Tobias to succeed in a quest and gives him medicine to cure his father’s blindness.
Uriel’s name means ‘God is my light’. He was sent by God to answer the questions of Esdras and tradition identifies him as the angel who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel.
Angels are heavenly beings of a higher order than humans. They are entirely spiritual, unlike us, and immortal. They have personality, intelligence and will. They are messengers of God and serve him. They come in many ranks which have been variously listed eg angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, choirs, dominions, principalities, and powers.
Reading the 600 or so references to angels in the Bible, it’s possible to find out that there are five main tasks the angels carry out.
First, they bring God’s commands to humans. It was an angel who told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac.
Second, they announce special events: the births of John the Baptist, Jesus, Isaac and Samson were announced by angels. Daniel and John of Patmos were given visions of the end times by angels.
Third, angels can help humans to interpret events which God brings about. Daniel’s and John’s visions needed an angel to interpret them. An angel told Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was brought about by God. An angel told the grieving women at the tomb that Jesus had risen.
The fourth and greatest role angels have is that of protecting people and helping them. This is their role as guardian angels. We see this when an angel made sure that Joseph took Jesus to safety in Egypt. Peter was released from prison, and probably death, by an angel on two occasions. Churches also have guardian angels, as with the churches in the book of Revelation, and Michael is named as the guardian of the nation of Israel.
The fifth role that angels perform is to bring God’s punishment, such as when a plague came after Israel sinned (2 Sam.24.1,15-16). They also avenge those who wrong God’s people, such as when the Egyptians suffered at the hands of the angel of death.
Today we remember angels and their ministry among us as they carry out God’s wishes and we give thanks for that. It might be that we will see an angel ourselves, or maybe you have already seen one. He could be 12 feet tall and with huge wings or he could look like an ordinary person. On the other hand, we may never see one in this life. Whatever is the case, we can be sure from both biblical and contemporary evidence that angels are active in the world, and we can take comfort from that.
Even better than that, we know that Christ has at his command “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angel hosts (Rev.5.11). He could have called upon more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him from death but he chose not to. What he does do is have them watch over us, guiding and protecting, and then one day they will guide us on our journey into heaven and his presence.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor