How do we live with the possibilities of angels? How can we, in this post-post-modern, somewhat scientific, certainly non-poetic world, even speak about angelos, messengers and messages that come from places that are bigger than we know? How do we live with this possibility: that the Holy might wish to meet with us, in an intimate way, in the very middle of our daily lives. And yet it happens! There are moments when we wake up to a world filled with love letters from God, there are moments when we are called to take up a new horizon, a new destination, a new beginning.
But it’s awfully hard to talk about! You have to stretch language to account for the times where the corner turns and the whole world suddenly seems new. We need to be careful then and take it at an angle. To quote the American poet Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
So we need to speak the dazzling things using the circuitous rhythm, the mysterious images, the surprising allusions of poetry to make light to see the heavenly realms in our own time , to see where we are and who we’re with clearly, not so we’re blinded, but somehow enlightened.
Heavenly messages, angels seem to show up when times are tough and they just might show up in a different realm of time. The Greeks had two words for time: Chronos, meaning time as historical process, a kind of march if you like, from which we get words like chronometer, chronicle and chronology, and contexts like: the meeting will be at noon…. We are planning that in the next... let’s have lunch on... It is time as schedule, utilitarian, built for the long run. If it were a car it would be a station wagon, or perhaps a ute. But Kairos is the right time, the timely gift of knowing - not just where but when you are - the time for sunrise, time to plant seed, time to make reconciliation, to make love.
If Chronos is a station wagon then Kairos is nothing but a convertible, where the top come down you can see the sky all around, everywhere. Angels come in Kairos! Angels come into view when we are ready to take the top off and have the world surprise us, when we are ready, even desperate, to be renewed. Even if we don’t quite know it at the time.
Last month I mentioned meeting a man on a subway platform in San Francisco some twenty years ago who, in a few short sentences, made me aware of areas where I needed to change, repent, grow up. I am still not sure if he was an angel. Some years ago, the night before the mother of a friend of mine was going to have surgery, she heard a voice saying, “it isn’t cancer.” Was an angel. Someone else, watching as a loved one approached death, heard the music of the Sanctus in the room. He said, “it didn’t hurt less, but I knew how much it mattered, and knew I wasn’t alone, that no one is alone, that nothing is lost.” Was an angel involved here?
Sometimes you wake in the morning having had a dream and know it is time to make a new choice, to be a new way, to take a new path. Because in some way the whole world, the whole cosmos, is watching with you, and to quote Rilke: “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Is that an angel?
An angel, heavenly mesage, comes in each of todays readings from Scripture. Good news where old visions are passing away: truth slanted, circled with surprising symbols with a winged message of new beginning at the end of the taken for granted time. Scholars call this style of writing Apocalyptic, showing hidden things, revelation: the old civilization is failing, the civility you took for granted is on its last legs, people are perishing for lack of a vision, then there comes an insight, a new way of being in the world.
Daniel’s vision comes in the Babylonian captivity, when Israel’s in exile, lost in another country, when hope is scare and homecoming seems impossible. And Daniel sees one like a son of Adam, who comes with the clouds to renew the people and the earth with a new hope.The Revelation to John arrives when the early Christians are under severe persecution by Roman emperors, the church’s very survival is in question and Christ is not coming back as soon as expected. So John sees a new creation, new heaven, new earth.
And Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see the “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” He tells him the story of Jacob, that’s a surprise for Jacob’s not always a nice person. He steals his brothers birth-right and his father’s deathbed blessing and, after he skipping town, has a dream, sleeping with his head against a stone, where a ladder reaches from the earth to heaven; with the angels of God ascending and descending! And the Lord says, "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you." He wakes from his sleep in the morning, places the stone pillow upright as a shrine, and names the place Bethel (the "House of God"). He cleans up his act a bit from there on.
But why that story? We just don’t know much about Nathaniel, he’s a bit of a shadowy figure, showing up once more in the Gospel of John at the very end, when Jesus meets the apostles by the Sea of Tiberias after the resurrection. Some traditions say he went on a mission to India, founded churches there, and ended as a martyr in Armenia. Perhaps, like Jacob, he’s a mixed bag, perhaps like Peter in the same Gospel, he will end up going where he does not want to go, yet still seeing angels ascending and descending on the son of man in the midst of his life.
Maybe angels give us light to see exactly where we are, and to know the place for the first time: maybe angels show us the height and breadth and depth of the love and compassion of God in the present moment: not taking away the long haul, the crisis, the trying ambiguities of chronological time, but placing them in the context of kairos the larger life we share with God and the whole creation.
That’s a stretch, to stay with the sad and beautiful business of being human, living with limits and loving and dying and still keep an eye out for heavenly lights, messages that the outlines are bigger than we can know on this side of the fence.
An Irish poet puts it this way:
"Christ, look upon us in this city
and keep our sympathy and pity fresh
and our faces heavenward,
lest we grow hard."
Maybe that’s what Nathaniel gets, that “superb surprise.” To quote Eliot, “not the intense moment isolated, with no before and after. But a lifetime burning in every moment, And not the lifetime of one man only, but of old stones that cannot be deciphered.” Maybe Jacob’s dreaming stone is there as well. Maybe the angels are always there. Maybe they’re always here. Maybe we better pray to keep our sympathy and our pity fresh and our faces heavenward, so we can see the angels now.
In the name of Christ. Amen.