ST ANDREW HOLBORN ADVENT BOOK 2017
ADVENT REFLECTIONS 2017
Introduction What about angels? Why Angels? Do you believe in Angels? Are Angels not just a fanciful part of the Christmas story? Or are they a serious part of your everyday reality? Or maybe you believe in Angels in theory but have not been aware of them in person? Angels are mentioned as a regular part of the Christian liturgy and many churches are dedicated to St Michael and All Angels and yet there is often a disconnect between our acceptance of them in theory and our everyday experience of them as someone to be in relationship with. What is your experience? Do you believe stories from people who say they have met an angel? How about guardian angels? Are they just warm family dramas from Hollywood (based in the city of angels Los Angeles), like Clarence in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” or the angel in “The Bishop’s Wife” or the TV drama “Touched by an angel”? Many non-Christian faiths believe in angels or messengers from God. Also people who would reject the idea of God will put their trust in some form of unseen messengers. Many of the books about angels on offer today have a New Age background where people will have their own personal angel or guide with whom they communicate. This can be off putting for Christians who may then reject the idea of angels altogether because they have been appropriated elsewhere. Let us take time this Advent to learn and ponder about the role of Angels in the Bible, to discover the reality of them as messengers from God, how they have been a part of God’s interactions with humanity throughout history and also take time to think and pray about what their role is in the modern world and in our individual lives today. Advent is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is an anglicized version of the Latin word adventus, meaning "coming". Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.
Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew's Day (30 November), in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, and in the Anglican calendar. In the Ambrosian Rite (used in the Archdiocese of Milan) Advent begins on the Sixth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday after St Martinâ€™s Day (11 November). Acknowledgements: Our thanks go to Margaret Glover, Ruth Gibbs, Jane Franklin, Catherine Fuller, Erik Cannell, Sue Johns and Fr Mark Young for their contributions to this series of reflections.
Advent Sunday 3 December Genesis 18. 1-15 – The Hospitality of Abraham The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’ 5
Do you often read the books of the Old Testament and feel a little jealous? I do! Our forebears had some amazing experiences. They met angels and “saw” the LORD on a regular basis – or so it seems. Their relationship with the Almighty and his messengers was more immediate; more vital. And what is more they recognised them straight away! Abraham wastes no time in going to greet them with due reverence and an offer of hospitality. If that is not enough, he offers them refreshment – water for their feet and food. They ate! These three angelic messengers ate! In my mind angels don’t need sustenance – but obviously they come in all sorts of guises. I really warm to Sarah’s reaction. She must have had a lifetime of disappointment and had grown hardened to the comments that would inevitably come with being barren. I can understand why she laughed to herself. It must have been filled with irony. After years of humiliation here were these three angels promising the gift she had yearned for all her adult life. Her reaction is honest and open; she forgets who their guests are and then the horror strikes! The angels aren’t petulant. They don’t reverse their message. They might even expected or anticipated that reaction from both Abraham and Sarah. They reiterate their promise but can’t stop themselves having a final word! Somewhere between here and the Gospels angels lost their familiarity with humanity. Did you notice they didn’t open their dialogue with “Do not be afraid”?
Monday 4 December Numbers 22. 22-35 - Balaam and the Donkey God’s anger was kindled because Balaam was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back on to the road. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!’ But the donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your 6
donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?’ And he said, ‘No.’ Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely I would by now have killed you and let it live.’ Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.’ The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.’ So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak. Well I know you young colts think you know it all and goodness knows I’ve been listening patiently to you all day in this field but I have to interrupt and tell you that angels do exist and I know because I’ve seen one. It happened when my master Balaam decided to listen to powerful and influential men and agreed to go with them see their master Balak. Now I don’t pretend that I understood the politics of the situation but I did know Balaam had made the wrong decision and I was soon proved right. We set off on what appeared to be a normal straightforward journey. And then it happened… An angel, sword in hand appeared in front of us. Well I don’t mind admitting I was terrified. But also, in some strange way, full of excitement because although the angel was clearly angry he was also incredibly aweinspiring and beautiful. I expected Balaam to cry out, dismount and fall to his knees but to my astonishment he just carried on chatting to the servants. And then it dawned upon me that not only could he not see the angel but he expected me to keep going as if nothing was blocking our way! We were nearly on top of the angel and I knew I had to do something so I swerved off the road and into a field: however blind Balaam was I wasn’t about to let us both be killed. But even more important than saving our lives was showing respect to this incredible heavenly being Well Balaam’s’ response was to be very angry with me because he just thought I was being capricious and unruly. And he hit me in the hope of turning me back onto the road. Well I wasn’t going back on the road any time soon but I did carry on through fields of vines in the general direction that Balaam wanted to go. Balaam seemed to accept this, stopped hitting me, and we carried on. But just as were going through a narrow part of path with walls on either side the angel appeared again. By now I was really panicked and had to get Balaam away as the angel looked so stern and angry and Balaam was still totally oblivious! So, I 7
