This week, friends invited my wife and me to visit the ‘Angels Among Us’ exhibition at Magheralin Parish Church. It is running until 8th December, and it is outstanding. I cannot recommend it enough. The exhibition is a collection of sculptures and art that represent various stories of angels in the Biblical narratives.
Don’t think for a minute that this is twee, or theologically odd. Far from it. The artists invite us into the most profound exploration of angels and the ways in which God uses them. The exhibition is made up of 26 pieces. Each is remarkable and invites us to consider the God who sends angels, not just the angels themselves. We are invited to consider the God of Creation; the God of Glory; the God of Wonder; the God of Mercy; the God of Seeing; the God of Connection; the God of Faithfulness; the God of Restoration; the God of Deliverance; the God of Protection the God of Victory; the God of Promise; the God of Guidance; the God of Good News; the God of Wholeness; the God of Strength; the God of Love; the God of Miracles; the God of Freedom; the God of Joy; the God of Keeping; the God of Ages; the God of Judgement; the God of Heaven; and the God who led Jacob in a piece called ‘The Staircase’.
Each installation is remarkable in its own way. The artists include Ross Wilson, Roberta Orr, William Mulhall, Beverley Healy and Christine Boyle. I was deeply moved by ‘Peter’s Angel’ at the installation entitled ‘The God of Freedom, which is fashioned in metal keys, chains and locks and was created by inmates at HMP Maghaberry.
I was also profoundly touched by the ‘God of Restoration’ installation featuring ‘Elijah’s Angel’, made up of pieces of broken crockery, an astounding and evocative reminder of how God uses the broken pieces of our lives to create something beautiful.
The exhibition invites you into contemplation of God, and His ways with us. It is simply outstanding. It runs until the 8th December at the church. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take some time to visit it (check for opening hours with the Church).
The God Who encounters us
The exhibition reminded me of the ways in which angels feature in the story of the birth of Jesus. They are mentioned numerous times. The Angel Gabriel visits Zechariah (Luke 1:11-20) and Mary (Luke 1:26ff). An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds and then is joined by a host of angels (Luke 2:8ff). It is an angel of the Lord who tells Joseph that Mary’s story is true (Matthew 1:20ff), and again later to tell Joseph that it was safe for him to return from Egypt with his family (Matthew 2:19ff). These messengers of God (the Greek word for ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’), are used to communicate God’s purposes and plans to the Holy Family, and to announce the Birth of Christ. They are evidence of the God Who encounters us. He comes to where we are. He reaches out to us. They are signposts to the reality that God does not want to be distant from us. He wants us to walk with Him in friendship and in faith.
What good is the story of the Incarnation if it remains a story we read about but we do not enter? Advent is an invitation to enter the story, and to allow the story to enter our hearts again. It is a space to look back and remember all of those encounters that we have already had with God, and to allow them to influence us again. God encounters us. He does not teach us from a distance. He does not lecture us. He does not shout angrily at us. He does not hold a wooden cane in His Hand with a look of glee on His Face longing to beat us. He sends His messengers to us. Most importantly He comes to us in His Son, Emmanuel, (which means ‘God with us’). He comes to live in us by the power of His Spirit. He walks with us. He reaches out to us.
The story of angels in the Birth Narrative is a reminder to me of God’s powerful and intentional desire to meet with us, to reveal Himself to us, to engage with us. Yet, I am confronted by a God of power and holiness, not simply intimacy and friendship. The angels He sends in these narratives are not comfortable figures. They spark fear, (awe and holy reverence). They are not ‘easy’ messengers. They are strong and powerful. God is not a cuddly toy. Too often, in the journey toward Christmas, we domesticate the story. It becomes one of soft tinsel, twinkling lights and gentle music. The Birth Narratives are Holy Disruptions. The heralds are powerful. Gabriel is not a fluffy angel for the top of the tree. He is majestic and strong.
This is not a ‘comfortable’ story, but it is a comforting one. God encounters us to rescue us, to transform us and to give us hope. He has to be strong enough to be able to fulfil these descriptions, otherwise He is not God. Yet He also has to be close enough and tender enough for us to be able to relate to Him. These traits are combined in the Incarnation – as the God/Man comes to us.
Angels are not superfluous to the Birth Story, and they are not superfluous to us. Hebrews 1:14 reminds us that they remain God’s agents for His saints. Later, the same writer reminds us that we should continue to have open hearts and open homes because as we welcome strangers some of us may have met angels without realising it.
Are not all angels spirits in the divine service sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Hebrews 1:14; 13:2, NRSV
I wonder, sometimes, if I have allowed the mysterious ministry of angels to become superfluous to my Christian Faith? Too often in our over-intellectualised ideas of walking with God, we consign the mysterious ministry of God’s messengers to the past. We read about them, and we treat them rather like fairy tales. They are fine for the story, but they have no place with us. Maybe that is because my particular tribe of the Church is afraid of worshipping angels? Such fear may have a right motivation (we must never worship them- God Alone is the object of our worship), but we must not ignore their place in God’s purposes.
On the other hand, there are current trends in different parts of the Church that make too much of these messengers of God, and I would not want to suggest that we become pre-occupied with them. At the same time, however, I wonder if we have neglected them and forgotten about them? I think, perhaps, that this tendency is also an indication that we can easily become too intellectualised in our faith. I am an academic. I love to study. I love to think. I love to read. I love to explore. I did not park my mind when I became a Christian. I am also keen, however, not to lose the mystery of it all. The Holy Spirit is not a concept, an idea, a force or a power only. The Holy Spirit comes to me, to us, in encounter. I often think that we are fearful of encounter. Preaching is not lecturing, worship is not performance and Christian gathering is not just a social activity. There is a deeply embedded principle of encounter at the heart of our faith. I think, perhaps, that many of us are not only quick to run from the idea of encountering angels, we are also too ready to replace encountering God with studying Him. Of course study and encounter are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can sometimes study without allowing ourselves to encounter though, don’t you think? In the same way, celebrating Christmas without encountering God would seem rather pointless to me?
Here’s my last thought. Did Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds or Zechariah ever forget their encounters with angels? Surely these moments of encounter became a permanent part of their memory as they lived out the rest of their days? Mary ‘pondered’ the events of Jesus birth in her heart – she treasured them, (Luke 2:19). How many times did she need to return to those moments of encounter to remind herself of God’s promises and purposes. I wonder did she remember the words of Simeon (Luke 2:35) as she watched her Son hanging on a cross? I think perhaps the encounters she had with God at the very beginning of this journey remained with her as anchors, spiritual cairns and markers, for the rest of her life. That is because an encounter with God, angelic or otherwise, is never just for a moment. Encounters with God remain with us, and if we let them, they can become sources of strength, reminders of purpose and scents of grace that will impact our whole lives.
Today, I am reminding myself of some of the encounters I have had with God over the years. I am choosing to think about them, to call them to mind. I am remembering encounters when I was in the darkest places of my life, and encounters when I was in the brightest. I am calling to mind promises He has made, moments He has embraced me, truths He has revealed to me through His Word, and assurances that He has given. I am also, deliberately, remembering a few occasions when I think I may have encountered angels…
What about you?
(C) Malcolm J. Duncan (Advent 2019)