I expect that one of the questions that is upper most in your mind as you sit here in Church today is, “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” No doubt this is a question that has bothered you on and off for many years, but on this great Feast of St Michael and All the Angels – which we commonly call Michaelmas and which we celebrate today – I am certain that that question has taken on some level of urgency for you!
It is a question that has been around at least since the Thirteenth Century, when Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great Doctor of the Church, pondered whether several angels could be in the same place at the same time, and it received renewed attention in the Seventeenth Century in the writings of Richard Baxter. Only a few years ago, in our contemporary times, Anders Sandberg calculated that the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin was 8.6766 x 10 to the power of 49 (that’s 10 with 49 zeros after it). But of course anyone who knows anything at all about angels, knows that because they are not material beings as we human beings are, but are something more akin to soul-full intelligence, they don’t take up any space at all, so Sanders – as clever as he was – was entirely wrong, because the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin is in fact infinite.
“Are these kinds of arguments the worst excesses of theological conjecture?” I hear you ask. Well, if they are, then what if anything can we say about the angels, which we believe to reside in the presence of God, praying for us as they worship God continually? What would you say if someone asked you to describe what the Church teaches about angels, these servants of light?
In the Bible and in early Jewish literature Michael is named as one of the angels of the presence of God, and he is depicted as a warrior prince leading the celestial armies against the forces of darkness. Indeed he is named as the Guardian Angel of Israel. Another of the great angels, the angel Gabriel is depicted as the great messenger of God, who in the Christian story of salvation is the one who announces to Mary that she will bear God in her womb. In both the Jewish and Christian stories of faith it is the angels of God who act like great flashing pointing neon lights, turning up at the right moment to let people know that God is at work.
Just think for a moment of the whole story of the incarnation, Mary will at some point find out that she is pregnant, but it is the angel beforehand, who helps her to interpret what is going on and why. It is the angels who announce to the extraordinary events that are taking place near them, and yet without them having been aware of them. In the same way, an empty tomb is transformed from an experience of terror into the promise of resurrection through the message that the angels bring to those searching disciples on Easter Morning.
What is true in Judaism and Christianity, is true also in the Islamic tradition, where the Angel Jibrail (Gabriel) dictates the Qu’ran word by word to the Prophet Mohammed. Angelology (the study of angels) is enjoying a resurgence of interest in our society at the current time. You only need to go on to the internet or to look at the spirituality section in bookshops, to find out all kinds of information about your guardian angel and how you can harness the power and energy of angels in your daily life.
But the Christian belief in angels has often been misunderstood not only by those around us, but within the Church as well. Let me give you an example from our own family history. In the third century after Christ, Mani, who developed the teachings which became known as Manichaeism, taught that there was not one God, but two gods: a god of goodness and a god who was evil. Mani believed that good and evil were equal powers that have always existed, he refused to believe that the world had originally been created as a place of only goodness. He and his followers taught that what we experienced here on earth was simply a result of the ongoing battle that was taken place in the heavenly realms. What appeared to be reality here, was simply the product of God’s angels, and their enemies doing battle in the spiritual world.
You don’t need me to tell you that the danger of this kind of dualism which some forms of belief in angels has encouraged, is that we can be tempted to have a certain kind of fatalism about our lives. If we believe that angels and demons, (the powers of good and the powers of evil) are somehow fighting it out above us, with little or no involvement from ourselves we can easily feel that we are disconnected from what is really going on at the heart of the universe. This world becomes a charade, an acting out of life which is unimportant because the real action is going on above us. This kind of dualistic understanding of the world, in which what we see is unimportant in comparison to the real spiritual realities which we know little about, can lead us, I think, to become indifferent to the needs of the world around us, and to the responsibility which is properly entrusted to us for the welfare of others, and for the building of our own futures.
Mani and his followers were kicked out of the Church and his ideas were declared to be heretical. But I am continually surprised about how many people within the life of the Church hold these kinds of beliefs. The idea that “what will be will be,” and that we are powerless to bring about change. Whatever the Church believes about angels, it is clear from the life of Jesus that he was absolutely committed to the earthy needs of those he saw around him, so the spiritual battle which he fought, and which we are now called to fight, is worked out not only in some other heavenly realm, but in the here and now, as we respond to the suffering of the poor and the injustices of the world.
I have never had an experience of angels but I have had an experience of meeting an angel which is still very vivid to me. Some years ago, when I was the international co-ordinator for a network of mission theologians I was responsible for a conference on theological education that was held in Osijek in Croatia. The conference brought together Christian thinkers from around the world for a week of conversations and reflections focused on the way that we educate and train Church leaders. Croatia had only recently come out of the grip of a brutal civil war and so there were various logistical challenges that I needed to face in order to ensure that the conference ran smoothly. I was to discover when I arrived that many of the rooms in the accommodation that we were using still had holes in the walls from the gunfire and shelling that it had suffered.
I arrived in Croatia a couple of weeks before the conference began in order to be able to make all of the final arrangements. My plane landed in Zagreb, a few hours drive away from the city of Osijek. The man who had been sent down to meet me was expecting someone much older than I was, so there was a great mix-up and he went home without me, presuming that I had missed the flight. I found myself in a city that I knew nothing about, surrounded by people who spoke a language that I could not understand. In the end I managed to make my way from the airport to the bus station, where I hoped to catch a bus from Zagreb to Osijek.
When I found the bus to Osijek, the driver (who did not speak English) motioned to me that I would not be allowed on the bus without a ticket. He pointed to a flight of stairs that led to the ticket office. My suitcases were too heavy for me to take them up the stairs, and it was clear that he was not going to look after them for me. I had found the bus, but I could not buy a ticket to travel on it. He pointed and I pointed back, and it was clear that we were going to get nowhere. I began to imagine spending the rest of my life in that bus station.
Then suddenly a young woman appeared who spoke to me in English, “do you want me to go and buy your ticket for you?” she asked. And she did. Then a young lady came and joined us, just before the coach was due to leave, and said to me in broken English, “I’ll go and buy a ticket for you, I am a nanny on holiday from London,” and she told the driver to wait until she returned. And when she did come back I was able to join the coach and travel to where I needed to be.
Now I don’t know her name, the extraordinary thing was that she was on my plane a couple of weeks later when I flew back to England.
I have never seen her again, but it seems to me that regardless of whether or not she was a normal human being like you and I, she was the kind of angelic figure that we find in a number of the stories in our Bible. I am pretty sure that she could not fit on the head of a pin.
In past times in our Christian tradition there were separate days to commemorate the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to Mary that she was to bear the Son of God, and for the Archangel Raphael, who has held a strong place in the Christian tradition as one who heals.
Nowadays all of the angels are celebrated in this one feast which the Church celebrates today. Angels in our Christian tradition remind us that we are called to be messengers of God’s love and hope. As we give thanks for the work of God’s angels we pray too, that we might take on some of their purpose and characteristics – to point others in the direction of what God is doing, to assist those around us who need an angelic hand to help them along the way. Because angels can remind us not of our disconnection from all that is real, but of our connection with it. They don’t tell us to look upwards, but around us, at what God is doing in our midst.
They are messengers, signposts, to help us each in our chief vocation to become all that God intends us to be in Christ. We may not have wings, or a halo, but God may use us as a messenger of grace and love for others. If we are open and available we may be God’s angelic messenger and helper for someone this very week.