One member of our congregation saw something wondrous that was beyond the sight of most of us, but visible to him, in this very room. This happened a couple of years ago when this space was being renovated and the floor in here was a dusty construction site, the pews moved helter skelter, ladders and equipment littering the aisles.
But our fellow parishioner was able to see beyond all the clutter and look up, up to the top of the ceiling, where he saw angels moving back and forth, protecting the space with their presence, and their prayers.
If you’re skeptical in your first hearing of stories like this, I can understand that. I haven’t been blessed with such visions myself. My mother told me about a similar experience she had at one important point in her life, and while I never doubted the reality of what she saw, it was her story, not mine. But our friends who have such unusual experiences are actually not that much different than many here who cultivate lives of prayer with such faith and maturity that they’ve experienced God’s presence in powerful ways, visions or not.
I might say it this way: those who lead lives of prayer—lives of prayer in community—so profoundly as to have visions like these … perhaps it helps open up who they are by calling them the daughters and sons of Uriel, an archangel whose name means “God Is My Light.” They are blessed with a kind of enlightenment, a special awareness. And yet, in my experience of saints like this, I have to say that what moves me more than their visions and insight is their ability to relate gracefully with the most ordinary people in our midst.
Consider this mystery: Those who ascend to great heights in the light of God seem to be the ones best able to relate to the humblest member of our assembly. Have you ever noticed this? The longer one spends in the light, in the open air, the better prepared one is to return to the dark cave of ignorance and fear, and invite those of us who huddle inside that cave to come up, and out.
The higher you ascend in the presence of God, the better able you are to be my ordinary neighbor, my close friend.
Today we meet two intriguing individuals from our tradition who experience a direct vision of God’s glory, two people centuries apart who turn out to have one or two things in common. Jacob and Nathanael—these men don’t immediately spring to mind as the sort of devout and prayerful followers of God who should experience powerful visions. Jacob is the world-wise bargainer, the skillful wrestler, the clever younger brother in cahoots with his mother to manipulate his way to becoming Israel, the patriarch whose name signifies all the countless children of Abraham.
And then we meet Nathanael, a disciple we meet only in John’s Gospel and know next to nothing about, but one who, unlike Andrew and the others, doesn’t unquestioningly follow Jesus. Listen to the dash of sarcastic attitude in his initial reaction to Jesus the Nazarene: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he sneers when Philip tells him about Jesus. But Jesus is if anything lightly amused by this, and approaches him with political skill and personal charisma, blessing Nathanael with the compliment, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This is almost certainly a conscious allusion to the wily Jacob, renamed Israel, a deceitful man who went on to become an exemplar for his people.
Jacob and Nathanael are confronted by similar visions: angels ascending and descending. For Jacob, the angels are traversing a ladder, or better translated, a ramp, like the stairs and landings of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. But Nathanael will see the angels upon the body of Jesus himself.
Thankfully for you and me, one doesn’t need to directly experience this vision to unpack it, to make sense of it. We can readily see how John the Evangelist weaves the Jacob/Israel story into this introduction of Jesus—simply said, Jesus is the new Israel. But to make sense of this in a way that speaks to our own life with God, our own life in community here and in all the places our lives touch—to make sense of this for us—I invite you to notice not where the angels are, but what they are doing: they are ascending and descending.
Notice the vertical motion … and notice that it moves in both directions. And with that in mind, I now invite you to notice this room we’re in right now: notice the horizontal intimacy, and then the soaring height. Notice what’s being suggested by the clever architecture: God is both immanent and transcendent, right next to me and soaring above me. God is here, in the embraceable you, my companion in our earthly life together. But God is also found in the realm of angels high above our mortal human heads.
“You will see angels ascending and descending…” Jesus says. The angels—those dazzling figures who give shape and color to the God we cannot see—they aren’t content to stay in their happy heaven. The higher they ascend, the lower they descend, as low and as close as my relationship with you, your relationship with your neighbor, our relationships with all who cry out for God’s grace.
I mentioned the angel Uriel before. You know there are others. Uriel—“God Is My Light”—is joined by Raphael, whose name means “It Is God Who Heals.” Many here at St. Paul’s have chosen a healing profession, and ascended quite high, if you want to say it that way, in their knowledge and skill as physicians, nurses, and caregivers. The more they participate in their vocation, the closer they can draw to the sick, the lonely, and the dying. The higher they ascend, the lower and more intimate they can go.
You could also look at it this way: in their prayer life here in Christian community, they ascend ever higher into the heart of God, and are strengthened and renewed to then move horizontally in this world of deep need.
And then there’s Gabriel. Gabriel captures our imagination as Anglo-Catholics because Gabriel was privileged to announce to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would be the God-bearer. ‘Gabriel’ means “God Is My Strength,” but the strength we see in Gabriel isn’t the strength of a warrior, but the strength of one who bears glad tidings. Gabriel appears to Daniel to explain his visions, and then in Luke announces the coming of the Messiah.
We, like Gabriel, can be bearers of glad tidings. That can be our strength, our best gift to all whom we encounter in our daily life. In this community—in this intersection of vertical and horizontal, where soaring heights of glory cross through our simple and loving embrace of one another—here in this community, we are strengthened to descend into our lives with glad tidings of love and companionship.
But don’t forget Michael, the archangel who has pride of place as the name saint for today’s feast. His name seems simple enough at first glance. It means, “Who Is Like God.” But wait. Is that suggesting that Michael is one who is like God, or is it a rhetorical question? Is it, “Who … who do you suppose … is like God?” First in Hebrew and later in Latin, the name Michael opens up into more than one meaning. We meet Michael who is like God, but are soon asked the impossible question, “Who, then, is like God?”
If you’re like me, you feel a little anxiety because you hear a question behind the question: you hear, “You, you there: are you like God?”
The safe answer for me is no. No, I am not like God. In my prayer life I often fail to ascend very high, and unlike these bright angels, I don’t have shiny wings. Most days I don’t feel particularly enlightened, or strong.
But that misses the point. Like Nathanael we encounter Jesus not as angels ourselves, but at the beginning of his story, and the beginning of our own. “You will see greater things than these,” Jesus tells Nathanael. “Come and see.” Today, we are simply invited to meet God at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. Today, it is enough to arrive at the crossing. The angels ascend and descend today in the most unlikely of places: the morsel of bread we recognize as the Body of Christ, that bread you are about to take into yourself.
How awesome is this place, the place where God crosses into human life! This crossing is now within you—you, and your little but wondrous life. This Body of Christ that you receive—this Body of Christ that you become—this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Robert Alter, "The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary"
Raymond E. Brown, "The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary"
Ira Gershwin, "Embraceable You"
C.S. Lewis, "The Great Divorce" (I reflected on his idea that only Jesus Christ is large enough in heaven to become small enough to enter hell)
Iolanthe Salant, personal communication, September 26, 2014 (ideas and insights about angels)