Tag Archives: Angels

Homily: “Even of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by the Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

This indeed is a moment of tremendous holiness. For to us a child is born; to us a son is given. And in this birth of a child, on this night when a son given to us, let us not overlook the truth, but celebrate it. Let us not lose focus amid the warm moments of Christmastide—the family feasts, the exchanging of presents, the sugar cookies—but keep our attention firmly on the fundamental reality of Christmas: that God has come to earth and Mary is Mother of God.

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Homily: “Religion and Angels”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels, 2016.

We come in the liturgical year to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. This feast day enjoyed great popularity in medieval England, and the wider British lands of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well. So much so that it came to be known as “Michaelmas,”—“Michael’s Mass”—with the same shortened treatment that Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass,” received in popular piety. It was also important because it was a turning point in the English economy each Autumn, for it was seen as the official end of the harvest season, and hence new servants were hired, debts paid. Also, the universities began their terms after this day. One of my seminaries, Nashotah House, still calls its fall semester, “Michaelmas Term.”

Michaelmas showed up, as Church festivals often did (and still do), on the dinner table. It was customary to eat goose on Michaelmas Day; there was a kind of bread called “St Michael’s Bannock” that is a relative of the scone; and Michaelmas, according to English folklore, was “last day that blackberries should be picked. It is said that on this day, when Lucifer was expelled from Heaven, he fell from the skies, straight onto a blackberry bush. He then cursed the fruit, scorched them with his fiery breath, spat and stamped on them and made them unfit for consumption! And so the Irish proverb goes: ‘On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries.’” There is even a “Michaelmas Daisy,” a kind of Aster whose color ranges from deep pink to light purple. With the Weiner Roast last evening outside the vicarage at All Saints’ as part of our Michaelmas revelry, we participated in an age-old festival and added—with hot dogs and s’mores and the rest—a particularly American spin.

Three years ago, as a lowly seminarian, I was invited to preach on Michaelmas. In conversations with the Rector of the Parish in the week leading up to the Feast, I indicated to him that I had become surprisingly enthralled with the subject of Angels. Hearing my enthusiasm, he invited me to do a Sermon Series, which I gladly accepted. One of the bits of research was to ask my then eight-year-old daughter Twyla, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

As I said then, and I say again now, I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God.

Angels are all about God in two ways. The first way Angels are about God is because they are around God, who is sitting on His throne. Angels are serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve Him night and day, beholding the glory of his presence— “day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev 4:8). Lest that sound like a fanciful sentiment, do understand that the Church has long understood the purpose of what we call Morning and Evening Prayer—traditionally called the “Divine Office” and a central pillar of our religion—to be pure praise of the type that the Holy Angels sing unceasingly in their ministry; so that in Morning and Evening Prayer, even three people in a chapel on a quiet weekday evening, we join the Angels in their unending chorus of praise. Because our prayer joins with the chorus sung by the angels, we are around the Throne of God in Morning and Evening Prayer.

The second way angels are about God is in their identity. The meaning of angels is not found in who they are, for all we can say is that they are spiritual beings; the meaning of angels is found rather in what they do. Angels are messengers that announce—that is what “angel” means. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God?” because he confronted prideful, puffed-up Satan with that very question. Satan, another angel, means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Saint Michael is ever a reminder that when we are puffed with pride, like Satan and his unholy angels, we will fall, and continue to fall until we become humble, at which point we are able again to praise God and receive his blessings. When we have humility, another pillar of our religion, we have angels to thank.

It is through humility that we can receive and respond to the message brought to us by angels. The good or holy angels, being messengers like the Angel Gabriel, who brought to Blessed Mary the message that she was to become the Mother of God, pending her free consent—they disclose God’s good news of salvation and vocation in ways that we can perceive and respond to. God’s will for us, who He wants us to be, becomes available to us through the ministry of angels. Whenever we understand anything about God—that is, about reality, because faith’s name for reality is God—we have an angel to thank. Angels translate God’s message to us. God’s message, which is His love, resides in its fullest sense in “light inaccessible,” so the angels render that light accessible to our minds. All revelation we receive—whether in life’s peak moments, life’s valley moments, or life’s mundane moments—come from angels.

This led perhaps the most celebrated Christian theologian of the Western Church, Saint Augustine (who died in the early 5th century) to remark that “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” Is that not a staggering thought? Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. With the contemplation of this truth, all of reality lights up, and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God. How appropriate, then, are Jacob’s words from our first reading, when he awoke from his sleep: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is truly the gate of heaven.”

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Synaxis of Holy Angels

Why set-prayer?

What, exactly, is the ontological basis for set-prayer? The primary set-prayer for Christians, of course, is the Our Father. And it is from those words of Jesus that the Divine Office derives its raison d’etre. We often (and justifably) hear about the existential basis for set-prayer, as well as its scriptural basis. For example, the existential basis was classically stated by Caroline theologian William Beveridge:

A set form of prayer is an extraordinary help to us. For if I hear another pray, and know not beforehand what he will say, I must first listen to what he will say next; then I am to consider whether what he saith be agreeable to sound doctrine, and whether it be proper and lawful for us to join with him in the petitions he puts up to God Almighty; and if I think it is so, then I am to do it. But before I can well do that, he is got to another thing; by which means it is very difficult, if not morally impossible, to join with him in everything so regularly as I ought to do. But by a set form of prayer all this trouble is prevented; for having the form continually in my mind, being thoroughly acquainted with it, fully approving of every thing in it, and always knowing beforehand what will come next, I have nothing else to do, whilst the words are sounding in my ears, but to move my heart and affections suitably to them, to raise up my desire of those good things which are prayed for, to fix my mind wholly upon God, whilst I am praising of Him, and so to employ, quicken, and lift up my whole soul in performing my devotions to Him. No man that hath been accustomed to a set form for any considerable time, but may easily find this to be true by his own experience, and by consequence, that this way of praying is a greater help to us than they can imagine that never made trial of it. (Sermon on the Excellency and Usefulness of the Common Prayer, 1681)

Such a good passage! Nothing could be existential in any exclusive sense, but this is almost entirely existential rationale. Set-prayer helps us. It helps us in that we can participate more consciously and actively. We do not have to worry about trusting the words of the prayer, if it is extemporaneous or merely new. We already know the words. So we can relax, and “fix our mind wholly upon God.” There, of course, is a place for extemporaneous and spontaneous prayer and devotion, doubtless Beveridge would acknowledge. Yet there is also a place for set-prayer, and this is why, from an existential perspective.