pushed up against the wall in the hope that my strange behaviour and the pressure of the stone on Balaam’s foot would make him see the angel who so clearly stood before us. But no, all I got for saving his life a second time was another beating After patiently putting up with the blows I continued as the angel had again disappeared. But I knew he would return. And sure, enough when we were on a really narrow part of the path where there was nowhere for me to go the angel appeared again. Even more angry but also incredulous that Balaam still couldn’t see him, the angel stood there and I had no choice. We either went straight into him or I had to take drastic action. So, I fell to my knees: it was the only way to save us both. And Balaam hit me again really hard. And then a miracle happened! God gave me the ability to speak! I was so frantic to save Balaam and not be disrespectful to the angel that the words just came tumbling out of my mouth without me even thinking about how extraordinary it all was. I remonstrated strongly with Balaam arguing that surely he must have realised that I would only act in such a strange way for a very good reason. At this point God enabled Balaam to finally see the angel and of course he was terrified. And then the angel really told him off for hitting me and said that I had saved Balaam’s life and if I hadn’t taken the action I had the angel would have killed Balaam and saved me. I was so amazed and happy that the angel was praising me and giving such importance to my actions. Me just a humble donkey, being praised and honoured over my stubborn and spiritually blind master. And I think Balaam was humbled too because although he was allowed to continue with his journey to see Balak when he got there he did as God wanted. Balak asked him to curse people of another tribe, the Israelites I think they were called, and instead Balaam blessed them as God commanded. He also said something about a Star coming out of this tribe who would have power and might. I didn’t really understand that but I do understand that my response to the angel not only saved Balaam life but ensured 8
that he pronounced a blessing on the Israelites rather than a curse and I know that that was and still is of supreme importance.
Tuesday 5 December
Judges 6. 11-21 â€“ Gideon and an Angel Gideon: If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? How can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family. Angel: The Lord will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them. Gideon: Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you. Angel: Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight.
Gideon’s exchange with the Angel of the Lord reveals our conflicting narratives of scarcity and abundance. The human narrative of scarcity and fear sends Gideon into hiding and leads him nowhere. His immediate response to the angel’s presence emphasises absence. He expresses the inadequacy he feels and betrays his overwhelming mistrust. The angel meets Gideon’s uncertainty with certainty and commands his attention. Gideon remembers himself. Even if he’s feeling empty, he must offer hospitality. No stranger should go away empty. A greater fear than motivates his doubts compels him to act with urgent generosity. Gideon’s transformation begins when he obeys the ritual, when he stops questioning and gives himself over to fulfilling the required action. When Gideon follows the angel’s instructions, he hopes to receive a sign that will banish fear and encourage trust. Gideon pours out the broth; fire consumes the meat and unleavened cakes. The present disappears. The earth absorbs the liquid; smoke becomes one with air. The differences and divisions melt and fade away. What presents will we offer in response to God’s hospitality? What signs of unity and wholeness will we receive in this time and place of so many conflicting narratives?
Wednesday 6 December Judges 13. 3-23 - The birth of Samson And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.’ Then the woman came and told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most aweinspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, “You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” ’ Then Manoah entreated the LORD, and said, ‘O LORD, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.’ God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, ‘The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.’ Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the 10
man and said to him, ‘Are you the man who spoke to this woman?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ Then Manoah said, ‘Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?’ The angel of the LORD said to Manoah, ‘Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.’ Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, ‘Allow us to detain you, and prepare a kid for you.’ The angel of the LORD said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me, I will not eat your food; but if you want to prepare a burnt-offering, then offer it to the LORD.’ (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the LORD.) Then Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, ‘What is your name, so that we may honour you when your words come true?’But the angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful.’
So Manoah took the kid with the grain-offering, and offered it on the rock to the LORD, to him who works wonders. When the flame went up towards heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground. The angel of the LORD did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD. And Manoah said to his wife, ‘We shall surely die, for we have seen God.’ But his wife said to him, ‘If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt-offering and a grain-offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.’
