I am told that some of the children who attend school in the area and pass by this Cathedral call it “the duppy church”. The presence of graves below various sections of the floor of the Cathedral, as well as the presence of the plaques and statues, give to the place a sense of the scary and mysterious from their perspective. We may chuckle or even be dismissive of the perspective of these young people, and yet, one of the questions raised by life in our modern world is, what constitutes reality? Is there place for accommodating the mystery and the spiritual in our understanding of reality?
As products of the modern scientific era, many have tended to reduce the definition of reality to the objective, visible and tangible, the things which can be manipulated by science and technology. Whatever does not fall within this system of classification is not real. The interesting thing about it all is that the very science which has claimed to be definitive of reality has now led to a situation in which it is almost impossible to determine what constitutes reality. For example, when watching the television these days it is impossible to determine what is real and what is animation as this development in science and cinematography has blurred the boundaries for the definition of reality.
So too has the development of what is known as artificial intelligence, on which much of computer technology rests. Accordingly, many have dismissed or lost a sense of the mystery and mysterious in life. Because human beings have been able to use the visible and tangible to create, invent, and build the things which manifest the achievement of civilization, we have tended to move into a state of arrogance and idolatry in asserting that there is no God. God is only a reality for the uneducated, the unsophisticated, the superstitious mind, and people of underdeveloped societies.
Some weeks ago I had the privilege of representing the Anglican Communion at the meeting of the World Methodist Council and Conference held in Houston, Texas. One of the sessions featured a presentation by two astrophysicists, one now a professor of theology in a University and the other still pursuing a career in astrophysics. One feature of the presentation was a power point presentation and video showing the universe as it is now revealed by the latest telescopes. It was an awe-inspiring experience of seeing the new stars in formation, the kaleidoscope of colours, and the data produced by these discoveries leading to further insights into the origins of the created order. The practicing astrophysicist made a comment to the effect that “science describes what it observes, but the mystery of what is being revealed is overwhelming and resonates with the person of faith”.
Consider, for example, this lead story which appeared in the Jamaica Daily Gleaner in August 2013. The caption was “Goodbye, God? Irish scientist predicts atheism will overtake religion in Jamaica”, and ran as follows:
By the year 2041, the majority of Jamaicans will not believe in the existence of God, says one Britain-based scientist who is arguing that the move towards atheism is a global trend.
Dr Nigel Barber says the correlation between development and atheism is significant enough to erode the deeply religious values that underpin the Jamaican society and cited his country of birth as an example of this.
“Ireland – where I spent my childhood – was equally religious but is now the 10th least religious country in the world, according to (pollsters) Gallup Organization. This rapid change may be attributed to very rapid economic growth,” he explained.
“Affluence helps people feel more confident about the future so that there is less need for religion to cope with uncertainty and distress. In less-developed countries, people have more to worry about in terms of early death, accidents, violence, and so forth. One way of expressing this is to say that religion provides emotional comfort in the face of a dangerous, uncertain world.”
Barber, who is a biopsychologist, based his conclusions on a study of people living in 137 countries, including Jamaica. Those conclusions are published in his book, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.
The feast day which we celebrate today asserts with boldness the existence of God, the reality of the mysterious in life, and existence of a world of heavenly beings who are God’s agents, interfacing with human life in its concreteness and every day expression and the world of the mysterious and the heavenly.
Many of us Jamaicans have an element of discomfort regarding the presence of revivalist cults among us and perhaps consider them strange and caught up with a spiritual world, which sounds more like obeah than anything to do with Christianity, when they speak about a world peopled by angels and archangels, especially, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, and yet these names are at the heart of the faith of Christians.
In all of the readings for this feast day, St. Michael and All Angels, there are references to angels as heavenly beings.
In laying the foundation for our understanding of the lessons for this day, I want to quote extensively from a sermon delivered by Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome in 604.
You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. However, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.
And so it was not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.
