Sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer, on the Feast St Michael & All Angels, Evensong, Sunday 29 September 2019.
Picture – Christmas angels by Peter Rush
This Christmas, we shall have a change. For nearly two decades Peter Rush’s wonderful crib figures have been the focus of our Christmas prayers; but this year we are going to have – well, wait and see. People sometimes commented on the scary appearance of Peter’s angels, and occasionally someone would say that they shouldn’t look like that; after all, they might scare the children.
Two things struck me about this. First, children are sometimes less easily scared than adults. I remember describing to three of our choristers an art work we had just put on display: a gorily lifelike (or, rather, deathlike) severed head of John the Baptist. ‘Cool,’ they said, ‘where is it?’ Second, if you're an angel, frightening people is what you do – or, more accurately, fright is the common reaction to your appearance.
In the story that underlies the Christmas crib, when Gabriel announces to Mary the news of the coming birth of Jesus, and later, when a multitude of the heavenly host tells the shepherds the baby has been born, their first words in each case are the same – Don’t be afraid. And in our first reading, what happens when Daniel has his angelic vision? All colour drains from his face, his legs go wobbly, and he too needs to hear those angelic words – Do not fear.
More of fear in a moment; but first, what do you make of angels? Might there be other creatures in the universe (or the multiverse) who have a different mode of being from ours but who are, like us, sentient beings? It would be a bit arrogant to believe otherwise. And could there be some who are – again, unlike us – single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of good purposes, as the holy angels are? Does that sound possible?
If it does, then that suggests that you have a view of reality that is subtle. You are not satisfied with the view that the only real things are things you can prove or see. You are uncomfortable with the idea that one rule will do to measure all reality. You have a sense that this world we touch and see, and the lives we live, are part of something bigger. You might warm to these words of William Blake, two centuries ago:
‘What,’ it will be questioned, ‘when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?’ ‘Oh no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!”’
Blake wrote that as part of a commentary on his 1808 picture, A Vision of the Last Judgement. His angels in that picture are a sign that we are ‘part of something bigger’ not just in the sense that there’s a lot more of reality than we can apprehend (though that’s true) but also in the sense that we inhabit an arena of encounter with the infinity of God.
If the universe is not a pointless accident but is purposeful, if (as another poet put it) ‘some great love is over all we do’, then I am not only evolved but created; and if I am created, then I am accountable, a word that has been heard quite often this last week. My existence has become a matter of judgement. The language I use, the deeds I do, or do not do, for these things I am answerable: answerable to others – be it the judgement of a friend or the judgement of the highest court – but answerable also to a judgement beyond the courts of this world, as Blake’s picture describes.
If that is frightening, then it is fear of a healthy kind – indeed, you may wish there was a little more of that holy fear about in these reckless days – but there is also something here that casts out fear.
The book of Daniel tells of a struggle against arbitrary power in which Daniel discovers that he is part of something bigger. If, like Daniel, you really seek God’s purposes in this world; and if, like him, you meet with opposition, and may even taste defeat, then the same holds true: you are part of something bigger, you are not alone, and what the angel says to Daniel is also meant for you: ‘Do not fear. Your words have been heard. Dearly beloved, be strong and courageous.’