That said, what is the ontological perspective and rationale for set-prayer? That is, why is it appropriate given not our needs, but rather God’s own Self? Ontological truth, that is, truth about Being as such, we say deals with God and His Nature, or at least derive from Him and His grace. Baptism initiates an ontological change in our Being; it has to do with us, but it derives entirely from God’s gift and it does not depend upon us for its fundamental grace. We must respond, but Baptism incorporates us into Jesus whether or not our Christian virtues are particularly cultivated. What’s more, there is an ontological change to the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Their Being shifts from that of bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. Again, we must both be prepared for, and we must respond to, the Eucharist for it to be fully efficacious. But ontologically, it is about God and His grace. One can never truly divorce the ontological perspective from the existential one, in other words. But one can focus on one or the other and give it more emphasis in our thinking.

Hence the ontological rationale for set-prayer, including the Divine Office in a fully invariable form, is not what it says about us, but what it says about God. We may not like the invariable form, may want the daily variety of Psalms and Scripture lections; we may want the variable canticles and concluding collects; or particular BCP versions or translations of the Bible. There is great existential merit to each of those. Yet ontologically, none of that really matters. What matters, ontologically, is what set-prayer discloses about the Holy Being of God.

And what set-prayer discloses about God is His utter transcendence. Set-prayer affirms, in what small and almost inconsequential way it can (because of time and space limitation), that God is God is God. That is, God is utterly beyond time and space. He is “ontological other.” Taken by itself (which it is not in Christian faith), such truth leads directly to Deism. God is also “axiologically other.” His moral and aesthetic values are completely beyond our ken. Put these together and you have Aquinas’ cosmological argument rendered ascetically, for this truth is in fact prayed by means of set-prayer. The Our Father, and the Divine Office, become corporate drill exercises, not primarily for our benefit (although there is benefit for us) but rather first and foremost because of what we are acknowledging about God. (For more here, see Thornton’s The Heart of the Parish, Chap. 17.)

But, one might ask, don’t we already say as much in our prayer life? And don’t Psalms and Scripture lections regularly touch on such themes of God’s transcendence (such as in Psalm 139)? The answer is yes, of course. We acknowledge all the time God’s transcendence though sacred words.

Yet what set-prayer asks us to do is acknowledge God’s transcendence not only in words, but in act. Set-prayer asks us to perform our acknowledgement. It is not merely a saying, but a doing. And in the doing of set-prayer such as the Our Father, and moreso I argue in the Divine Office of Praise, we are confronted with the stark, almost unfathomable reality of God’s sheer ontological and axiological otherness. We are invited to realize that God is God all the time, no matter if we are acknowledging this fact of reality or not—and we barely understand what even that really entails. But we need to acknowledge this fact for it to become fully efficacious for us. We need to live what it means to praise our beyond-time-and-space God. Think of it as a consummation of what is pointed to by the film Groundhog’s Day, and the (possibly) 33-plus years Phil spends living a single day. Because monotonous, completely set, strictly invariable prayer is all about God and His transcendent nature, by actual performative, enactive acknowledgement (and not just saying the words), we learn about the Holy Being of God in a very deep and subtle way. This is not our doing, but that of Christ, who makes up for our frailty with his kenotic grace. Through Him, and only through Him, can we hope to pray perfectly.

It is this reality that the Angels and Our Lady and the saints unceasingly praise, for only they are truly holy and perfected enough so to do. Angels sing at the foot of God’s transcendent Throne, singing through Jesus to the Father, for only He can fully and completely pray to Him. The Divine Office is transcendent reaching toward and joining with the unceasing praise by Angels, the Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven. The whole Body of Christ sings the Divine Office in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify God the Father Almighty, ‘primordial Being,’ in the words of John Macquarrie. To glorify the unchanging Father warrants an unadorned yet beautiful recounting of His radical otherness and cosmic creativity. God invites us to abandon ourselves and surrender in Holy Fear to the light inaccessible, the mystery incomprehensible. To live daily as if in the orans posture: this is what the Office is for. To follow in, learn from, in fact embody, the awe of Blessed Mary in the Annunciation of her child, the Son of the Most High, is what the Divine Office is for.

It is, ontologically, what set-prayer is for—Marian awe through Christ in the face of stunning, unfathomable otherness. Day by day, O Lord, we magnify Thee.

Homily: “Living with Marian Awe”

Delivered 19 April 2015 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

Today continues our Eastertide mystagogy, which this year at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, focuses on the Baptismal Covenant, renewed by all of us at the Great Vigil of Easter. We considered last Sunday the important statement of our faith called the Apostles’ Creed. In the words, “I believe in,” first and foremost we are affirming our relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For the Christian life has as its fundamental basis our desire to be in obedient relationship with the Holy Trinity, and for the Holy Trinity to be in saving relationship with us. Our saying of the Apostles’ Creed may seem like intellectual assent, but in fact it is all about relationship.

