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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Giotto, Lamentation of Christ

Michaelmas 2022

Today we celebrate St Michael and all angels. There are, in fact, seven Princes of Heaven specifically recognized by name in scripture and tradition: from the canonical texts, Michael the Archangel, as well as Gabriel; and additionally, the apocryphal Raphael, Uriel, Sealtiel, Jehudiel, and Barachiel. Michael’s other title “saint”, confusing in application to an angel rather than a human, comes from a mistranslation of the Latin word “sanctus”, which means “holy”. All heavenly dwellers are holy: the Cherubim and Seraphim, the Living Creatures and innumerable heavenly hosts, and yes, even us humans once we “cross the valley” -- some, to be sure, a little holier in this earthly life, but all destined to spend the eternity with God.

In the Nicene Creed, we do confess that God has created “all that is, seen and unseen,” and to consider the possibility of angels may be simply one way of acknowledging the mystery and sheer diversity of life, visible and invisible. What is the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the word angel? We have a variety of images right here in our sanctuary today, as per our annual tradition; and we all hold a variety of theological notions about them. Some of us put them in the same category of fantasy creatures as fairies and unicorns, while others may draw significant strength from the sense of a protective presence. Reflecting this diversity, artistic representation of angels has evolved over the centuries, drawing on myths and traditions: from the winged Victories and chubby toddlers of the Greco-Roman world, to those borrowed from the Persian art; from the eunuchs and warriors of Antiquity to the female muses of the pre-Raphaelite artists. As time went on, they acquired wings, became more androgynous, their clothing changed from soldier’s tunics to linen robes, and even diaconal church vestements, and they stopped brandishing swords and began to enterntain the holy infant with music.

In your imagination, is your “guardian angel” a mighty warrior, a female musician, or a playful child? What’s striking is that whatever it is, I’m willing to bet that it looks rather… human. In fact, scripturally, angels and humans aren't all that different. To begin with, we are all created beings; neither are omnipresent, and as I said earlier, all are destined for heaven. Angels were the first of God’s creatures to possess intellects and wills, and we have these too, albeit bound by our material bodies. Together with the angels, we worship God on earth and in heaven, and engage in the perpetual, cosmic conflict between good and evil. The angels fought in the first such conflict to take place, we will stand alongside each other at the apocalyptic battle, as we continually engage in resisting evil here on earth. To this end, our jobs, again, are quite similar to the tasks that the angels have performed in the scriptures.

First, we are called to deliver the good news to each other, and in that respect, we are all “angeliafóros” -- that is, messengers. Do you recall which people in the bible were recipients of angels’ news in the bible (e.g., Abraham, Mary...)? Second, we are called to serve as companions on the road, both comforting others through the rough patches and celebrating milestones, just as the angels appeared to biblical characters at significant events (e.g., with Daniel amidst the furnace flames, driving Elija up to heaven in the fiery chariot, etc.). And third, we are simply called to lend a helping hand, just as the angels saved Lot, enabled Peter’s escape from prison, ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, and “bear us up lest we dash our feet against the stone” (Ps. 91). And finally, we worship together with the rest of creation, praising God, confessing and lamenting the evil we see around us (as you see in Giotto’s fresco). Together with the angels, we fulfill our God-given purposes on earth and in heaven, now and at the end times, and for all eternity.

Such interconnectedness, even inseparability, of heaven and earth is beautifully illustrated and summarized in today’s OT passage. You might recall Jacob’s tumultuous journey from the place of deceit, manipulation, and violence, towards establishing the nation into which the Savior of the world would be born. Today’s reading refers to its beginning: Jacob runs away from his brother Esau, whom he supplanted twice, while also looking for a suitable wife. One night, he receives this vision -- a ladder, upon which the multitudes of angels travel up to and down from the sky. (Jesus’ words as recorded in the gospel, of course, echo this story). What is this conduit between heaven and earth, if it is not the very human soul, as it rises in holiness over its lifetime, striving to overcome evil with good, fulfilling God’s purpose, working alongside and assisted by angels?

But with whom or with what do we find ourselves wrestling on the way to becoming our true selves? What are some of life's lessons from which we will never fully recover, like Jacob who would never walk without a limp again? What thoughts and memories, and presences still keep us up at nights? Nonetheless, let us find comfort in the possibility that the strangers we entertain might in fact be angels, and the ordinary works of human hands performed out of kindness and generosity may at times appear miraculous. Most importantly, we continue to build and sustain that connection between heaven and earth -- whether we envision it as Jacob’s ladder of the OT, or the mustard seed, valuable pearl, or lush vineyard of Jesus' parables. We do so as worshippers and messengers, warriors and ministers, humbly and faithfully performing our assigned tasks, great or small, now and forever. Thanks be to God.