Of all the figures in biblical literature, Samson is certainly one of the better known, even if only for the part about Delilah cutting his hair. The whole narrative dealing with Samson is quite substantive and is mostly significant for the parallels it has to the life of Jesus. The Angel of the Lord appears to the mother and gives specific instructions not to cut his hair. When Delilah betrays him, he becomes a figure of tragedy and humiliation, and finally, when tied to the pillars in the temple, his outstretched arms prefigure Christ crucified. The important difference is that Samsonâ€™s story is ultimately tragic; Delilah can be thought to represent temptation, and where the death of Jesus forms the central pillar in the story of universal salvation, Samsonâ€™s death represents condemnation. He gathers the last of his strength, and in pulling down the temple, takes everyone down with him. The interesting point about Samsonâ€™s hair was not so much the importance of it, but rather that it was said by the Angel, the messenger of the divine making a specific point. If we cast our minds forward all the way to Revelation, we find something that makes sense of all this. In the vision, a great war breaks out in heaven between the armies of Angels, led by Michael, and the forces of hell. The struggle between good and evil does not just play out on earth, or just in heaven, but the two are inextricably connected. The Saints are not lofty, remote caricatures, they are us! The Kingdom of God is not a far off destination for the righteous, but a place without walls or boundaries that we are ever building and destroying here in this world. We are not limited to our influence in the physical sphere, for we can also be agents of the divine. Samson, the mighty warrior, ultimately chose the path of annihilation, but the way of life is open to all who would join the heavenly host, ever worshipping the Lamb who died.
Thursday 7 December Matthew 28. 2 â€“ The Resurrection And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. The greatest message of all causes the very earth itself to quake, this is no small event and it is marked with great turmoil and fear. The Angel of the Resurrection appears to direct operations, rolling the huge stone away from the entrance to the tomb to highlight the quiet emptiness within, a place where a physical body, put there just hours ago, is no longer. The Angel is a very visible presence, shining like Jesus did at the transfiguration, and causing the soldiers, on guard specifically to stop any such disappearance, to fall in a dead faint. Not so the two women who having stood at the foot of the Cross, seen the broken and bloodied body laid in this very tomb, have come to offer what last Consolation they can to their Lord and Friendâ€™s body. They are fearful but also full of love and sorrow and wonder what this visitation means. The Angel immediately points them to the empty tomb, he is not the focus although he is such a shining visible sign. He is urgent in his telling of them to check out the tomb, to understand what it means and then to go tell the disciples what they have seen. They are to look, to understand and to tell. This is the message he brings, Jesus the Christ is risen from the dead just as Jesus had told them he would be, although they had not understood him earlier. Once they are on their way away from the tomb, and the Angel, they meet the Risen Lord himself. If the Risen Lord is so close by why is there any need for the Angel? What is the purpose of this messenger? Is there something important to learn about our connection to God through His messengers that enables us then to see His Son more clearly?
Friday 8 December Acts 8. 26 – Philip the Deacon and an Angel Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) In our Advent readings so far the messages of the Angels have been met with fear, disbelief and resentment or not even recognised at all. This encounter could not be more different. The Angel tells Philip to ‘get up and go’ – and to go not just anywhere but through the desert to Gaza in the far south west. It is, we are told, ‘a wilderness road’. These are dangerous times. Stephen has just been martyred and the young Church is scattered from Jerusalem. Saul has not yet found his road to Damascus. Philip is in Samaria far from home. Surely he must have felt fear at the hardship of the journey and, assuming he made it safely to Gaza, uncertainty as to what he would do when he got there. But he keeps any doubts to himself. He doesn’t protest or pretend he hasn’t heard. It is not strange or frightening that an Angel of the Lord should speak to him. Philip simply listened to the message and then he ‘got up and went’. This story is one of many extraordinary and empowering events in Acts, where men and women who previously ran away for fear of association with Christ will now face death for him. Practical details of how to feed people fit naturally alongside interactions with the Divine. Philip’s openness to Christ’s transforming love gives him the faith and humility not only to hear God’s voice but to respond practically. Philip’s journey of trust takes him to an unexpected and deeply touching meeting with an Ethiopian alien. It leads to the conversion not just of one man, but perhaps also to his nation. May our own wilderness roads bring us such riches.
