A colleague’s mother in law shared with him recently a powerful personal experience she had had just after the death of her beloved husband, a commercial pilot. During those first few weeks of grief and the feeling you get of having misplaced something important, the feeling of being desperately out of kilter, the lady was in the front garden watering when she heard a crash coming from the open garage. A small bird of prey, most likely a peregrine falcon, had flown straight into the garage, maybe misjudging its path, and smashed against the back wall. As she watched, it shook its head, hopped up onto the driver’s side wing mirror of the car, and fixed its eyes on her. For a moment the two of them held each other’s gaze, then it flew straight past her, up into the sun. Was it an angel?, she asked her son-in-law. Her husband, you see, had flown all his life as a commercial pilot. Could it have been his angel, telling me that all is well, that he is where he should be, and that we would see one another again? My friend, a scientist and a priest, told her without a doubt, it was a real, flesh, bone and feathered bird. Birds do that sometimes, fly into something, and we can be blessed with that rare encounter with a wild animal. Undoubtedly. But equally undoubtedly the creature had spoken to her, and the assurance and peace that settled on her from that time was undoubtedly God’s word to her. Undoubtedly, it was an angel.
We pause in our church year today to think about angels, which as any student of Greek will tell you comes from angelos, meaning a messenger. Angels are creatures who bear God’s word: a word of blessing and reassurance, a word of peace or a word of challenge. The living word of God that is needed for the decisions and dangers and heartaches of today. And the question you sometimes face as a priest is: do we believe in angels? Are angels real, or just part of the fluffy pious fairytale version of Christianity?
And my friend had a word about this also. If we can’t believe, he told me, that God’s word comes to us unbidden – if we can’t believe that God speaks a new and timely word into the muddled chaos of our lives, if we think our faith is just the infinite retracing of where we have been before and that there is no new word to be heard – then we might as well pack up and find something better to do on a Sunday morning. If God is God, then God’s word creates and recreates us every moment, weaves the future into which we step without a clue as to what it will bring but confident that the future, like the past, belongs to God. If you can’t believe in angels then how can you believe in God’s goodness and guidance – just – maybe the proper question is not, ‘do angels exist?’, but, ‘how are we as Christians meant to practice the wisdom of the angels?’.
Maybe the first thing is to notice that so often in both Old and New Testaments angels appear to guide, to inspire and challenge men and women less in their individual affairs than in the life of God’s people, angels represent turning points and moments of challenge and crisis and new vision in the salvation history of God’s people - as in our readings this morning, as in the angel’s trembling question to Mary with all heaven in breathless suspense awaiting her answer, as in the two mysterious white-robed figures that tell the terrified disciples that the fabric of creation itself has been shifted because he is not here, but risen. And that the practice of angels requires two things in particular: a state of heightened perception, of awareness that God indeed is speaking through the world of our senses; and of willingness to be interrupted, to be addressed by God in the everyday circumstances of our lives - the curiosity of Moses tending his father-in-law’s sheep who goes out of his way to investigate a burning bush, the sensitivity and responsiveness of Joseph of Bethlehem who listens to the voice of God in dreams. We practice the wisdom of angels by being prepared to be personally addressed, by being willing to notice the presence of God in the heart of the deeply ordinary – and the only way we can cultivate such a readiness is through prayer. We practice the wisdom of angels by recognising ourselves as the necessary vehicles of God’s communication. And the second thing that the wisdom of angels requires is a church that is ready to listen, ready to apply its collective receptiveness and wisdom to understanding what is being said.
I am reminded of another story. This is one I read recently, just a little fable about penguins living on an iceberg in Antarctica. They do what penguins have always done, breed and swim and hunt fish, and huddle together to survive the freezing winter. Until the day when one penguin – the fable calls this penguin Fred but you can make up your own name – Fred who is curiouser and who sees the world and the ocean just a bit differently to his fellow penguins – see, Fred is already practicing the first part of the wisdom of angels – Fred notices something wrong. The iceberg is beginning to melt. There are telltale signs of deep fissures forming, of caves of liquid water deep in the ice ready to refreeze and expand in the winter, a recipe for disaster because expanding ice at the heart of an iceberg can shatter it into a zillion pieces. And Fred, as a penguin who cares deeply about his community, faces two big problems: how to get anyone else to see what he has seen, to believe in the threat they face together – and how to work out what they can do about it. One thing is clear – the penguins can’t just keep doing on their iceberg what they have done for hundreds of generations. The iceberg that has provided unquestioned security for the whole history of their colony is disappearing under their cold little feet.
You see, the wisdom of angels requires some practical skills. You might be able to apply this fable to any situation in your own life where change is forced on you, certainly it is applicable for the church. We need the wisdom of the angels as we reflect on how we can be faithful as the church in new times, new ways and new contexts. And the little group of penguins who see and understand the evidence that Fred presents to them – the council of penguins – discover that the first thing that needs to change before they can even begin to respond to the crisis – is themselves. They need to learn to understand and trust each other before they can do anything else, certainly before they can convince the whole penguin community that there is an urgent need to do something different. And the second thing they needed was a willingness to take some risks, to trust that the essence of penguin-ness is not the familiar iceberg but the strength of the community itself. If they are Christian penguins they need to trust in angels, that the word they need is being spoken by God, that all they need is the perceptiveness and the willingness to hear it, and the courage to act on it.
It is Fred, of course, who first sees the answer in the form of a seagull – not so special, you might think, except what is a single solitary seagull doing hundreds of kilometres out to sea? Seagulls are raucous, argumentative birds who live to fight amongst themselves over scraps. But this seagull is a scout. Its special job is to fly on ahead of the colony, to spot likely places for the families to bring the babies to learn to fight, for example, over some newly discovered whale carcass. Of course the seagull in this story is an angel, because it has the word that leads the penguins into a possible future – not the future they had ever imagined, but a future that would have its own kind of security, a future as a nomadic community. You see, the wisdom of angels not only needs the single act of seeing something or hearing something differently, but the collective act of interpretation and creatively responding to what is heard.
God does speak to us, and we are surrounded by a multitude of angels, if we are only prepared to set aside our own agendas and preconceptions so we can develop the sensitivity to recognise and hear them. And the word of God – both forever the same and always new – needs all our collective goodwill and wisdom to understand. As a church we exist for no other reason than to bear the word of God into the future, to be and to listen for angels. It is for this reason alone, for example, that every year we gather as a Diocesan Synod, as we will next week, not for dry argument over disputed legislation but to collectively listen and interpret the voices of angels. The writer of revelation understands this when he writes to the seven churches of Asia Minor, addressing each letter to the angel of the church, the unique word by which God is guiding and shaping us in the specific context of our times. Please hold us in prayer this week as we prepare for this responsibility, pray that we can put aside our over-familiar perspectives and shallow self-preoccupation so that we can hear the voices of angels.
It is also, I believe, what we claim today for Katie as we baptise her and welcome her into Holy Communion. That she will learn to see and hear and respond to the world differently, with the ears and eyes of the heart, and be ready to respond when angels speak to her. That she herself will learn to be an angel – she already looks like one! – speaking God’s word to all around her.