The Church has a tendency to make simple things difficult, like prayer & faith, both of which are simple in principle but challenging in practice. Society has a tendency to trivialise important things like miracles and angels. I’ve written about ’Everyday Miracles’, so now I’m going to write “In defence of Angels”.
School nativity plays have not served us well here, but they are only copying much great art. The problem is easy to state but less easy to resolve. How do you visually depict an angel appearing to Mary or Joseph or a group of shepherds, without appearing ridiculous?
An angel is a messenger from God, and the Bible is full of examples of people experiencing God speaking to them. If you make a list of the ways that God spoke to people in the Bible it soon becomes clear that God is able to speak through almost anything. Jesus heard God speak to Him at His baptism, but I doubt if anyone else heard it. Isaiah heard God speak to him in the Temple through a vision. God spoke to the prophet Amos through him seeing a man with a plumb-line on a building site, and to the prophet Hosea through his experience of divorce. There are stories of God speaking through dreams. Christians experience God speaking to them through a man dying on a cross. Large numbers of people today testify to an experience of being spoken to by God, but I’ve never heard any of them mention a winged human figure in white.
One of my earliest and most memorable encounters with an angel happened many years ago. I shall never forget it. It was a Saturday morning in autumn. I’d left my house feeling down & fed up and was walking across a patch of grass kicking dolefully through fallen leaves. A small boy of maybe seven or eight was walking towards me, and when he drew near said ‘Hallo Henry, would you like a crisp’, and he held out a packet of salt & vinegar crisps. Now I don’t like salt & vinegar crisps but it seemed ungracious to say ‘No’, so instead I said ’Thank you’ took one, & we parted. As I walked I suddenly realised that my feeling of gloom had gone, and that I was feeling cheerful, all as a result of this encounter with a small boy who knew me but whom I didnt know.
Reflecting on the experience I realised two things. First, that a miracle had occurred because something powerful & life-giving had changed inside of me, and secondly, that I had experienced God’s love through the offering & acceptance of a crisp: God had spoken to me, & the vehicle God had used was a small boy, who was therefore an angel! I was sure that his parents would have been surprised if I’d told them that their son was an angel, but so, at least briefly, he was.
I now most days do a regular look back over the previous twenty four hours and ask myself when I have had a similar sort of experience and find that they happen not infrequently and invariably unexpectedly. Any encounter with another person is potentially an encounter with an angel, with someone through whom God may speak to me. Experience has taught me that it’s mainly down to my openness & awareness. There’s potentially an angel in everyone, so why do I find it easier to be aware of God speaking to me through this person rather than that one? Ahh!!!. Of course this works in reverse as well, so we each of us will probably from time to time, without our being aware of it, be someone through whom God speaks to another: we will be angels.
And it doesn’t have to be limited to people, for there’s an angel in everything. I was sat by a river recently and asked myself ‘what might the angel of the river be saying?’ And the answer was immediate & obvious ‘I’m moving slowly and I know that I’ll get to the sea eventually, so I’m in no hurry.” The angels of rivers, trees, flowers and animals consistently offer wisdom that runs counter to that of human society. To pay attention to angels is to open to a level of awareness that riches & deepens human experience. It’s easy to trivialise it, but life enhancing to embrace it.