On The Tide of the Angels

June 11, 1995


The last couple of paragraphs were not available in the audio version of this sermon—however you may read the missing text, which is in an italicized block quote at the end of the printed version here:


On The Tide of the Angels

As I read for this sermon, in the Bible and in literature, I found three forgotten 18th century English poets who compared our brief moments of happiness to the visits of angels: “short and bright” or “few and far between.”  Whatever they meant by angels, they clearly believed that such encounters were rare.  Their analogy would not work in America in 1995, where television, newspapers, magazines and book publishers are flooding us with stories of angelic appearances.  Angels, as they like to say in Hollywood, are a “hot” property.  In the past five years, according to the Gannett News Service, angel books in print have gone from 5 to at least 200, and in religious gift shops shelves are groaning under terra cotta angels, painted angel plaques, angelpins and pendants, and angel calendars.  Before we were lucky enough to engage Cathy Penney as our church secretary we briefly employed a nice lady from another church , and she demonstrated the wildly popular current trend by putting two little terra cotta angels on the window ledge, and a large picture of an angel on the wall.  You need not share my taste or my theology, but I viewed all three of them as hopelessly different from the Biblical view of angels and I was delighted when they disappeared.  I am in complete agreement with Catholic scholar Lawrence Cunningham, chairman of the Notre Dame department of theology, who says:  “To move angels center stage is to trivialize Christianity.”  This sermon is dedicated to explaining why he would make such a statement.

To begin with,  the angels of the ‘90’s bear little if any resemblance to angels mentioned occasionally in the Bible.  As the Catholic professor points out, “If we don’t read our Bibles carefully, angels seem to be friendly folks.”  He has obviously read his Bible well enough to know the difference between the soft, sentimental Pablum currently passing for angel lore and the tough, demanding, not-always-welcome messengers portrayed in Scripture.  For one thing, of course, when these messengers appear to humans in a Biblical narrative, they are given such ordinary attributes that they are often mistaken for traveling mortals who have dropped in for a visit — never anything as exciting as the ones described to the Wichita 20th Century Club once by a man from Argentina who claimed that flying saucers may be piloted by angels sent to earth to determine who is to be saved when Jesus returns in the year 2002.  Like most people who claim to have seen angels, this man had no doubts about how  they looked.   A few had heads like pumpkins, he told his audience, but most of them were about 9 feet tall, handsome, blond, blue-eyed, and transparent from the waist down.  Angels in chauvinistic  Bible tales are invariably masculine, but this gentleman had a charming story about an Argentine truck driver who saw a female angel while changing a tire.  He told authorities she was the most beautiful creature he had ever looked at.  The people who wrote the Bible would have been amazed!  Even more amazed to have seen little cherubs like this one which my granddaughter brought down as a tease from KU after she heard me speak of the neutered angels housed for a few weeks in our church office.  This one is also neutered, as most are now  in deference to modern sensibilities, and it has the inevitable set of wings despite the fact that no angel — repeat, no angel — said to visit mortals in a Biblical story is  ever said to have had wings.  We’ll have a footnote later on that point.

The gap between the Biblical world and ours is so enormous that we must now take a few minutes to describe it.  Any serious student of the Bible knows that the early books of our Old Testament were profoundly influenced by the religion of Babylon, the country from which the Hebrew people came.  The earliest known image of anything like angels shows some of them flying over the head of a Babylonian king as he stands at prayer.  This is almost certainly where the Hebrews got their notion of divine messengers, just as also borrowed the Babylonian story of the flood and the tower of Babel and parts of their creation epic.  These messengers from the gods were common throughout the Near East.  Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Hittites, Persians — all had  winged creatures mediating in some fashion  between the myriad gods of that time and their human worshipers.  Iris and Hermes were the original Greek “angels” who carried messages for the gods.  Hermes (we know him best by his Roman name,  Mercury) wore little wings on his sandals to signal his function:  you can still see them on the Floral Telegraph Delivery symbol.

Like all such creations, these were modeled on the life patterns people knew — in these cases, as in the Bible, on the patterns of court life.  Since the king sat on a throne, high and lifted up, it made sense that the gods did the same.  Since the king had messengers who did his bidding, so surely must the gods.  Some 14 centuries before Christ an Egyptian king, Amenhotep IV, decided he believed in only one god instead of the many his ancestors had worshipped.  Since he could not do away with all those extra gods, he simply demoted them, and let them hang around doing odd jobs for his chief single deity.  In other words, he created angels.  The same thing happened to the Persian gods who were unseated when the prophet Zoroaster in the 6th century declared that Ahura-Mazda was the one and only god.  He found it impossible to throw out all the gods his people had honored for generations, so he declared some to be good spirits and others to be demons — and Persia had its contingent of angels.