Today, we pass from the Apostles’ Creed to the first of the baptismal affirmations. The celebrant asks all of us: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And we respond by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” Now, there is a great deal to be said about this threefold affirmation, as well. I suppose that it might seem like a rather mundane affirmation to make. “Of course we affirm all that. That is obviously what we do as Christians, just as a matter of course.” And if we consider this affirmation in the plain sense of its words, that is true. For we do gather in sacramental fellowship to break eucharistic bread in the Mass, we hear and reflect upon the apostles’ teaching in the Bible, and we pray throughout the liturgy and sometimes elsewhere. Yet just as an iceberg shows only a portion of its true size above the water, the vast majority of its mass below and unseen, this affirmation has much to it beneath a mere surface analysis, and looking for depth is precisely the role of mystagogy, a term whose etymology shows it means a leading or guiding into mystery.

Now, this first affirmation has the outward form of a promise. The words, “I will, with God’s help,” have that ring, and to call it a promise is not wrong. But what does it mean to make such a promise on the event of our Lord and Savior’s holy Resurrection? Such is no ordinary evening in the Church, and so this promise is no ordinary promise, but takes on a special character that must be looked at with care and spiritual reflection. And, again, the importance of relationship comes to bear. We affirm our relationship with the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, with the breaking of bread, and with the prayers. And so even though we may from time to time not fulfill to the letter this affirmation, we who participate as best we can in the Catholic Church of Christ are never out of relationship with this affirmation in any total sense.

Thus it is better to say, we embrace the apostle’s teaching and fellowship; the breaking of bread, and the prayers. To call this an “embrace” acknowledges the fluctuation that routinely happens in the Christian life, day to day, and week to week—much as we embrace our closest friend or our spouse, knowing at times we will be emotionally, even spatially, distant and apart, but never totally out of relationship despite fluctuations in intensity.

But what is it, in this threefold affirmation, that we in fact are embracing? Well, we need to know that this affirmation is taken directly and without alteration from the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, verse 42. You recall that this chapter is Saint Luke’s description of the beginning of the Christian Church at the Pentecost event. And so we are drawn to, as it were, hold in mind today also the Solemnity of Pentecost, just over a month away. The mystery of this baptismal affirmation has embedded within it something of the energy, and the explosion, of the Holy Spirit coming down, becoming known, lighting afire the hearts and minds and tongues of the gathered apostles, other disciples, and Blessed Mary the holy Mother of our Lord. And then Saint Peter preached, “These men are not drunk.” Rather, prophesy has been fulfilled, wonders made manifest and available, the moon turned to blood—we note that just two weeks ago, we saw just this kind of lunar eclipse, called a “blood moon.” And the Holy Spirit was poured out by God upon all flesh as a universal opportunity of grace for all. This Jesus, whom we crucified, God has raised up. And like the first Christians, of this we too are witnesses.

Now in his description of this tangible manifesting of the Holy Spirit in a way that demands nothing short of awe, holy fear, and even confusion, Saint Luke I think discloses to us the parallel between Mary and the first Christians. For just as Our Lady at the Annunciation experienced in overpassing awe the presence of the Holy Spirit, so were the apostles and the first Christians overpassed by the Spirit at Pentecost—and so, at the Easter Vigil, were we. By similar analogy, just as Blessed Mary, at the Presentation of our Lord at the Temple, was pierced through the soul by the words of Simeon, so, Saint Luke tells us in Acts, were the first Christians “cut to the heart” by the Pentecost event and the preaching of Saint Peter—and so, cut to the heart are we invited to be.

We should recall here that in biblical language, the heart is not the seat of emotions, but rather is the seat of the will. The biblical “heart” is by no means unemotional, but it has to do with our choices, our doing and pattern of behavior. We still have this meaning in everyday language when we speak of a person having “lost heart” in the doing of some activity. And so for the first Christians to be cut to the heart means they were confronted, and refashioned, with a new set of choices, a new way of life, a new normal of living together and of praying that brought to fulfillment the religion of their forefathers, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of David.

The question asked by the Church as a new body to Saint Peter and all the apostles was, “What shall we do?” This is a question not of belief, not of doctrine, but a pragmatic question of behavior (“pragmatic” deriving from a Greek word meaning “to do”). Saint Peter’s answer was, also, pragmatic: “Repent, and be baptized.” This, too, accords with our experience at the Easter Vigil and throughout the Christian life. “Repent”—that is, turn to God, lift up your heart, your pattern of behavior, to the divine. “Be baptized”—yes, be baptized if you are not already, but for those that are, even more “be a baptized person,” claim and own the unmerited gift given to you by God when you were incorporated into His Body. Appropriate who you are amid God’s presence here in our reality of time and space, with us and in us, and we in Him. Be whom God calls, elects, predestines, you to be.

It is precisely here, where the rubber meets the road, that the meaning of first affirmation of the baptismal covenant for us begins to become vivid. This affirmation is how we repent and claim our baptism. For us to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, we embrace what the first Christians did as a body in their very first moments. We affirm our relationship with the Church at its birth. And we affirm our relationship with Mary, for this affirmation but elaborates upon her response to the angel Gabriel: she said, “Let it be to me according to your word.” We say, “I will, with God’s help.”

And so it is no surprise that Christian tradition has come to call this threefold affirmation the core pattern, or Rule of the Church: Regula for short. The Regula involves the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” or Devotion, meaning personal devotional ministry unique to each of us as individuals and as local parish families: how we share in and live out community life and serve the world around us guided by the Holy Spirit immanent and near, so doing in accord with the biblical revelation. It involves “the breaking of bread” of course called the Mass, which is the source and summit of our sacramental life and itself models catholic imagination and eucharistic worldview, for in taking Christ into our bodies we share in his loving, intimate view of creation. And it involves “the prayers,” or the Divine Office, the official, that is authoritative, set-prayer of the threefold Church based upon, and elaborating upon, the Our Father prayer given by Christ to his disciples as a means to address the Father through Jesus.

