When I was growing up, our house was full of angles – figurines, artwork, calendars, and, the ost special one, the angel that went atop our tree at Christmas. It was not unheard of in our family to observe that “God’s angels had been looking out for” someone who had narrowly missed some kind of dangerous or disastrous predicament. The prayer we learned to pray before bedtime asked that God’s angels guard us through the night and wake us with the morning light. Whenever I said this prayer, I also pictured a painting my mother hung in our home for years: a barely discernable child lay sleeping under soft sheets in a bed, the room dark, save for the light emanating from the hand of an angel who stood guard through the night next to the sleeping child.
And while we may not have ever spoken explicitly about what it meant that God’s angels had charge over us, there was an implicit narrative about their existence, presence, and purpose woven into the story that framed our worldview. By the time that I was about 11 years old, I was fascinated by biblical images of “heavenly war:” angels and spiritual beings battling the forces of evil and protecting God’s most prized creation. I read Frank Paretti books, studied the book of Revelation, and ate up as much material as I could about spiritual warfare.
Though this obsession faded as I grew older, the time I spent reading books and watching movies about spiritual realities often imperceivable to human senses instilled in me a deep appreciation for just how vast God’s creation is. It grew my imagination in a way that embraced mystery and relinquished the need for absolute knowledge and understanding. I learned to recognize the limitations of human perception and stand in awe of a God whose love, purpose, and creativity extend beyond our collective sensory capacity. It brought me to wonder how arrogant we must be to assume that the only created matter to exist is what we can observe empirically. I learned how to receive the gift of God’s active presence in the world and to recognize that it is often experienced in the most unlikely of places.
This last little bit is something Jacob could likely speak to as well. Running from the wrath of his brother, from whom he had just stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing, Jacob is on his way to his mother’s family to hide out for a few years and to find a wife. Not long into his hundreds of miles journey, Jacob stops for the night, forced because the light by which to travel had set. It was, in all sense of the phrase, a random stop. But as Jacob drifted off to sleep, anxious about the past he was running from and uncertain of what lay ahead, he has the most unexpected encounter. God comes to him in a dream. And here, Jacob is granted a sight beyond his senses, a vision of angels coming and going from the realm of God, sent as messengers and emissaries, charged with announcing God’s promises, judgment, and activity. And if that weren’t enough, God “stood beside” him, extending the promise given to Abraham and Isaac now to Jacob.
This experience made such an impression on Jacob that he named that place Bethel, the “house of God.” Here, at this random site, Jacob the refugee seeking to save his own life, encounters God and gains a glimpse beyond the world of matter as we understand it. And yet, God also promised to Jacob that God would accompany him on his journey – God was not bound to this particular place of Bethel but would transcend its boundaries,moving along with Jacob and protecting him.
This would not be the last that Jacob sees of God’s angels. He will encounter a messenger of the Lord twenty some-odd-years later as he returns to his homeland and faces his brother. Nor would it be the last time he had a divine encounter, where the ancestral promise is reiterated to him again. Through it all, Jacob learns that God is faithful, that God engages with the world and the people that God has created and called.
We have talked a lot these last nearly seven months about opening ourselves to possibility – to the possibility that God is present in the midst of this pandemic; that God is active in the voices of prophets that fill our streets;that the distance between the altar and our home tables is not quite as far mas we sometimes think. We have listened to sermons, read scriptures, prayed prayers that all invite us to look with fresh eye at the ways that God engages us in our particular circumstances and to recognize the movement of God’s Spirit among and within us.
Today, on this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we are invited to stand in awe, with Jacob, at the pervasiveness of God’s presence among and with us. Perhaps we do not dream dreams of stairways that symbolize a portal between heaven and earth; but we can stand assured that the God who promised divine presence to Jacob stands with us as well. This is a God of mystery, who delights in the diversity of creation – seen and unseen. Who elicits praise and glory from all created matter. This is a God whose presence is tied to the particularities of place and yet transcends all particularities.
So, let us today join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to proclaim the glory and majesty of our God. Let the words that we say and the praise we proclaim embolden our witness in the world so that our lives become testimonies to the mercy and compassion of God, who promises to walk with us in this journey of life.