By Fr. Travis O’Brian
St. Barnabas Church Victoria, Rector
Today, we celebrate and give thanks for the angels of God in whose presence we are made aware of the nearness of God in our lives. I am not sure if belief in Angels is one of the things the Catechism says is required for salvation. Perhaps it is not. But we do a disservice to ourselves when we seek ‘proof’ of spiritual realities using faculties intended for perceiving material realities. When we do that, when we insist that everything that exists must be sensible to our physical eyes and physical ears, we diminish our sensitivity to the wonder, mystery, and fullness of God’s creation. It would be very odd, after all, to pick up one of the apples which Irene has been so generously distributing and, just by holding it, conclude that it has no taste. It is only biting into the apple that we can be awakened, as it were, and surprised even, by its sweet, tart, taste; how good it is. Similarly, we can be awakened to the presence of Angels only by our spiritual senses – the senses by which we ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’: faith and hope, patience, kindness, generosity, open-heartedness, thanksgiving, long-suffering, and above all, love. Only when we taste and see the world through these faculties are we able to sense the angels all around us – even when they take the shape of the ordinary flesh-and-blood person with annoying habits who sits in the pew next to you every week!
Angels are bearers of God’s word. They are messengers of the promise that God will always be for us and with us. Angels ‘appear’ to us in times and places where the distance separating earth and heaven is thin: ascending and descending in Jacob’s dream at Bethel; calling Moses from the burning bush; commissioning Isaiah at the Holy Altar of the Temple; at the conception and birth of Jesus, and in the empty tomb; with the disciples at Jesus’ ascension; freeing the apostles from prison; encouraging Paul to confront the Emperor with the Gospel.
The story of Jacob’s encounter with the Angels at Bethel is one we read two or three Sundays a year. When we first meet him in this story, it is dusk, and Jacob is fleeing down a road in the middle of nowhere. He’s fleeing his family because he recently tricked his father into bestowing the family’s birthright on him instead of upon his elder brother, Esau, to whom it rightfully belonged. Now he is forced out of his home into that lonely, God-forsaken place. When he can no longer see because of the growing darkness, he throws himself on the bare ground to sleep. And in his sleep, he encounters – unmerited, unasked for, unexpected – life-transforming grace: a vision of Angels ascending and descending on a ladder set between earth and heaven. Along with that vision, he hears the Word of divine promise: “the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring; your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth . . . and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”
“Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’” The very place that had once seemed so empty and forlorn, the country that only shortly before he had ‘seen’ through eyes narrowed by envy, self-righteousness, dissatisfaction, impatience – he now sees, waking up, in a completely new light. Suddenly, the place is for him a place of awe and wonder, hope, amazement, joy in the knowledge that God has not forgotten him, but is including him in his plan of salvation – not only for himself and his future family, but for “all the families of the earth.” The Angels free Jacob from the snare that he has fallen into. They remind Jacob of the nearness of God working in and through him. They have given him new eyes to see. They have given him courage and hope.
The next time we read this story will be in November at the ‘feast of the consecration,’ when we celebrate the ‘birthday’ of our parish Church. We will read this story at that time in recognition that this place is also a place where the distance between heaven and earth is thin, that here too is a place upon which the Angels ascend and descend between earth and heaven. We read this story often to help us refocus on the miracle of this place. Because the truth is that sometimes, because we are human, sometimes our spiritual senses can become a little dulled. Who knows why. Perhaps it is simply because we grow too used to things. If we eat an apple a day, then it can happen that we are no longer surprised by the taste of an apple. We can become inured to the wonder. For some reason, it sometimes becomes difficult to see the Angels even when they are sitting right beside us – because, after all, that is ‘only’ Jim sitting there, it is ‘only’ Irene and her apples again, it is ‘only’ the carpenter’s son. The extraordinary we begin to perceive as only ordinary; the miracle as only ‘everyday.’ But this, this impression of the ‘everydayness’ of things, is the opposite of love. From it grows the weeds of the spirit, the kind of attitudes that shaped Jacob’s perception before his encounter with the angels: his discontent, complacency, impatience, envy.
So there is a very real spiritual danger when things begin to seem to us as ‘only everyday.’ But, thank God, the Angels are constantly ascending and descending upon this otherwise ordinary place. We come here precisely to be reminded that God uses everyday things as vehicles of his awesome grace: things like bread, wine, water; and ordinary people like the one you sit beside week after week in the pew. God uses everyday people and everyday things to wake us up to the truth that NOTHING in all creation is simply ‘everyday’ – least of all this place, where the distance between earth and heaven is so thin. We come here to be awakened again and again to the truth that, in the awe-struck words of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes . . .
. . . Browning’s words are a beautiful echo of Jacob’s cry of wonder, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God!” They are a beautiful echo of our own song of ‘Great Thanksgiving’ which we raise in unison with the Angels and Archangels surrounding the throne of God: “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory!” Joy, hope, faith, awe, amazement, kindness, generosity, gratitude, patience – and above all, love. These are what we celebrate when we celebrate our life together here, where the Angels dwell among us – among us and, yes, are sitting right there beside us. There is no such thing as ordinary.