Regula, then, is the response as a Body to God’s presence and activity. Regula is how we live with Marian awe into the mystery of the Resurrection and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Regula is how we put into practice the faith of the Apostles’ Creed. It is how we enact the relationship with God in whom only can we find true rest. Regula is the repeatable aspect of baptism.

One final point is that the Divine Office may seem too much of a daily commitment. Here, the counsel of the Church is to commit to reciting the Our Father at least once a day, or better yet singing it, which brings forth our worshiping parish family to wherever we may be. And not just our parish family, but the whole Church. Through this prayer, we join as a active body—that is, Christians in the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, with the Saints, and with the Holy Angels in Heaven, all who sing the Our Father. Although we are not to become Angels, we are to become angel-like, insofar as we do what they do: unceasing praise to God Almighty at the foot of His transcendent Throne.

What a glorious, unitive Vision of God that must be! The Italian poet Dante, in his allegory the Divine Comedy, wrote that the sound of the angels’ hymn of praise is like the laughter of the universe. Not as in response to a joke, but as in Marian awe, the joyful response to the ineffable glory of creation redeemed. May we open ourselves in cooperation with God’s grace to embrace more fully the Rule of the Church, the threefold Regula, which arranges the doctrine of the Trinity for prayer; and in so doing, may we hear more and more the laughter of the universe, and ourselves live with Marian awe into, and as, Christ’s crucified joy. Amen.

Marian Penitence

“Penitence,” wrote Martin Thornton, “becomes a search for the truth of one’s vocation” (The Purple Headed Mountain, Chap. 5). Penitence can take on this character when we accept the possibility, which the biblical revelation insists is fact, that all of God’s creation is an integrated, purposeful, lively unfolding with a unique role for each and every thing, including us. Certainly true penitence begins as Our Lord told Philip: “Follow me” (John 1:43). This becomes adventurous when it grows into a disposition of life: Be Following Him. If we are, in the phrase of English fourteenth-century writer Walter Hilton, to reform into the likeness of Jesus, that journey of holiness begins in finding harmony with our surroundings, as Jesus surely had with His, and goes awry without it.

Perhaps the only valid test here is moral theology: have I committed fewer sins? Sin is separation and paying lip service to the first line of the Nicene Creed is the height of Pride, the basis of all separation. Not only when receiving Communion, reciting the Office, or studying Scripture, but always and everywhere, are we choosing to follow—opening to, and in this sense, “thanking”—God Almighty as He actualizes in our lives? And do we use His creation and His creatures to His greater glory? For the revelation disallows any version of “God is not here and doesn’t much care.”

“Repent and be baptized,” is how Peter exhorted the first Christians (Acts 2:38). But as Paul reminded Titus, our baptism is more than a rite; it is a way of life, a sacramental status before God. Peter perhaps implied, “Choose God and then spend the rest of your life working out the implications of that choice.” Be baptized—just as we say, “be mature” or “be yourself”: our Lord demands we own our status, incorporated into Him “in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). Baptism plunges us into Trinitarian reality through the glory of material water, fragrant oil, and audible words. Within such paradox lies enough food for Lenten mystagogy several times over.

To wit: “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). It was Saint Augustine who wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel” (De diversis quaestionibus, 79). This staggering statement is also exemplary ascetical theology, the articulation of spiritual growth: for only through our sense perception is God’s presence available to us. As God called Our Lady by sensible means of Gabriel, we are called by God aided by the angelic host who through the visible and perceivable bring the invisible and incomprehensible beckoning before us, inviting adventure anchored in Christ.

[The above meditation is my contribution for Day 4 of Lent to From Dust to Triumph: Reflections for a Holy Lent published by Nashotah House.]

Homily: “‘Yes, but How?’ Blessed Mary and Vocation

Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014 at Saint Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois.

How delicate these last days must have been for Mary—these last days before the birth of her son, Jesus, the son of the Most High. These last hours when, as it does for women about to go into the ever-deepening cycles of labor, the time becomes ever-fuller, the senses heighten, each breath a bit more noticed, a bit more conscious and intentional. Having lived for nine months with Gabriel’s message, perhaps her mental life was like what we call today “centering prayer”—her centering word, “Jesus.” Each breath, one breath closer to seeing Him, to holding Him. Each breath, one breath closer to hearing Him cry, to feeding Him, rocking Him to sleep. Each breath, one breath closer to being changed by Him—not into a different person but into more of who she was called by God to be from the first moments of her own immaculate conception: the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the bearer of He who will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.

Unlike Adam and unlike Eve, Mary was never apart from her God-given vocation. She was never cut off from God’s will for her. Early Christian legends about Mary—non-canonical and not part of the authoritative biblical literature, to be sure, but still widely read and disseminated in the early Church, and hence influential in Christian tradition and our living memory today—told of Mary being conceived to her elderly parents, Anne and Joachim, also through a kind of angelic annunciation. The angel said, “You shall give birth to a daughter who shall be blessed throughout the world,” as one legend tells it. It was said, “all of the house of Israel were happy with her and loved her.” Those around her, and her parents at her conception, saw, or perhaps intuited in a still unfocused way, a mystery about Mary—something of who God made her to be. Her vocation was woven into her being, inseparable from her existence, and never denied by her family, her priest, or Mary herself.