Saturday 9 December Acts 10.3 – Cornelius and an Angel One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius.’ We know that Cornelius was a devout man who was serious about his faith and diligent in its practice. His whole household were also encouraged to follow his example. When we are given details of the time I am often left pondering why… Why is it important that the Book of Acts recorded the time of his vision? Was it because it demonstrates that he was sober – it was the middle of the afternoon? Was it because of the linked tale of Peter and his vision? Does the author wish us to notice that? Or is simply because that was the way the story had been handed down? I could imagine myself – had I been fortunate enough to be approached by an angel in a vision – wanting to remember every little detail. Somehow facts and figures make a story that is potentially so fantastical as to be unbelievable more real. Again, I am struck by a sense of calm. The angel calls him by his name. That is so reassuring and yet another little bit of information that helps the listener believe. What sets these angelic messengers apart? Do they look different? Do they shine? Are their wings visible? Or do they look reasonably normal in appearance but their holiness radiates? Irrespective of all that – they are powerfully persuasive. They leave those who they visit in no doubt about the word they bring. Cornelius was part of God’s plan – the devout gentile who obeyed his angelic messenger; who collaborated to open his faith to us all.
The Second Sunday of Advent 10 December Psalm 34. 7 - The protecting Angel The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Angels are a well-known and integral part of Christianity, and indeed many other faiths, but it seems like we have very little collective idea of what they are and what they do, to the point where biblical descriptions seem significantly at odds with popular ideas. Some think of them as passive beings playing harps, perched on clouds. Others seem to like the idea of Angels as glorified fairy godmothersthe flood of books about Angels in recent years bears this out. St. Augustine describes them as spirits filling the role of Angel- better, but still, this is rather vague.
The biblical mentions of Angels generally describe them as agents serving the divine, often as messengers. They appear in human form occasionally, but are described as having 6 wings, heads of different animals, wings full of eyes, burning with flames- the list goes on. Interactions with them are moments of terror and truth. They are not that far removed from their demonic counterparts in many respects. Maybe a useful idea is how they encapsulate the strangeness of the universe. They fill the temple with endless shouts of praise, echoing each other like great whales. The Angel in this passage serves a specific purpose in this case, but if we focus too much on what they do on a physical level, we overlook their place in the abundance, exuberance and weirdness of creation.
Monday 11 December Psalm 91. 11 – Angels of deliverance For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. I saw an angel once. Or at least I experienced something which I could only explain in angelic terms. It was one of those perfect September mornings and I stepped out in to the garden, overwhelmed with the pain of loss and bereavement. And there was Light. Light that seemed to flood in from everywhere, not just the sun. There was stillness, and under the stillness was strength, and under the strength was a profound sense of being kept safe. This passage reminds us that God always keeps us safe. We are cared for and watched over ‘in all our ways’. We are familiar with the angels of the Nativity story but less open perhaps to their ministry in the everyday. Angels are Not Just For Christmas.
So what does this really mean for in our daily lives? My encounter in the garden was – so far - a one-off. We can’t always feel this protecting presence even in times of darkness and anxiety when we yearn for it the most. But God’s care for us is always there, not just as some kind of impersonal, all-powerful comfort blanket but as active love and engagement. As the Psalmist continues in the next verse. ‘They will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Like a parent tenderly lifting a child, we are carried over the jagged rocks and deep waters of our lives. We may not be able to avoid the rough places but ultimately they will never have the power to destroy us. 17
Tuesday 12 December Daniel 6. 22 – Daniel and the Lions My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.’ One of the most striking things about the account of Daniel in the lion’s den is the faith of Darius. King of the Persian Empire, ruler of approximately fifty million people and a follower of the religion of Zoroastrianism, Darius nevertheless declares to Daniel ‘Thy God whom thou serviced continually, he will deliver thee’. Darius has been tricked into condemning Daniel to be thrown into the den of lions. He cannot escape the immutability of his own legal system, the rigid law of the Medes and the Persians and so in despair he has to acknowledge that only divine intervention can save Daniel’s life. The most powerful king is powerless but at this moment of crisis he places his trust in Daniel’s God not his own. And the reason for doing this is because not only does Darius respect Daniel as one of his most trusted administrators but recognises the strength of Daniel’s faith and concludes that Daniel’s God must therefore be very powerful. And Darius’s faith together with the steadfast faith of Daniel is rewarded. An angel comes in the night and prevents the lions from harming Daniel in any way. That the lions are more than capable of doing so can be seen when those who plotted Daniel’s downfall are themselves thrown into the lion’s den and killed even before they reach the floor. The danger is real; the fact that Daniel lives a miracle of divine intervention. We do not face the prospect of being killed for our faith, although there are parts of the world where tragically this is a real possibility for Christians, but our faith like Daniel’s can have a profound effect on those around us. Daniel didn’t spend his time preaching or even talking directly to the king about his faith: he lived it. 18
He did his job faithfully and honestly to such an extent that even his enemies had to accept that the only way they could bring him down was through his faith as his integrity was beyond question. In addition to his witness through his daily work and life Daniel prayed without ostentation but openly. We too can provide a powerful witness to our faith by the way we live our lives; conduct ourselves in our work and quietly undertake key aspects of our Christian devotion. And as we do this who knows whose lives we may touch or what situations may arise where Angels intervene for the good of ourselves and others.