When I see many other kinds of Jewish indebtedness to cultures around their own, it comes as no surprise that the angels of the Bible are a combination of divine messengers pictured in bas reliefs from Babylon and Assyria and mentioned in tales from Egypt and Persia.  The combination makes it almost maddening to try to discover what an angel was supposed to look like in the Bible.  Ezekiel, whose imagination was so extraordinary that some would now accuse him of being a disciple of Timothy O’Leary, saw beings he called cherubs (not the ordinary Biblical angels, but cherubs) — creatures with four wings and four faces (ox, man, eagle, lion) all accompanied by whirling wheels.  These bizarre things were said to guard the tree of life in Eden, and wooden images of them, overlaid with gold and with wings outspread, guarded the ark of the covenant.  According to the 18th Psalm, the god of the Old Testament sometimes flew through the sky mounted on the back of a cherub.

These creatures are straight out of Babylonian lore with their half human, half animal shapes.  You can see pictures of them on ancient Phoenician ivories and on old temple walls.  The cherub guarding the tree of life in Genesis sounds and looks like the dragon creatures who guarded the entrance to Babylonian and Assyrian temples.  I have  a striking picture of a pair of winged cherub s supporting the throne of Hiram, a Phoenician king.  But there are still other Biblical oddities known as seraphs, seen by Isaiah in one of the most dramatic of all Hebrew vision stories.  These creatures had six wings — two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet (the word is actually a euphemism for their private parts, which it is assumed they possess), and two more wings to fly with.  They seem to have been borrowed wholesale from antecedent cultures known to the Hebrew people.

The Jewish people usually toned down the more bizarre aspects of what they borrowed, so whenever in their sacred writing a divine messenger visits a human being that messenger has no wings at all — cannot, as I have said, be easily distinguished from ordinary mortals.  Abraham, we are told, entertained three angels and yet saw nothing to make him in the least suspicious.  They acted like men, enjoyed eating with him,   and presumably were thought to speak whatever language he spoke.  It was only when they told Sarah she would have a child, despite her age, that Abraham and his wife decided they had been hosting messengers from the Lord.  angels.  Such experiences seemed to run in the family.  Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who lived in Sodom, invites two strangers to stay for the night.  He sees no wings, or even nubs of wings, and the two guests look just like any other male mortals.  Still another relative of Abraham’s, his grandson Jacob, wrestles all night with what he calls an angel, although he never felt so much as a feather.  This messenger apparently fears the daylight, though other angels seem to feel quite at home even at high noon.  It’s all quite confusing.  Still another story tells how Jacob has a dream and sees angels going up and down a ladder.  The teller of that story obviously did not think of angels as creatures with wings, since if they had been able to fly there would have been no need for a stairway between earth and heaven.

One of the most puzzling of all the stories of Hebrew mytholy is that curious paragraph in Genesis about the mating of divine beings with mortal women.  It reads like this:   “When mankind began to increase and to spread all over the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the gods saw that the daughters of men wre beautiful; so they took for themselves such women as they chose.”  Nothing is said about hows the sons of men reacted to this unfair competition, since the biblical writer is only trying to explain how it happened that there were giants in the earth in ancient legend.  He does it the way the Greeks and Romans did it:  any man or woman abnormally gifted must have been the offspring of a union between gods and mortals.  It would be helpful today as a way of explaining people like Michael Jordan and Annie Dillard.

Except for the strange book of Revelation,  where angels have swords going out of their mouths and are full of eyes before and behind, Christian scripture treats angels a little less sensationally than the Hebrew, but there are still moments of confusion.   The four writers who describe what happened on the resurrection morning do not agree on how many messengers were at the grave, and the two who have only a single messenger seem split on whether that one was an ordinary mortal or a divine being.  For one of them (Matthew) the visitor  is apparently super-natural,  with radiant garments;  for the other (Mark) he seems as human and believable as Bill Rainey taking an elevator at Bank 4.  It may help a little, in all this confusion, to know that even in the time of Christ belief in angels was not unanimous among his neighbors.   The Pharisees, who were close to the common people, believed in them, but the more aristocratic Sadducees, who held the office of the high priest and ran the temple complex, did not believe in them at all.