It may be that the Annunciation that Saint Luke describes between Mary and the Angel Gabriel was in fact not the first moment that Mary learned of her vocation. It may be that, like the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, where Jesus is given but the fullness of his own vocation through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and through the words of His Father—“Thou art my beloved Son with thee I am well pleased”—because we know that something of his vocation to be the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was not only known before this baptism, by the twelve year old Jesus as well as his parents and relatives, yet somehow by all creation knew of Jesus, through whom all things were made, all things perfected—for Mary, too, there were inklings of her vocation, her predestined identity, while still in her mother’s womb, and upon birth and her subsequent development, all of which was then confirmed by Mary by her glorious words to Gabriel: “Let it be to me according to your word.” And so, Our Lady’s “Yes” to God can teach us about the Sacrament of Confirmation, when one learns about and then accepts his or her vocation to the general priesthood, the ministry of the laity, what is taught in this parish as a form of ordination.

For just as with the Sacrament of Confirmation, the person accepts Jesus to be the central focus of the rest of his or her existence, in his life and into the next, so with Our Lady. Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the Mother of Jesus, that the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. Mary accepts this invitation, confirms this vocation given by God—and her son becomes the ever-blazing heart of the rest of her breathing.

And can we doubt that what also was announced to Mary was a sacramental imagination, a Catholic imagination? Can we doubt that Gabriel’s message permanently sealed Mary’s very being, her very view of all reality? Whether it was an abrupt shift in conscience, or one gradual, is difficult to say when we remember that Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation comes 90 to 100 years after the fact, give or take a decade or two. Perhaps Saint Luke wisely leaves this detail out, and invites us to consider Mary’s reaction to Gabriel, to live into this experience as we are able—what it would be like to be in her shoes. For every moment when we ourselves have a hint or a glimpse into the truth of our own vocation, who we are meant, even predestined by God, to be, then by analogy we are just like Mary with Gabriel. For some of us, the truth of our vocation startles us, shocks us, throws us for a loop. For others of us, we are not so much as disoriented as we sink into a state of deep awe and wonder, even speechlessness. Aspects of our past come together; we see them as providential: we thought we were alone that moment so many years ago, but God was there, gentle guiding us toward Himself. Some of us resist or even deny our vocation. Yet can be there a more troubling form of sin that to deny God’s will for us? It is nothing less than the Capital Sin of pride, the root sin, and it is deadly.

Let it be said loud and let it be said clear—to question, to inquire, to be puzzled by, and to not fully understand our vocation is absolutely not a form of sin. God reveals His will for us when we are ready to receive it, when we can bear it, when the time has a fullness about it, a consonance within it, and we are able to respond. He knows that our vocation will be heavy, will be weighty, truly, like an anchor. I daresay he expects us to inquire to him, even argue with him, to examine this revelation with the full capacities of our earthly life—our reason, our intelligence, our emotions, our bodies, and our heart, the seat of our choosing.

If it sounds wrong for me to say that God expects us to inquire and argue with him about our vocation, then Mary too was wrong, for she said, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” But she is not wrong—she is not questioning God’s authority, nor his power. Mary believed God. She took His presence very seriously. It is a sign of our seriousness, of our maturity, when we can believe in God’s utter sovereignty and at the same time honestly interrogate what God appears to be telling us. This is called “the discernment of spirits,” and the key to it all is humility, is openness before mystery. God knows how powerful and how provocatively deceptive Satan can be, how skillful Satan is in twisting God’s words into grave distortion, as he did with Adam and Eve. God equips us with brains with which to think, communities and families with which to discern, the mystical family of the Church through the parish with which to live, he provides opportunities for us to verify and test our vocation. God gives us sacraments and our liturgical prayer life.

“How shall this be?” is the question that is the foundation of being a disciple. In still shorter form, the question is “Yes, but how?” This by analogy is the same question the first Christians asked of Saint Peter at Pentecost, the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, also a product of Saint Luke’s authorship—for after they heard Peter preach on text from the Prophet Joel, how the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, and about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Our Lord, and that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, how what was kept secret for long ages but now disclosed and made known to all nations—what was the first response from the people but the words, “Brethren, what shall we do?” A “Yes, but how?”—an echo of Mary’s own devout interrogation of God.

It is not self-explanatory how to center our lives around the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, truly God and truly Man. It is not a matter of merely being “good people.” It is not a matter of merely reading the Bible on one’s own. It is not a matter of merely learning the right doctrinal words in the right doctrinal order. It is not merely about coming to Church. It is not merely finding quiet moments to talk with God. It is all that and a whole lot more, according to the pattern of the Church, its Regula. Spiritual guidance or direction is essential to work through what seems like an overwhelming jumble of spiritual possibilities, of spiritual insights, of doctrine, of piety.

When presented with the fullness of God’s purpose in creating us, and his promise for us, “Yes, but how?” becomes perhaps the only sane response. By asking God, and our priests, our catechists, and the holy people in our lives, “Yes, but how?” “How shall this be?—and then, listening to God’s answer—we invite God to lead us still closer to him, ever closer to Christ’s nature, ever closer to who God has called us to be, has chosen us to be, in him before the foundation of the world. We need to be reminded daily of Mary’s commitment to God so that our own commitment to God becomes more like Mary’s. Without a daily relationship with Mary’s commitment to God, a daily relationship within our conscious prayer life, we deny ourselves the sure and certain means for being formed more fully into disciples of the Son of the Most High.

Pray for us, O holy mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton. 