Wednesday 13 December Acts 5. 19 – An Angel frees the Apostles Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching. Angels – agents of the impossible! Not only do they appear from nowhere but they have powers that are beyond our understanding. They are agents of our Almighty God – I imagine they never think twice about accepting a task. Flying off at His command. This isn’t to trivialise their work – quite the opposite. There are so many times when I fervently pray that angels would intervene in situations today – personal, national or international. Which one of us wouldn’t love to see wrongly imprisoned people set free and led out of open doors? Could it still happen? Not only did this single angel free the disciples, it also emboldened them to go back to the Temple, confront their accusers and continue to teach the “whole 19
message about this life”. Once again we see people react with conviction. The record as handed down doesn’t speak of fear but of confidence and liberation. Our personal prisons are often not physical but emotional. We are constrained by fear of what others might think or do think. We hideaway in the darkness of our own little cell. As we dwell on this text let us think about the things in our lives that imprison us and ask an angel to come and open the door and lead us out.
Thursday 14 December Acts 12. 7 – An Angel delivers Peter Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists.
Maybe one of the most asked questions when something bad happens to us is “Why Me?” The same question can also be asked when something good happens too. King Herod has started to persecute the followers of the Nazareth rebel, Jesus, and James, one of the sons of Zebedee, has been killed by the sword. Where was his protecting Angel? Peter is also arrested and is to be put in front of a public court after the Passover except he has a miraculous escape. Peter is being kept in prison and the church are praying for him earnestly, did they not pray for James? 20
These sorts of questions have no answers and I don't bring them up other than to say that it is a mystery. A mystery that we live within in our relationship with God. We would all like to live a full and fulfilling life and die at a ripe old age without too many ailments, but that is not how life works and we can be called home at any time. Was James’s Guardian angel perhaps with him as he faced the sword to enable him to die in the full knowledge of how much Jesus loved him and to enable him to face death without fear? Peter’s Guardian angel is sent to rescue him from prison as he has more work to do in building up the church. Jesus had named Peter the rock, to be a part of the human foundation of the church. We may note that Peter did not expect this angelic help and at first thought that he was dreaming, perhaps believing it to be a message that he was not forgotten and would be rescued in the future. However, when the angel leaves him alone in the dark streets of Jerusalem he realises he is free. He immediately goes to find fellow members of the church family (who don’t seem to expect a positive answer to their prayers!) and shares with them all that has happened to him and tells them to pass the information on to other members of the believers, especially James the churches’ leader in Jerusalem. He then disappears and is not found by Herod’s investigators. We may also note that the angel does his job and leaves, no explanations, no staying for thanks, indeed he is quite curt with Peter, striking him to wake him up and hustling Peter out of the prison unceremoniously! Maybe one of the lessons to learn from Peter’s rescue is to put ourselves in a place of prayer and to be more aware and awake to the possibility of God’s interfering in our everyday lives to enable us to stay close to Jesus whatever our circumstances good or bad.
Friday 15 December Matthew 4. 11 - Angels look after Jesus Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. After three failed attempts to ensnare Jesus, the devil left, having been sent away by him. You will recall that one of the temptations had been for Jesus to cast himself off the mountain. The devil’s reasoning was that, “He [God] will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” He was quoting Scripture, from Psalm 91, but he was using it wrongly. The promise there is for those who take their refuge in God, not for those who follow some other way, as the devil was trying to get Jesus to do. But now, behold, the angels did come, sent by the Father to minister to Jesus’ needs. This shows that, yes, Jesus truly took his refuge in God and was walking in his way, and God did indeed command his angels concerning him. Angels are messengers and ministers. The purpose of these holy messengers is not only to serve God but also watch over all who trust in him. God did not abandon Jesus in this time of temptation. Neither did the angels. They were always present, though not always apparent, and they ministered to Jesus when he was in need. They will likewise be present to minister to all who follow him.
