Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY III
Homily 2 of 3: “Angels and God’s Creative Word”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois
In last Sunday’s homily on Michaelmas, I offered a five-point outline of the doctrine of angels.
- Angels are all about God — praising God and “presencing” God.
- Angels are created beings of spirit with no physical body. Hence they are invisible to the eye. To see an angel means to perceive an angel.
- Angels are in nine orders and innumerable — a fact well worth pondering in our heart — innumerable yet created.
- Angels are named because of their activity. Their identity is their activity, and their activity is to announce.
- Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation.
And this fifth point bears a moment of reflection and offers a distinct way into scripture and something of what scripture tells us about angels and angelic presence no matter which book of the Bible we might read. Now if it is true that angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creating action, a reasonable person might very well ask, where does it say so in scripture? And the truth is that in plain, direct terms, the Genesis narrative of creation doesn’t appear to give explicit witness to how angels were created.
And yet it would be wrong to say that the creation of angels is passed over in the Genesis narrative. St Augustine, in his book, The City of God, points out that elsewhere in scripture it is clearly stated that God spoke and angels were created (Psalm 148). This tells us that Angels were created at some point in the seven days of creation. In the Book of Job, when God answers out of the whirlwind with a summary of his creating act, we learn that when the morning stars sang together, all the angels shouted for joy. So angels had already been created on the fourth day, the day that stars were created. What about the third day? This day brought earth and seas, plants and trees yielding seeds and fruit according to their own kinds — this doesn’t seem to fit for the day of angelic creation. Perhaps then the second day? On this day God made the firmament to separate the waters above and below. Angels don’t seem to fit here, either.
And so, it must be the first day. It must be from God’s very first words, “Let there be light”, and there was light — that is, and there were angels. And God separated the light from the darkness — that is, angels of the light from angels of the dark. The angels of the light he called Day; and the angels of the darkness he called Night. It is the Word of God — Christ, the Logos — through whom all things are made, that made the Angels.
Angels are rightly called “day” in their participation in the unchangeable light that is Christ the Word of God. Angels are not the light itself — but only through God. And when angels turned away from God, they became Night because they turned from the light of the Lord. And without the light of the Lord, angels became Darkness. In the loss of light, all things become evil. Not created evil — rather, evil by their own choice.
This accords with what we have already said about angels. To be created on the first day fits with being created spirits without body — when the earth was without form and void — named because they announce God’s light. Angels are all about God — filled, then with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word.
In scripture we then read that angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Moses, for Abraham, for Isaac, for Jacob — all of whom encounter the angelic. And angels are filled with the awesome and unfathomable force of God’s creative Word for Mary.
Who can imagine what it felt like for Mary, our Lady, a very young Jewish lady, to encounter the angelic presence Gabriel? Who can imagine such an encounter? Such a confrontation? Who wouldn’t be floored by a presence that speaks “Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you!”? Who wouldn’t tremble and shake? This is Gabriel, a name that means the Strength of God.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
How does one imagine a presence that speaks this way? Who names your son? Who names her Lord, our Lord, and who names the very presence around which we gather this morning, right now?
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Do we hear the power, the force of these words? Do we hear them how Mary heard them? Do we allow ourselves to hear this language, this event, with Mary’s ears? God wants us to try, every day.
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
And how could it be impossible, for angels speak with the power of God’s original creation! And, here, it is an angel, Gabriel, who is announcing nothing less than the nature of ultimate reality, of the emergence of an unfathomable new creation — a message in its fullest too immense and too incomprehensible by mortal ears, even the ears of Mary — and so Gabriel, raiser of consciousness, raiser of conscience — acts as translator, bearer, loving facilitator to Mary, so that she can understand something of the sheer profundity of this message. So she can process it. That it is accessible to her — something to which she can respond.
“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
How poignant. How beautiful. How vulnerable. How humble.
And as we come to this table, this Altar, to give ourselves to God, the maker, lover, and keeper of all things, visible and invisible, the God who said, “let there be light” and there were angels, bearing the Light of Light, may we be so enlightened, so guarded, so ruled, and so guided into all truth — may we be emboldened like Mary with the words of Gabriel, the strength of God so that in the real and mystical presence of our Lord through his Body and Blood as spiritual food for us and for our salvation, we too, like Mary and all of creation, praise and magnify him forever, that we can serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song, and that we might sing with Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Go to HOMILY III.
Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.