Homily: O ye Saints of the Holy Catholic Church

Homily delivered on the External Solemnity of All Saints, 2014 at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

Almighty God,” our Collect begins, “you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

It has been said, not altogether inaccurately, that if you want to know what Anglicans believe in terms of doctrine, look at their Collects. At each Mass, the appointed Collect receives pride of place at the culmination of the Entrance Rite, which is what brings us back together, after a week of ministry according to our gifts and circumstance. The Collects are arranged in a very intentional way to correlate with the turning of the liturgical year. And in terms of their doctrinal content, the Collects express doctrine not in a straight, you might say, dry academic way. Doctrine rather is expressed in the Collects in a way that integrates with Prayer.

For those of you who have spent any time devotionally reading the works of Saint Anselm, who has a fundamental role in English, and hence Anglican, spirituality, you might notice a similarity between the style of Anselm and the style of our Collects. It is not, here is some doctrine and dogma, and over here is some high devotional words. No, in Anselm, in our Collects, and I would say in authentic Anglican life, there is an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, head and feeling, study and wilderness, dogma and love.

So what of this Collect, appointed for this, the Solemnity of All Saints? Can we look to this Collect for insight into what Anglicans believe about this feast? I believe we can. And I would go further than that — for what we have in this Collect is not only an authentically Anglican view of All Saints, but one deeply Catholic because it expresses Remnant theology. So let’s have a look.

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. So, we talk in this parish about Catholic vision, and every once in a while, as a counter example of what is not Catholic, every once in a while we talk a little bit about something called Calvinism. Perhaps you have heard of it? Well in this “adoration” part of the Collect, where God’s nature or acts are praised in pure adoration of who He is, there is this word “elect” that is of course something of a buzz word in the Catholic-Calvinist debate. Often it means predestination. Some people are predestined, according to historical Calvinism, as God’s “elect” to be saved; and others predestined to be damned. It is a nasty bit of theology, and the Catholic faith holds this to be heretical. Yet why, then, is the word “elect” part of our Collect? If our Collects express our doctrine, and this Collect says “elect”, are we Calvinist in our doctrine?

Not at all. The word “elect” is there because it has everything to do with the Saints. It has everything to do with those who we already call Saints, those treasure-troves of holiness; and with those yet to be Saints, those departed who have proceeded to the next stage of their lives, the intermediate state of Paradise, to further complete their journey of theosis, of being reforming into likeness of Jesus. And it has everything to do with Saints yet born, and yet to die. Because being a Saint is a vocation. Saints are called by God. As Martin Thornton wrote (in The Function of Theology), God makes Himself present — often confronting the person with the resurrected Christ — which issues in personal dialogue or “colloquy”, which is what is meant generally by “mental prayer”, an interchange between minds: the mind of the saint and the mind of Christ. This is how the “voice of God” is “heard” by the spiritual ears of the dedicated mind. This is an existential way of understanding what it means to be “elect.” It means being called by God.

You have knit together your elect. All of this is of God’s initiative, or “prevenient Grace.” Certainly an archetype of all this is Abraham, called by God. This was a calling that tested his resolve, tested his faith, even to the point of sacrificing Isaac his son. Abraham indeed was confronted in the same ways Saints are confronted — completely, demanding the whole person, not just the mind, the emotions, or the body, but all of it, for prayer is loving God in a total way.

You have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. This means, simply, the Church. It expresses our baptismal promise in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.” That is not two statements, but one expressed two ways. For the holy Catholic Church IS the communion of saints. Those saints of the past, of the present, and of the future. Saints in this sense includes the Angels, and pride of place goes to Our Lady, Blessed Mary Holy Mother of God, Lady of all Angels and Saints. And the Church of Saints, in all its glorious diversity of expression, of gifts, of time and place — all of it is expression of God, an expression of the mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living. Again, the ability to follow comes from God’s action, prevenient grace. And we are to follow the Saints. We are to learn about them. They are alive. “Communion of Saints” is also a statement about their present condition. They join us at the altar, they watch over us, and make themselves available to us. It is a very good form of devotional meditation to imagine what their lives were like. We often have only scanty details of history about them. This can also be a gift, for it allows us to more easily to see our lives in theirs, and their lives in ours.

The saints, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.” He continues, “The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.” That is another way of saying that the lives of saints — both for their heroism and their failures — mediate what Scripture authoritatively points toward: the activity of God, his divine providence.

Saints also point to the proper interpretation of the Beatitudes. Those who are blessed — are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted for righteousness sake. This list of terms might sound imposing — and in truth, the responsibilities of the Christian life are imposing from one perspective — but as Thornton wrote (in English Spirituality) this list can be described as the following qualities: “poor in spirit” means humility, sensitive to spiritual things; “mourn” means being sympathetic and penitent, “meek” means understanding the joy of life, “hunger and thirst for righteousness” means “craving progress toward union with God”, “merciful” means compassionate, “pure in heart” means constant in religious participation (Office, Mass, Devotion), “peacemaker” means prudent in searching for harmony among men; and “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” means fortitude amid the battle against sin.

Forgive me for breezing through these, for each of them is enough food for a homily itself. But I am just touching on them now to point out that the life of the Saint, which is the life the Christian faith calls people toward, involves qualities and characteristics that are not alien to our everyday experience. All we can do, all Saints every did, all God asks, is to respond to God as his activity is made available to our senses and our mind — according to the gifts and talents we are given by God. Not some other gifts and talents, but those we have, used not for selfish interest but rather for the greater glory of God.

That we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you. Listen to these words! Ineffable joys — joy beyond our ability to imagine or conceive. Prepared by God — because he wants us, yearns for us, fundamentally desires us. Prepared for those who truly love you. This is what Remnant really means. The faithful Remnant are those called by God, who respond to God’s calling, and by his help learn to truly Love him in all moments and activities of their being, beginning in this life and continuing to the next. The Saints, and sainthood whether known officially or unknown, is what we mean by “faithful Remnant.” The Beatitudes are not just qualities of holiness. They are qualities of Jesus himself, qualities in their perfect form, yet available to us by the grace of God wherever we happen to be in our journey. The Beatitudes are a description of the Remnant — those called to fully live out the ministry initiated by Jesus himself — to live out and perpetuate Jesus whether in a monastic community or in a secular community such as Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois.