Saturday 16 December Luke 22.43 - The Angel of Gethsemane Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. Earlier this year I made my first visit to Walsingham. On the first evening, overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all and a very long way outside my comfort zone, I found myself sitting alone in the dark in the Shrine’s garden wondering what on earth I had signed up for. If you are familiar with Walsingham, you will know that the garden incorporates the Stations of the Cross, culminating in Golgotha. Instinctively I thought about Gethsemane and how Christ too had sat on his own in a garden. Obviously my concerns were ridiculously trivial in comparison (I had the benefit of friends to take me off to the pub) but the image stayed with me and the garden became the spiritual focus of my pilgrimage. However lost we feel we have the knowledge that there is nothing so deep or so painful that Christ has not experienced it before us; nothing so unbearable that he cannot bear it for us. But for Christ on his own, let down by his sleeping disciples, and raw and exposed in his fears before his Father this was not the case. It is perhaps truly unimaginable. But there was an angel: God’s messenger of protecting love, herald of Christ’s conception, birth and resurrection. We don’t know what the Angel said to Christ or his response. Perhaps words were an irrelevance. The Angel could not take away the Cup but it brought Christ light and strength and the knowledge that his Father loved him. May it be so for us.
The Third Sunday of Advent 17 December Genesis 3. 24 – Cherubim guard the Tree of Life God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
James Ensor, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise
The zeal of the Lord tolerates no unfaithfulness yet also burns with love. Passion transforms us from mere clay and yet that same passion drives us from the garden. How can we possibly reconcile this paradox at the heart of our relationship with God? By entering into God’s yearning and allowing God’s love to be born again in us. O let it freely burn, ‘til earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming. Bianca da Siena During Advent we turn, we pray, we hope that the flaming sword that guards the way to the tree of life may also show us the way to reconciling with God, creation and humanity.
Monday 18 December 2 Kings 19.35 – An Angel strikes the Assyrian Army That very night the angel of the LORD set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Judgement can seem to be a fearful thing if we are in the ‘dock, coming up before the Judge to state your case either in prosecution or in defence is nerve racking and causes great anxiety however good the ‘case’ is. Coming before the Divine Judge who sees all, knows all and from whom there is no hiding will be the ultimate judgement. The confidence we will have at that time depends on how we view God now. Two different approaches are expressed in the story Hezekiah King of Judah and King Sennacherib of Assyria. The Assyrians are expanding their country and conquering their neighbours, they have conquered Samaria and have turned to Judah and the city of Jerusalem. At first King Hezekiah tries to appease the Assyrian king by giving him all the silver and gold he has, including taking some from the Temple in Jerusalem, and it seems that the Lord is on the side of the Assyrians. The Lord often used the neighbouring countries to discipline the people of Israel and Judah when they turned their backs on him. However, King Hezekiah eventually turns to the Lord in repentance and seeks his guidance through the prophet Isaiah. Meanwhile King Sennacherib has been reviling the God of the people of Judah and the Lord has taken exception to this. The Lord takes things into his own hands and pronounces judgement on Sennacherib and the Assyrian army. Being in a place of judgement: in a football match under the referee, in cricket with the Umpire, with the judges of Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor! We will often disagree with the judges decisions, a lot depending on our point of view and whom we support. From our human perspective we can get quite irate with 25
those that disagree with our viewpoint. However the point of the story with the judgement on the Assyrian army is that no humans were involved. The people of Judah would not be able to look back and think they had conquered the army. The Lord sends an Angel to destroy the occupying army. The Angel is the instrument used by God to mete out His justice. The Lord alone brings Salvation to King Hezekiah and the people of Judah. The only thing that King Hezekiah needed to do was put his trust in the Lord God. So how do you view God in this present moment? In whom do you put your trust for salvation?
Tuesday 19 December 1 Chronicles 21. 16 – An Angel is sent to destroy Jerusalem David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces. Angels are given many tasks. They do what God bids them to do. And that includes administering punishment. I’m not sure I can begin to conjure an image of what this angel looked like. Huge, immense. Fierce, powerful. Its mighty sword drawn ready to wreak havoc on the city of Jerusalem. Quite obviously it wanted David and the elders to be afraid. This was a serious mission. Did it hover there for a long time? David falls to the ground; his face mired in the dust of the earth. It’s hard for us who have a personal relationship with God through Christ to understand this judgmental and powerful God. The one who sends angels on missions of terrifying destruction. The God who hands out devastating punishments on those who will not listen and obey. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this. Does God still behave in this way to us today? There are some who believe so. Some who see the disasters that befall humanity as God seeking 26
revenge for what we have done. D angels start wildfires or whip the atmosphere up into hurricanes and typhoons? I don’t think so but it is something to ponder… We pillage our world of its precious resources and then litter it with our wastefulness. Maybe we should repent as David and the elders did when confronted with their wrongdoing by the wrath of God.
