Benediction Online

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Angels Abound

by Lorienne Schwenk.

In the name of the one whose incarnation we celebrate every day, Amen.

Look at all of you! You look like angels to me!
I don’t have to remind you that it can be tricky to be a Christian in our modern world and culture. All of us sitting in this room have a map in our minds and hearts that not everybody shares. We know somebody in our work, or family, or wherever who isn’t here in the pews us today and who stands for that world. We call this time Advent, this day Advent 4, while the world has been in the “Christmas season” for quite some time. While the culture debates whether it’s okay to say “Merry Christmas,” some of us are trying to restrain from saying it because it is not yet Christmas. A season like Advent can be a little hard to explain. This Sunday is a perfect example. Virgin birth alone can get people tied up, but how about angels? I want to send you out to proclaim that "We are all called to be mothers of God for God is always waiting to be born" ~ as Meister Eckhardt puts it. How can I tell you also to be the angels you are?

Nowhere for me is the clash with culture more odd than that figure of Gabriel. Frankly, I don’t have an organized system of thought about angels. I don’t have angel ornaments (those ladies in nightgowns) on my tree. I do not have a theology of angels. I can’t tell you the difference between an archangel and Marley’s Ghost. I don’t mean I don’t believe; I just haven’t thought much about it. I may say the kitty curled up purring on my lap is an angel. If someone does a great favor for another, I might say that person was a real angel. I’ve heard great cheese described as smelling like the feet of angels. I use the word without thinking about it. Some folks believe in Guardian Angels or that those who have gone before us become angels and watch over us.

Culture has lots of thoughts about angels and about Gabriel. In art, there appears to be a centuries long convention, perhaps begun in Orthodox iconography: Figure in red on the left kneeling. Figure on right in blue, kneeling. The one in red is Gabriel. Blue is Mary and she is often holding a book. During the Renaissance, the point of these paintings seemed to be a contest to show who can do the fanciest floor tiles and the deepest zooming perspective. The figures seem equal and Mary does not seem the least bit perplexed, or terrified. She barely looks up from her book.

Musically, Gabriel means cue the trumpets. In fact, last night, pumped up from yesterday’s concert, I was listening to the BBC and not sleeping. They had a story about the celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. {Oh! “Evangelist.” Hear the Angel in there? Hmmmm.} Anyway, in the course of the story, they played a bit of “Blow Gabriel Blow” from Cole Porter’s musical Anything Goes. Synchronicity? Back to evangelist. A bringer of good news. That’s what the word means. An angel is a messenger with good news. So where does the fear come in?

In the past 20 years, there have been six Hollywood pictures with a character named or based on Gabriel. They are all horror films to some extent. As a protagonist, this character is either seeking to destroy evil people or announcing the end of the world. In two of them, Gabriel has morphed into the main antagonist. How did Gabriel suddenly become the bad guy? Who’s afraid of the Big Good News?

The angel Gabriel gets three mentions in scripture. We see in our first reading that David is not to build a Temple. His son, King Solomon does and it is during the Babylonian exile when the Hebrews are torn away from that Temple that Daniel has an encounter with one like a man, called Gabriel. Gabriel explains the visions Daniel has and gives him hope. In the restored Temple, the priest Zechariah is met by Gabriel, now called an angel, and is informed that he and Elizabeth will have a son called John. In the very next verses, Gabriel visits Mary.

In all three biblical encounters, those Gabriel meets are terrified. This bums me out a bit, because it says Mary was very perplexed, but it’s apparently the same word as terrified. My guess is that is how he gets connected with the apocalyptic stories and even becomes the scary bad guy.

Which is a shame because I think a key point is lost. In the case of both Daniel and Zechariah, Gabriel’s visitation has something to do with the Temple, either serving in it or the hoped for return and restoration after the exile. With Mary, the news becomes very clear: we are the Temple, we are the Body. Emmanuel! God is with us! While we fuss over “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” her “Here am I” is the line that should be on our lips. And so is Gabriel’s “The Lord is with you.” Is that too scary to say to one another in this season?

I offer a vision from the mystic writer and artist William Blake. One evening he had just finished reading, closed the book, and spoke aloud, 
Blake: “Who can paint an angel?” 
A voice said, “Michelangelo could.”
Blake looked around the room and saw nothing save a greater light than usual. Blake: “And how do you know?”
Voice: “I know for I sat for him. I am the archangel Gabriel.”
Blake: “Oh ho! You are, are you? I must have better assurance of that than a wandering voice. You may be an evil spirit - there are such in the land.”
Voice: “You shall have good assurance. Can an evil spirit do this?”
Blake looked whence the voice came and was then aware of a shining shape with bright wings who diffused much light. “As I looked, the shape dilated more and more. He waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me moved the universe.” An angel of evil could not have done that. It was the archangel Gabriel. (from Blake’s writings quoted in Peter Ackroyd’s biography) I hope you’ll look up Blake’s painting of his vision.

So do not be afraid. You all look like such angels to me. In this season of the Incarnation, move the universe and see the mother of God in everyone around you!


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