And it is a life built on sacramentality or Catholic imagination, the Sacraments themselves, built on absorbing Scriptural insight, built on joy, built on obedience, built on community. And, fundamentally, built on love.

O all ye Saints of the holy Catholic Church — O ye holy Men and Women — pray for us.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 3: Angels are Sacramental Beings


Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY I | HOMILY II

Homily 3 of 3: “Angels are Sacramental Beings”
Given at St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois

We conclude this morning this three-part homily series on the Holy Angels with an exploration of the relationship between angels and ascetical theology. That is, the relationship between angels and the articulation of the church’s corporate experience, for that is what “ascetical theology” means.

Doctrine is to be used. Doctrine is the beginning, not an end. That is why I began with doctrine two weeks ago — the doctrine of Angels. The Holy Angels are all about God. They are created beings of spirit that can be perceived only with spiritual eyes. Angels are innumerable and in nine orders. They are named because of their activity. They were created with the words, “Let there be Light”. And so they announce God’s creative Word. They serve the Light. They minister to the church and to us, so that we perceive the light with our spiritual eyes. So that our lives are ordered to the Light. So that we as the church are ever-growing toward the light.

All of that is the way we begin to talk about angels and the church’s corporate experience. We continue when we simply recognize that insofar as we are biblical people, a people whose lives are lived sacramentally and liturgically according to the Catholic Rule of Mass + Office + Devotional Ministry, a people who thereby look to Scripture as the thesaurus of our corporate experience, and whereby Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church’s corporate experience mutually interpret one another — then angels already help to articulate the Church’s corporate experience. There are over 300 appearances of angels through the Bible, from the book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, through both canons of the Old Testament to the New Testament, and with Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And because of their centrality to the experience of Blessed Mary and her encounter with the archangel Gabriel, through whose announcement to Mary the whole of godly creation is a becoming, on its way to the New Jerusalem; their centrality therefore to her entire mystagogical life — a life savoring the mystery of her Son, pondering in her heart — a mystagogical life lived toward the foot of the cross — because we relive the actually making present again of an angel of the lord to the shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” — because, ultimately, of our baptism: the Church’s corporate experience is angelic!

The angelic is not an option. It is not a “app” for our cellphone we can choose to download or not. We are amid the angelic presence at all points and in all ways in our life! To recognize this, to be conscious of this, to be aware of this, to be caught by this, to be curious about this, to ponder this — for the angelic to impinge upon our prayer life, our quiet moments, our playful and engaged moments, our moments serving others — to accept the fact, the reality, that all that is perceived by the Church is ministered to by the angelic, is loved by the angelic, is interpreted to us by the angelic — this is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since Gabriel’s encounter with Mary. This is nothing less than what catholic people have been doing since the confrontation of the twelve disciples by Jesus of Nazareth. Mary’s pondering in her heart IS our model for a catholic imagination. It doesn’t mean we understand all of it. It doesn’t mean there isn’t chunks of angelic theology that confuse us, or sound strange, or even remote. It doesn’t mean that we “get it all now”. We won’t get it all now. But the food of angels we already eat; the air of angels we already breath; the presence of angels we already imagine.

The angelic is like another layer of the reality we have all been living since our baptism. This layer of reality, present in its fullness no matter who much or how little we have perceived it, invites our participation. The angels rejoice when one sinner repents — when one sinner’s mind is transformed, when one sinner’s conscience is expanded and ordered to the Light of Christ — when the woman, having lost one of her ten coins, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and intercedes to seek that coin. Could it be that this woman is Mary, her nine coins being the nine orders of the angels, and the one lost coin, humanity? Mary is the Queen of the heavens, and Lady of the Angels. Maybe something of this is part of the meaning of the parable of the Lost Coin.

So what remains to be said? Let me suggest something that might be a simple, condensed summary of everything we have so far discussed.

It is this: that Angels are sacramental beings. Angels, by the nature, bestowed by the words, Let there be Light, point the church toward an attitude. An attitude that is sacramental. Now, as our Prayer Book, which is catholic, says, the sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. And the historic Catholic Church cerebrates seven sacraments. Sacramentality is not the same, but is intimately related. It is more general. If the sacraments are specific liturgical and ritual patterns of ontological grace, then sacramentality is what results from the Christian life of sacraments. In the words of John Macquarrie, “this is a sacramental world.” We don’t recognize that by logical syllogism: it is an existential attitude one learns through participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Body of Christ.

This is a profoundly joyous and grace filled attitude! This is the attitude of the first Christians, Christians willing to die as martyrs! It is the attitude of Christians throughout history who realize it and celebrate the sacramentality of all of creation. This is the attitude we are invited to deepen through Holy Communion at the Altar of Christ, this Holy Table around which are all the angels, the archangels, the entire company of heaven, and at which we are joined with all the saints, known and unknown, as well as our Lady, the queen of the heavens, and Lady of all the angels.

Angels are sacramental beings. And the way to join with them is to allow them to light us, to guard us, to rule us, to guide us. It is to ascend and descend with the angelic — ascending in our gathering around the Word and Table at Mass, descending as we are dismissed into mission to enact our baptismal covenant and to empty ourselves in love for others.

And it is to sing with them every day through the prayers common to the whole Church; that is the Office, which teaches us in the doing of it to be like angels, who are all about God. Let us conclude with a prayer.