It may help us to remember that both the Hebrew and Greek words which we translate as “angel” meant simply a messenger, and some comments make it clear that the messenger need not be a living thing.   One of the Psalms gives a useful hint.   The writer has seen crops and cattle destroyed, and in the usual Jewish way of attributing all such things directly to God, he says:  “God let loose on them his fierce anger, and distress, a company of destroying angels.”  In other words, all sorts of happenings like drought or pestilence which we would call perfectly natural today were seen as agents of God and called angels.  Depending on the structure of one’s mind, a messenger of God might be personified as a winged hybrid or an ordinary mortal, but it might also be a dream or a vision.  It might be an abnormally wet Spring or any other strange and disturbing event or coincidence.

With apologies for dullness of textual transmission, here’s an instructive example from the New Testament to show how stories tend to expand from the ordinary to the supernatural.   John’s gospel (Ch. 5) tells of sick and crippled people who gather around a certain pool in Jerusalem which apparently has some healing power.  Some   manuscripts added that these people would wait for a disturbance of the water, and still other manuscripts added a touch of mystery by saying that “from time to time an angel came down into the pool and stirred up the water” and that “the first to plunge in after this disturbance recovered . . .” Those additions are now regarded as late and inferior texts and are relegated to a footnote in modern versions.  I’m grateful not to be asked to think that a capricious god decided when to extend his mercy and when to make suffering people wait.  The old King James version which we used in my childhood church conjured up distressing images of a gift from God so peculiar that people had to compete in a degrading scramble to see who could enjoy his compassion before it ran out.

It isn’t far from such stories to belief in guardian angels, despite the fact that both the New Testament and the early theologians had little to say about them.  Millions believe in them, especially as children, but for thoughtful adults they raise excruciating questions about divine providence.  Mother Mary Angelica, who now owns a cable TV network, says she met her first guardian angel at age 11 while crossing the street on her way home from school.  She says, “I felt myself lifted by invisible hands out of the path of a car.”  A devout Catholic woman whose child was struck and killed by a car the day before would be understandably puzzled as to why her child’s guardian angel failed.

Logic stands little chance, of course, against the widespread craving for stories of angelic rescues, so many of them involving traffic hazards that one commentator wondered how angels occupied themselves before the invention of the automobile.  Almost invariably the stories pander to the human pride and egocentrism from which religious faith has always tried to warn us, focusing on what angels can do for us rather than on what they prompt us to do for others.  A woman named Sophie Burnham, in a soppy book called Angel Letters  says they “play with us….look after us…heal us….comfort us with invisible warm hands, and always try to give us what we want.”  Whatever confusion one may find over the centuries when the Bible was being written, there is nothing comparable to the current flood of warm fuzzies about angels.  The modern message is:  “Don’t worry, things are working out perfectly.”  The cosmos is a happy place where there is no need for us to look out for each other, to work for justice or to wrestle with evil.  Those who are stroked by angel wings are privileged and can rest securely in a warm, nurturing world.  Our Notre Dame professor who spoke of how this trivializes religion had probably seen the story in which a guardian angel helps a tired mother change the sheets on her child’s bed.  Biblical messengers challenged people to change their lives or make some sacrifice;

the proliferating angels of the 90’s help you pass the test, get the promotion, win the lottery, escape with your life in a crash that kills everybody else.  You might try watching for an account of a guardian angel who appears to tell someone to stop cheating the customers, to end the affair before it wrecks several lives, to give up a luxury to save the environment.  Seldom do the stories transform a life or turn someone outward in service.

I have a certain faith which I preserve out of all this long, confusing history of intervening messengers from God.  I believe that signals of the Godlike qualities of love and justice and compassion are all around — and those signals are my “angels.”  They have no wings, they seem natural enough, but their message can be quite as demanding as anything I read in the Bible.  And if that isn’t quite mystical enough to satisfy your tastes, then may I suggest a modern interpretation of a verse from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament:  “Continue to love each other….and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”  I have entertained couriers of grace in my home and known they were bearers of a blessing, and sometimes by being blind I have not caught on, but I am absolutely convinced that if you love people and treat them fairly you don’t have to spend much time fretting about seeing a messenger of God’s grace:  you have become one.


            Grant us, gracious God, to hear in the accents of ordinary life your

            voice, and to find in the events of ordinary days your presence.  Amen.