Some angels are given proper names to denote the service they are empowered to perform. In that holy city, where perfect knowledge flows from the vision of the almighty God, those who have no names may easily be known. But personal names are assigned to some, not because they could not be known without them, but rather to denote their ministry when they come among us. Thus, Michael means “Who is like God”; Gabriel is “The Strength of God”; and Raphael is “God’s Remedy”.
Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that action and name may make it clear that no one can do what God does but his own superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in pride to be like God, saying: “I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High”. Satan will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: “A battle was fought with Michael the archangel”.
So too Gabriel, who is called God’s strength, was sent to Mary. Gabriel came to announce the One who appeared in humility to quell the cosmic powers. Thus God’s strength announced the coming of the Lord of the heavenly powers, mighty in battle.
Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when this angel touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, Raphael banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus, since this angel is to heal, Raphael is rightly called God’s remedy.
In the Old Testament Reading from Genesis 28, there is depicted for us the famous dream of Jacob at the place he subsequently called Bethel.
It is interesting that even though this experience of Jacob is recorded as a vision, the angels of God play a central role in it. Here in the dream he sees a ladder stretching from earth to heaven on which God’s angels- heavenly messengers- are passing up and down to perform tasks assigned to them by God. Jacob recognizes the ladder as the means of communication between God in heaven and human beings on earth. The communication imagery is complete with the presence of the angels moving back and forth. The communication as understood by Jacob is one of a reiteration of the promise made to him by God of the land of Canaan, in which he is now resting, and of numerous progeny, and with an added promise that he will guide and protect him on his journey and wherever he may go.
In the Psalm 103, we have a reference in verse 20 of the angels of God:
“Bless the Lord, you angels of his, you mighty ones who do his bidding…” This Psalm is regarded as a hymn of praise, but unlike some, is articulated not just in corporate language but in a very personal way. It may be the words of an individual who has possibly recovered from some form of illness, and who, in his joyful states invited the whole creation, including the angels, the heavenly beings to join in the song.
In the reading from the Revelation of St. John chapter 12 there is a picture of war in heaven at the end of the age as the forces of evil are still trying to exercise their power, but the angels of God, led by a named angel, Michael, the chief of the angels, fight back, and evil is defeated and Satan and his hosts are cast down.
In the gospel for the day, we see Nathaniel marveling at the fact that Jesus was able to discern his presence under a tree before he was brought by Philip into the presence of Jesus, and then Jesus promising Nathaniel that he will see greater visions in the future manifesting the power of God. In chapter 1 verse 51 Jesus says:
“Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Unlike the vision of Jacob in which the angels descend on a ladder from heaven to earth, Jesus here points to the fact that Nathaniel will see the angels descend on the Son of Man, who is the link between the Father and the world of humankind. The angels will bear witness to the unique revelation of Jesus, the Son of Man.
So the idea of the existence of angels is not something which has been concocted through the ages by ignorant and backward persons within the history of the church to mislead the so-called naïve and superstitious people of God. It is present in Scripture and is articulated on the very lips of Jesus. Accordingly, the doctrine of angelology has been a part of the life of the Church through the ages. In this regard I want to quote then from the article in the resource book, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, in which we have a brief discussion of angels:
The scriptural word “angel” literally means a “messenger”. Messengers from God can be visible or invisible, and may assume human or not-human forms. Christians have always felt themselves to be attended by healthful spirits –swift, powerful, and enlightening. Those beneficent spirits are often depicted in Christian art in human form, with wings to signify their swiftness and spacelessness, with swords to signify their power, and with dazzling raiment to signify their ability to enlighten.