May we all be joyful in the Lord, serving the Lord with gladness and coming before his presence with a song. May we know that it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. May we regard all of creation as God himself does, as very good, and in so doing see all of God’s works as a profound blessing, so that we praise him and magnify him forever. May we join with the angels who cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein, with the Cherubim and Seraphim who continually cry, Holy Holy Holy, Lord, God of Power and Might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. May all of our lives be centered around the king of Glory, the everlasting Son of the Father, who having overcome the sharpness of death, opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. May we sing in all our moments, Lord have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy! May we be all emboldened by angels innumerable, like Mary was by Gabriel, as we boldly sing, Our Father who are in heaven! Hallowed be thy name! And may we ever in our hearts know something like the profound, the startling, the beautiful song of the angels to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth! Amen. Amen!

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 2: Angels and God’s Creative Word


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.

  1. Angels are all about God — praising God and “presencing” God.
  2. 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.
  3. Angels are in nine orders and innumerable — a fact well worth pondering in our heart — innumerable yet created.
  4. Angels are named because of their activity. Their identity is their activity, and their activity is to announce.
  5. 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.

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 1: Angels are all about God

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY II | HOMILY III

Homily 1 of 3: “Angels are all about God”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois on Michaelmas 2013

It is fitting that on this feast of St Michael and All Angels, I have an announcement. This is the first of three homilies on angels that I will be giving; part two is next week, part three in two weeks. This morning, the identity and doctrine of angels; next week the scriptural descriptions of angels, and then concluding with the impact of angels on our spirituality and corporate experience.

If that sounds like a lot, well, as angels say, Be Not Afraid! At least I keep telling myself that.

My daughter Twyla told me something yesterday that I wanted to tell you all. In a moment when it was just her and me, driving in our little silver car down the Stevenson expressway, I asked her, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God. The key is the word “about.” It is because the Church teaches that the doctrine of angels is twofold. On one hand, “about God” transcendently, as if “around God”, serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve God night and day, beholding the glory of his presence, and singing praise unceasingly “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might” (which we will shortly join them in singing). And on the other, “about God” immanently, the meaning of angels is not themselves, for we are commanded not to worship them; their meaning is ultimately God — they disclose God’s good news of redemption and salvation in ways that we can perceive and then pass on to others. Angels do both: they about God praising Him, and they are about God’s disclosure of his Good News to humanity so that we, too, might more and more praise him and magnify him forever.

The church over its history has seemed to settle on nine different orders of angels, although we ought not take such speculative formulations too rigidly: the nine orders of angels are Seraphim, Cherabim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers, Archangels, and then Angels (which include guardian angels of which each of us has one). The number of angels is said to be beyond our imagination, which is to say innumerable. To me, that is the key thing. Not the nine orders — it is that they are innumerable. That is worth pondering in our hearts what it means to say that the angels are innumerable.

Angels are created beings of spirit; they have no physical bodies and hence are invisible to the eye. So to “see an angel” cannot mean to witness physically with the eye; rather, to see must mean to perceive. For indeed angels have everything to do with perception of all things, all emotion, all truth, all beauty, all goodness. About this I will say more shortly.

Angels are named because of their activity. “Angel” means “to announce”. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God” because he confronted prideful Satan with that very question. Satan means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Their identity is their activity. We will reflect more specifically on angels in holy scripture next Sunday in the second of the three homilies.

Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation, probably (as we will discuss next time) through the very first words of God, “Let there be light” and there was light, that is, angels of the light, which all angels first were, until a certain some of them rebelled against God and became fallen angels of darkness. Because angels are so intimately bound up with creation itself, angels have a strong correlation to our understanding of the doctrine of Creation, including our own stewardship of the world and its inhabitants, and our relationships with other people. Angels can greatly aid us to love both our neighbor and our enemy as ourselves. And so angels have a great deal to say about our spirituality, about our growing into unity with God through likeness with Christ, about theosis, You might say that angels are the original raisers of consciousness, against which all other forms of consciousness-raising are pale comparisons — except maybe a cold pint of frosty alcoholic beverage after the kids go to sleep. But not only consciousness raising, but conscience raising. They help us respond more fully to God’s will and calling, and hence they help us progress spiritually by helping us choose to commit fewer and fewer sins.

Because angels are different orders of creation from man, when we die we do not become angels, any more the vocation of dogs when they die is to become human. But just as dogs are trained by man in a loving relationship, we might say we are trained by angels in a loving relationship, all of which points to God. This topic of spirituality personal and corporate experience will be looked at more closely in my third homily in two weeks.

And so as we prepare to walk to the altar to commune and to dine with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven who enlighten us, guard us, rule us, guide us and all people from the moment of their conception through this life and into the next life — as we prepare to join with the angels at Christ’s table to praise God and to magnify God, to taste and see that the Lord is good, and after we are sent out in mission to evangelize — a word that means to announce well — through our thoughts and actions shared with our neighbors, what I ask you to take away, if anything, are two things: One is what Twyla said: that angels are all about God, about him praising, and about his salvific grace.

And the other is something once written by St Augustine in a short occasional treatise where he responded to 83 questions with … 83 answers. He wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” If that is true, is that not a staggering thought? And again, not only seen, but perceived.

Every perceivable thing in this church … in coffee hour … once you go outside to your car … you notice the rest of the day … the rest of the week… at work, at home, when you travel…the rest of your life on this planet … the rest of your journey in the next life … in this cosmos, in this universe of countless galaxies!

Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. If it is true — I don’t know what to say! Does not all of reality light up, as if, pardon me, a cosmic switch was flipped on and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God? And what can we say confidently but the words of Jacob? How awesome is this place! This is truly the gate of heaven.

Go to HOMILY II.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.