Wednesday 20 December Acts 12. 21-23 –Herod Agrippa is struck down by an angel On an appointed day, Herod Agrippa put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
William Blake, Death of the Strong Wicked Man
In a world where arrogance goes unchecked and leaders – both self-appointed and duly elected – set themselves above the law, the conclusion of this passage provides hope that actions will eventually have consequences. The bold simplicity with which the narrator presents Herod Agrippa’s life story brings everything into focus for us, not only Herod’s actions, the people’s, as well. 27
An angel of the Lord strikes Herod down because he allows the voice of the people to resonate when it needed to be challenged. He is struck down, put in his place, and reduced to the earth from which he came. The image of worms eating him makes vividly clear that he was already rotting even before he’d died. If he were a good leader, he would have directed the people’s voice and gaze away from himself. He would have delivered his public address to remind them of their relationship – and his own – to the one true God. The writer of Acts does not reveal the crowd’s response to this violent and gruesome death. The two figures in Blake’s etching offer us options for potential responses to the death of our own strong and wicked, public and private gods: feign shock and disbelief; feel the weight of conscience and our own complicity.
Thursday 21 December Luke 15. 10 - Angels rejoice over a repentant sinner Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ Judgement can come with violence and destruction. Angels seem to be instruments of God’s anger, wreaking vengeance on those who have turned away from Him. Here we find something very different. Jesus uses the Parable of the Lost Coin to tell us that ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. Here there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. The angels are not impersonal agents of God; heavenly administrators who tick off each anonymous sinner as another soul saved. They are part of God’s creation, made from love to reflect love. They share fully in the joy of his Kingdom. A Kingdom which is ours too if we can turn away from the hurt and mistakes of our past which we have inflicted on others and ourselves. And when we do the angels of God overflow with boundless joy for each one of us. God’s judgement is one of the hardest things to face. But we are never so lost that we cannot be found. Christmas is drawing near and we wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise in the birth of His Son. In these last days of Advent, may the joy of the angels fill us with the courage and hope to let in the Christ-Child who brings redemption for us all.
Friday 22 December Matthew 13. 14 – Angels and the last Judgement The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers. We are uneasy at the thought of judgement and quite rightly so for we, who are so weak and prone to failings ourselves, how can we judge others and be sure that our judgements are fair and unbiased? But it is clear in the Bible that God does judge and there are other occasions where Angels are involved as part of that judgement. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when the Angel of Death goes through the land of Egypt smiting the firstborn of the Egyptians but passing over the houses of the Israelites marked with the sacrificial blood of a lamb. This brings us to the true context in which we should see judgement which is that of the atoning and redeeming sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, the Lamb of God. The Bible may speak of judgement but it also speaks of God’s incredible love for us, a love that has provided the way for everyone to be redeemed from judgement and experience the joy of living in accordance with God’s will both in this life and the next.
And this is the context of this verse from Matthew. It occurs as part of Christ’s explanation of the parable of the wheat and the tares. In that parable the householder sews good seed but whilst he sleeps an enemy comes and sews tares amongst the wheat. In response to his servants’ query whether they should pull up the tares, the wise householder says that in doing so the wheat may be damaged and that it is at the end when the harvest is brought in that the two types of plant will be separated. In his explanation of this parable Christ to refers to the separation by his angels of those who are ‘workers of iniquity’ from the ‘righteous’. Again, concepts and phraseology which we might well find challenging especially given our awareness that frequently we are far from righteous. But the judgement does not come until the end; those doing the harvesting are the Angels; the One providing the judgement is God. If God loved us enough to die for us we can also be confident that his judgements will be fair and true. And we know that even the foolishness of God is far above the wisdom of people. The Angels responsible for the harvest at the end of time are also the same Angels who sang with joy at Christ’s birth. The invitation once again to all this Christmas is to hearken to the voice of the Angels and the message of joy they bring and then there will be no need to fear the judgement that is to come.
