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The persistent wingbeat

18 December 2015

Ted Harrison probes the everlasting popularity of God’s messengers of grace

SUPERSTOCK/NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON

Surrounded: The Adoration of the Shepherds with Angels by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535) 1499

Surrounded: The Adoration of the Shepherds with Angels by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535) 1499

BUSINESS “angels” lend money to entrepreneurs. Angel Delight is a children’s dessert. Sweet-natured children are “little angels”. Nurses in the tabloid press are invariably angels. . . There can be few religious words that are used so frequently in a secular context.

Christians learn that the angels are creatures of God, who attend on him in heaven and act as his messengers. In a secular world, however, where much Christian teaching has been subsumed, it is angels that have a hold on the popular mind. They survive as one of the few remaining overt links between God and a godless society.

Angels come into their own in the story of the birth of Jesus, from the arrival of the archangel Gabriel at the annunciation to the choir of the heavenly host that filled the sky on the first Christmas morning.

And, amid the commercialism of a modern Christmas, angels are holding their own. Together with Santa and his reindeer, they are the ubiquitous icons of the season. And somehow, against the odds, they manage to keep the spiritual message alive.

 

ANGELS span many religious traditions. They are known to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and, in various forms, to other faiths as well. Moreover, they are strongly rooted in folk faith in Western culture.

A poll commissioned by the publishers Random House from Ipsos MORI, in 2009, which interviewed 1000 British adults, reported that 46 per cent of them believed in guardian angels. Three-quarters of these believers felt that their guardian angel had helped them in their lives.

The poll was carried out at the time when Lorna Byrne’s book Angels in my Hair was topping the UK bestseller lists. It was the personal account of an Irish woman who believes that she regularly sees angels. To her, they take a physical form, and she says that she sees them with as much clarity as most of us see people.

Every year, in the run-up to Christmas, Byrne says that she sees special angels whom she calls “blessings angels. . . They seem to be denser, broader, and more solid than other angels. They reach out and touch people’s souls.” Last year, she described one of these encounters. “The angel was wearing a beautiful dark cloak, which had golden threads woven through it, and the internal light of the angel seemed to shine through these threads.”

Fanciful stuff, sceptics say; and yet her books clearly strike a chord. The commercial success of businesses that sell angel merchandise also attests to their popularity. Several online shops offer items such as angel jewellery, candles, mugs, figurines, medallions, worry stones, and keyrings. Most New Age shops offer angel souvenirs, as well as incense, talismans, crystals, and the other paraphernalia of modern pseudo-paganism.

“Angels”, by Robbie Williams, released at Christmas 1997, became the singer’s biggest-selling single. The lyrics have no Christian content. The very mention of the word angel, however, was enough for the song to be banned from register-office weddings for several years for being “too religious”, before the rules were relaxed.

There are also New Age-style websites that claim to teach believers how to contact their guardian angel. “Many people choose to construct an altar, meditate, light candles, burn incense. . . There are as many ways to contact Angels as there are people,” the Angel Focus site advises.

“All you need to do is call out to them. It doesn’t have to be in words; all it needs to be is a thought: ‘Angel, I need your help.’ They always come.”

Angels appear to be a profitable niche market across a wide spectrum of spiritual interests. They join the rosaries, crucifixes, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, and photos of Pope Francis in shops catering mainly for Roman Catholics.

They also, it seems, keep abreast with modern technology. There is now an iPhone app to help channel guardian angels and receive messages from them: one new message is delivered every day to subscribers.

 

FOR a long time, there has been general agreement about what an angel should look like. Angels are genderless, winged, pure white, and ethereal — although they may be shown as cherubic. In that case, they are usually male, winged, chubby, and childlike.

These artistic conventions have, in many cases, strayed a long way from the biblical sources. The cherubim of Genesis, for instance, are not endearing little beings. After the Fall, they were stationed, slashing swords in hand, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.

In the Bible, although angels may appear in ordinary, human form, there are also descriptions of winged beings, but quite unlike the artistic stereotypes. Isaiah 6.2 describes the seraphim: “Each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.”

Revelation 4.8 also describes six-winged creatures: “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”

 

We are told that there are nine orders of angelic beings. They can be grouped into three spheres. In various passages in the Old and New Testaments mention is made of Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels, and Angels.

These angelic beings are mentioned at least 108 times in the Old Testament, and 165 times in the New. They exist in heaven to glorify God, and yet some of them also serve as the messengers of God, and can interact with humankind. In Genesis, there are curious references to the possible interbreeding of angels and humans. As the terms Dominions and Powers suggest, the angels are not all wispy, airy-fairy creatures of popular culture. They are powerful beings exerting authority on God’s behalf.

 

TO PEOPLE living in a post-Christian culture, an understanding of angels has diverged from the Christian understanding, which explains, perhaps, why the Ipsos MORI poll found that 19 per cent of those who said that they did not believe in God nevertheless believed in angels.

In a way, angels have come to represent the possibility that there is more to existence than is suggested by the secular, material world of our enlightened age. The mysteries of creativity, of love and altruism, which are not explained by science, take on an iconic form. Guardian angels have come to represent, metaphorically, a person’s spiritual alter ego.

For Pope Francis, however, guardian angels are realities: “According to church tradition, we all have an angel with us, who protects us and helps us understand things,” he said at a mass to celebrate the feast of the Guardian Angels.

He advised his listeners to ask themselves: “How is my relationship with my guardian angel? Do I listen to him? Do I say good morning to him? Do I ask him to watch over me when I sleep? No one journeys alone, and no one should think that they are alone.”

Whether angels are accepted literally or poetically, they continue in their timeless role as the messengers, or intermediaries, of God. It is through angels that the millions of people in the Western world who have no understanding of Christian theology, and are entirely unchurched, remain connected with the possibility of transcendence. The voices of the Christmas angels can still be heard above the hubbub of Christmas commerce.

Angels, too, link people across religions. Talking to Muslim friends about angels reminds one how much the two faiths have in common. Islam teaches that angels are made of light, while humans are made of clay. Unlike humans, they have no free will, and exist to do God’s bidding. When they appear to human beings, they take on the appearance of a person.

Angels have become rooted in language, which gives them an additional cultural durability. They appear in numerous popular songs where the word “angel” is frequently used as a term of endearment. “Pretty little angel eyes,” Curtis Lee sang in 1961. Madonna recorded a song, “Angel”, about a girl who was saved by an angel and then fell in love with him.

 

 

AND angels live on. Visual artists continue to use them in their work. Arguably, the most widely recognised modern public sculpture in Britain is Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, which towers above the A1 at Gateshead. The sculptor said that it was “a focus for our hopes and fears”.

Angels are used to provide an explanation for otherwise inexplicable acts of kindness. Legends have grown up about angels appearing at times of trouble.

One newspaper report, in 2013, described an unknown stranger at the scene of a traffic accident. He appeared to be a priest dressed in clerical black, and appeared out of nowhere. He prayed with the injured victim as she was being freed by the emergency services. And then he vanished.

The chief fire officer said later: “Whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest, or a priest that became our angel, I don’t know. Either way, I’m good with it.”

As the world celebrates a modern, secular Christmas of over-indulgence and shopping, angels are ever present as a reminder of other possibilities and priorities. Whatever form they take, they will continue — even in the most seemingly godless of contexts — to bear witness to the glory and mystery of the incarnation.

 

Ted Harrison is an artist, writer, and a former BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent.

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