Today we have come to install Fr. Garth Minott as a Canon of this Cathedral who will occupy the stall of St. Patrick. Who was St. Patrick and how might he fit in with the focus of this feast of St. Michael and All Angels which we observe today? Here I offer an abridged version of the life of St. Patrick which I have gleaned from my internet search. St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain. Although his father and grandfather were ordained clergy, Patrick, however, was not an active believer. According to the Confession of St. Patrick, at the age of just sixteen Patrick was captured by a group of Irish pirates.They brought him to Ireland where he was enslaved and held captive for six years. Patrick writes in The Confession that the time he spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development. He explains that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and converted to Christianity. While in captivity, Saint Patrick worked as a shepherd and strengthened his relationship with God through prayer eventually leading him to convert to Christianity.
After six years of captivity he heard a voice [angel?] telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, where he found a ship and after three days sailing they landed, presumably in Britain. After various adventures, he returned home to his family, now in his early twenties. After returning home to Britain, Saint Patrick continued to study Christianity.
Patrick recounts that he had a vision [angels?] a few years after returning home:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Acting on the vision, Patrick returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary. Patrick was subsequently appointed a bishop, although he had to face some challenges from those who opposed him and brought various charges against him.
From his work the Confession, something can be seen of St. Patrick’s mission. He writes that he “baptised thousands of people”. He ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities. He converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in the face of family opposition. He also dealt with the sons of kings, converting them too. There are reports of Patrick having difficult interactions with the chiefly elite. He does claim of the Irish: “Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!”
If we may assume that those two figures that spoke to Patrick in his visions were angels, we are again witnessing the work of angels as those who are sent of God to announce his mission and to enlist those who are recipients of such encounters to be part of the divine mission.
In the 23rd Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is a scene in which Paul is on trial before the Council in Jerusalem having to defend his preaching of the resurrection of Jesus and his mission to the gentiles. Paul claims that he has a clear conscience regarding the way he has lived his life and practiced his faith. The high priest, offended by that defence by Paul, ordered that he be struck in the face. Paul, deeply offended by the action, decided to use a ploy to play one side of the council against the other. The text portrays it for us as follows:
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection* of the dead.’ 7When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) 9Then a great clamour arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ 10When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.
Fr. Garth, we shall not use this occasion to create any potential dissension by inquiring of you concerning your experience of angels, though perhaps you may have your own testimony to offer. It is, however, our prayer that, like Patrick, who had his own life transformed through his encounter with the angels of God, and who went on to lead many to faith in Jesus Christ and to offer leadership within the life of the church, you will through your vocation and witness in your ministry in the theological college and in this additional capacity as a Canon of the Cathedral, lead many in formation and nurture in the faith of Christ, and in the work of leading them to discover their vocation as ministers within the church of God.
It seems to me that in the end it really boils down to who sets the agenda for our understanding and acceptance of the faith. Is it based on Scripture and the understanding of the faith as passed on through the ages, or do we accept that our modern minds are so superior and learned that they define all reality for us. Remember always that our Anglican perspective on matters of faith is informed by the three-fold pillar of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
I like to think that the existence and presence of the angels is one of God’s provisions for the comfort, protection, and enlightenment of his people in the pursuit of their day to day activities, as they work, as they travel and as they take their rest at the end of the day. The Epistle to the Hebrews in chapter 1 verse 14 expresses it this way:
Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
One of the most profound expressions of the Church’s affirmation of the reality and effectiveness of angels is to be found in the Office of Compline, said at the end of the day before retiring to sleep. Its pathos, comfort, and consolation are words which I will never surrender to the ramblings of modern minds:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
As one who travels frequently by land and by air, I like to take the same assurance of the presence of God’s holy angels with me, fully cognizant of the various dangers and expressions of evil which may attend such travel, and to see in this my ground for confidence that I am never outside of the providential care and protection of God. Ultimately, the question becomes, for you as it is for me, do you trust God to be that closely and intimately involved in your daily walk with Him to make the provision of his holy angels as companions on the journey. Let me hope that this day will provide an opportunity for a reaffirmation of your faith in Him and his band of holy angels, his messengers who do His will working for our ultimate salvation.