Saturday 23 December 1 Kings 19. 5 – Elijah and an angel Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ Elijah’s encounter with the angel occurs when he is at a very low point after experiencing an amazing high. When the angel comes to him and provides him with food and water Elijah is in hiding. Queen Jezebel is seeking to kill him following his God-given triumph over the priests of Baal. This is the encounter when Elijah and the priests of Baal both seek to see if the sacrifices they have prepared will be set on fire by their respective Gods. Despite hours of imploring and imprecation by the prophets of Baal, as we would expect, no fire is sent by their gods to ignite the sacrifice. By contrast Elijah douses his sacrifice in gallons of water and God responds to his prayerful entreaty by not only sending fire to consume the sacrifice but also the stones of the altar and the water in the trench around it. It may seem surprising that after such awe-inspiring, God-given triumph that Elijah is so fearful and lacking in confidence in God’s protection when Queen Jezebel issues her vengeful threats. But in our Christian life we too know how easily moments of triumph and joy can be followed by a period of attack, doubt and sometimes even despair. But, as with Elijah, God does not abandon us when we go through these difficult periods. The angel who twice comes to minister to Elijah is gentle and caring. Unusually, the angel touches Elijah to wake him and encourage him to eat and drink. Like a parent caring for a child the angel manifests God’s tender love and compassion and understanding of Elijah’s fear. And when Elijah is refreshed and able to move on he goes to Mount Horeb where God reveals himself in the still small voice. Again, a gentle, intimate revelation of God’s power and strength; a complete contrast to the public demonstration of divine fire consuming the sacrifice.
And the Annunciation of the birth of Christ to Mary by an angel is also a gentle and intimate meeting. The angel reassures Mary not to be afraid and Mary responds to his incredible message with faith and joy. This Christmas, amidst all the joyous celebrations of the birth of Christ: the carols, the bells, the chatter and laughter of friends and families, let us make sure we make time for a quieter and more intimate encounter with God. As we journey towards the manger let us remember that as we kneel before the baby who is the saviour of the world we are encountering the One who not only sustains us through all the highs and lows of life but who also seeks to know each of us as individuals. The world will tell us otherwise but as the Angels sing for joy overhead it is the radiance of the love of the Christ child that reassures us that each of us, individually, is of infinite value and importance to God.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent 24 December Christmas Eve Exodus 3. 2 - Moses and the burning bush There the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
On the face of it, this is quite a curious narrative. Why does God appear in the form of a burning bush instead of sending Angel messengers or simply speaking directly as with other people? The message is plain enough, but the medium is saturated in meaning.
It does have echoes of the apocalypse references: separating the wheat and burning he chaff, throwing things into a lake of fire, purifying souls like a refiner’s fire…the language is used to similar effect in each case. Although this image invokes themes of judgment, the bush itself is not consumed. The Orthodox take on this attempts to square it by suggesting that the fire is not a fire in the ordinary sense, but a manifestation of God’s creative energy. In this, we can see a prefiguring of God’s presence in the world pointing the way forward to salvation. Against a historic backdrop of the divine seen as a harsh judge, punishing all transgressions, it highlights the inherent and radical strangeness in Christianity. God is not a remote figure doling out vengeance, but down and working amongst real people, with all the traditionally imaged structures of power reversed. We see a glimmer of the unobservable, unapproachable glory of God from which Angels cast down their faces in the burning bush, but as we move forward into the New Testament, we eventually see God in full manifestation as man.
Christmas Day Monday 25 December Genesis 28. 12 – Jacob’s Ladder And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Jacob’s Ladder, Albert Houthuesen
In his vision of ‘a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it,’ Jacob bears witness to the reciprocal promise of intercessory prayer. The two-way traffic of angels, coming and going, between the dreamer and the creator, embodies the communication that listens and stirs us into embodying the call and response. Lord, we offer you our wonder; may the angels bring us your wisdom. Lord, we pray your forgiveness; may the angels guide our repentance. Lord, we release our striving; may the angels respond with your grace. Lord, we stumble; may the angels carry our doubts to you and return with your love. Postscript: ‘Glory to God in the highest’.
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ Luke 2:14 Perhaps the most significant role of Angels is to sing glory to God and to show the way for all of creation and especially all of humankind to sing praises to the Creator who made heaven and earth. As we draw this series of contemplations for Advent to a close and begin the true Christmas celebrations may we have been reminded by the Angels to carol ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ We have looked at the variety of ways that God has trusted his angelic messengers to speak and act for Him throughout the Biblical story. Have we been challenged to look outward and seek the unseen? To be aware of more than we are physically conscious of? To look out for angels and to ask for their help? To be prepared to see angels in those around us? And also to look inward to discover the ever present Presence of God that could then recognise as Mary does when an angel visits and to reply as she does “Then
Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke 1:38 As the writer to the Hebrews says “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” Hebrews 13: 1-2 May you be blessed this Christ Mass.
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Published on Nov 29, 2017
Published on Nov 29, 2017
Our thanks go to Margaret Glover, Ruth Gibbs, Jane Franklin, Catherine Fuller, Erik Cannell, Sue Johns and Fr Mark Young for their contribut...