Thursday, 29 September 2016

Feast of the Archangels -- 29 September

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10 /Revelation 12:7-12; Psalm 138; John 1:47-51

Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? It is a question often asked and people like to entertain the idea that there might be. Most science fiction depends on a positive answer to the question.

The Bible and the Christian tradition (as well as many other religious traditions) also give a positive answer to the question: yes, there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. We may take 'elsewhere' to mean geography: there might be other planets, other galaxies, in which other creatures with intelligence will be found. The Bible gives us no clear answer about this. But if 'elswhere' means metaphysics, then the Bible's answer is very clear: there are other intelligent creatures, on other levels of being, apart from those we know about through sensation.

There is much nostalgia for an enchanted world, testified to by the great quantity of books and films about other beings and other possibilities of being. It is a nostalgia for the angels, we can say, an implicit recognition that the beauty and power of God are infinite and so there is no end to the number and kind of creatures that might reflect that beauty and power. Recent centures in the West have seen the spiritual landscape denuded and depopulated, often reduced to the human being either alone with his 'spirituality' or seeking to relate, however uncertainly, with God. The feast of the archangels recalls us to something much richer, more interesting, and more profound.

The angels helps us to know where we are in the universe, they help us to find and to know our place. Raphael does this most explicitly, guiding the young Tobias along his way, so that he finds love and joy through his trust and faith in God. Gabriel too gives guidance, explaining to Zechariah and to Mary the missions God has for each of them. Michael is the protector of God's people, the guardian of the boundaries of their worlds, leader of the heavenly armies. It is why so many strategic points are dedicated to Michael, Skellig Michael in Kerry, for example, or Mont Saint Michel, to name just two.

It can be argued that one of the great weaknesses of modern thought is its narrow understanding of the human being, a kind of 'angelism' for which the human being is 'a soul in a body'. The human being came to be defined in terms of his rationality over against nature, even the nature that is closest to him, his own body. Here is another way in which the angels help us to know who we are. We are not pure intelligences and we are not the brightest of God's creatures. We are rational animals created in the image of God. But the image of God in us, Aquinas says, is fuller than it is in the angels precisely because we are rational animals and not trapped angels. As animals we reproduce, reflecting God's generativity in which the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit from the Father and the Son. As animals we are composite creatures with a soul that animates every part of the body and not just some special places. This fact about us reflects the presence of God in His creation everywhere and not just in some special places.

All we know about the angels is in reference to the mystery of Christ and human salvation. It is likely that there is lots more about angels, and perhaps about other creatures also, of which we are completely ignorant. We know about them to the extent that they are involved with us and with our salvation. So they are messengers, as Gregory the Great says, even preachers, as Augustine says, carrying to us something of the light and intelligence of God. However it is Christ who is the head of the angels as he is the head of human beings, made lower than the angels in becoming human but raised higher in being given the name that is above every other name. We call Mary, his mother, Queen of the Angels. These mighty beings serve human needs.

All is towards Christ, the Lamb who stands at the centre of the great visions of the Apocalypse. He is the Son of Man on whom the angels ascend and descend. The elders, the living creatures, the angels gathered for the festival, everything on earth, under the earth, and above the earth: all is through him and for him. When Israel's prayer is answered (Isaiah 63-64), and the Lord does rend the heavens to come down, His presence is revealed not just in chains of angels uniting heaven and earth but in the coming of the Eternal Son who is also the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn from the dead.

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