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Angela Tilby: Angels bring important reminders

25 September 2020


A mosaic of St Michael on the facade of a Serbian Orthodox Church in Trieste, Italy

A mosaic of St Michael on the facade of a Serbian Orthodox Church in Trieste, Italy

MICHAELMAS has always been an important feast for me. I associate it with endings and beginnings, as it has coincided with transitions in my life and ministry. It also falls at that hinge point in the seasons when the year, even as it begins to die, seems strangely alive with new and golden promise.

It is, perhaps, harder to enter this promise now, when many of the agonisingly slow gains of coming out of lockdown seem set to go into reverse. Perhaps we need the protection of the angels more than usual this year. The Orthodox describe the feast as the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers, and it falls in November. Michael is regarded as the Archstrategos, the Chief Commander. A well-known Roman Catholic prayer similarly addresses Michael as the Prince of the Heavenly Host and urges him to thrust Satan into hell along with other evil spirits “who wander through the world for the ruin of souls”. Such language might seem over the top in normal times, but right now. . .

Angels do not play a big part in Reformation theology. There is a natural Protestant suspicion of the underlying metaphysic of a hierarchy of beings between humanity and heaven, mirroring hierarchies of power all too evident on earth.

Yet the notion of hierarchy is not necessarily suggestive of inequality. The Neoplatonist theologian Pseudo-Dionysius saw hierarchy as essentially about connectedness. Creation is a multi-layered but interconnected whole. The notion of hierarchy allows for genuine community and genuine difference. Angels may be superior in intellect, capacity to praise God, and the ability to relocate. From one point of view, not having bodies to deal with might seem to be an advantage, but it is also a deprivation. After all, God chose to come to us in the flesh, and there are suggestions in scripture and elsewhere that this was “a strange design”, not easily grasped in the angelic realm. Humans and angels, in other words, have different limitations and glorify God in different ways.

St Michael and All Angels reminds us that every particle of creation has a capacity to radiate the divine glory. Difference does not cancel out equality or dignity. There is an echo of this benign hierarchical thinking in Richard Hooker, for whom the divine law is a permission to be who or what one is, as in the first chapter of Genesis. For us earth-bound creatures, this vocation is encapsulated in lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins:


Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes beyond itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying: What I do is me: for that I came.


The angels remind us that, though strangers and pilgrims, we belong. We have a place.

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