Farewell, cosmic teddy bear

31 January 2007

The holy angels teach us to be up and doing, says Jane Williams

WE LIVE in a big universe whose possibilities we do not yet fully know or understand. While this is exciting, it is also frightening, as the unknown must be. For many people, angels are the comforting face of this unknown universe. We do not entirely understand them, but we know that they are both like and unlike us, and that they are essentially benevolent towards us.

It would be nice simply to call a halt to our investigation of angels at this point. But, if we do, we will miss most of the glory of angels. Angels are more complicated, more challenging, more exciting, and more nuanced than this simplistic picture of a cosmic teddy bear.

In biblical terms, we and the angels and the whole of the created universe are caught up in God’s action to bring us back into relationship with himself. In mythical terms, we and the angels are part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

We cannot treat angels as always and invariably comforting. Sometimes, the comfort they offer us may be spurious. They may be encouraging selfish, self-protecting instincts in us. The angels who visited the shepherds at the time of Jesus’s birth told them to leave their duty and go on a seemingly pointless errand to see a newborn baby.

They could not know that they would for ever afterwards be identified as the first people to recognise Jesus as God’s Christmas present to the world. The shepherds obeyed the angels because they were unselfish enough to feel the joy of the angels and to respond, whether that would do them any good or not.

It is not wrong to long for comfort, security, and protection. It is entirely understandable that we should ache to bury our faces in the angels’ heavenly feathers and never come out. But, while people who have met angels do describe this sensation of being safely held, they also describe it as temporary. These moments of knowing ourselves to be safely held cannot continue for ever. If they did, we would be like a child who was never allowed to try anything or take any risks for fear of danger.

So, to set out on this voyage of discovery about angels is to commit ourselves to being connected into a bigger picture of the universe. We, too, become part of the story that God is telling about the world. A belief in angels commits us to a belief in a cosmos that is bigger than anything we can see or understand.

It also commits us to playing our part in that cosmos. We cannot believe in angels, and simply expect to be able to concentrate on our own needs and desires. These two ways of living in the world are mutually exclusive. We can either live in our own small world, where we need serve nobody but ourselves, or we can live in a world of angels, people, principalities, and powers, which will commit us to action in helping to shape what kind of a world this will be.

If we choose to acknowledge the angels’ world, we will not always be protected. But our lives will have a bigger meaning. Like the shepherds, we will be stepping into a story of the way the world is going, and we may find that we, too, are spoken of for centuries to come, as part of the movement to recognise the world as belonging to God.

The angels of the Bible are God’s messengers. We do not have to hear their message, and we can choose wilfully to ignore everything about them except the bits that we like.

Behind, around, underneath, and through the day-to-day world that we inhabit is the song of the angels. It is beautiful, endless, joyful, and terrible. It will be sung, whether we join in with it or not. But imagine the sensation of stepping into that angelic harmony, and being caught up in its power and majesty. This is what the angels invite us to do. They long to teach us their song, so that we, with them, can sing a hymn of praise to the glorious universe and its maker.

This is our final edited extract from Angels by Jane Williams (Lion, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978- 0-7459-5222-2).

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