Articles

Musings on a day in Canterbury Cathedral

All quotations from Scripture are taken from the Jerusalem Bible.

The crypt

Do we not find God in the hidden places as much as in the sunlit open spaces where nature gladdens the eye?  This is God’s earth, His creation.  Wherever we stand is hallowed ground.  Here, in the crypt, in the gloom where the light from distant windows is obscured by the masonry, I find a chapel in semi darkness.  A cross and a flickering candle provide focal points for those who seek spiritual solace.  No footsteps are heard or hushed tones, only distant voices echoing from a far-flung corner of the cathedral.  Are these voices of the present moment or do they harken from a bygone age?  One almost expects a pilgrim of old to materialise, some character from the Canterbury Tales to emerge and pad his way towards the light, staff in hand.

Here in the silence I sit and muse on the shadows and hidden places in my past.  Then I feel compelled to deepen my purpose.  I ask in prayer for the Holy Spirit to shed its healing rays on memories that sting like arrows piercing my soul.  The columns, arches and vaults of this subterranean place seem to portray in stone the labyrinthine recesses of the human mind.  Those who come here to pray will find consolation for their despair, half submerged and drowning in past regrets, yearning for a glimmer of light.  Yet ours is not to reason why but to wait and to trust, to draw knowledge from the fount of Wisdom:

May God grant me to speak as he would wish and express thoughts worthy of his gifts, since he himself is the guide of Wisdom.  We are indeed in his hand, we ourselves and our words, with all our understanding too….All that is hidden all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom who designed them all.  (Wisdom 7.15-16, 21)

No, ours is not to reason why but to await enlightenment, to repent and to amend.  In prayer we are enfolded in God’s arms and consoled.  From prayer comes revelation and we bathe in God’s love.  Our expectant waiting is rewarded by the One who sees all, knows all and forgives all (cf. Romans 8.26-39).

The Lord has appeared to him from afar: I have loved you with an everlasting love, so I am constant in my affection for you.  (Jeremiah 31.3)

The tomb

Here lies a noble archbishop, his effigy in marble atop a tomb of stone, enclosed by railings to shield him from the encroachment of passing mortals.  Here lies a man who was like any other man, yet in his time deemed by the Church to be accorded respect due to the dignity of his office.  Was he not born in the same way as other men?  Did he not breathe the same air, suffer the same invasion of germs, the same turbulence of moods, hostility, ailments, conspiracies, slights, victories, dyspepsia, sickness, confusion?  Did he not die a death like any other man?  Mortality is no respecter of rank.  Where are the brocaded vestments?  Dust.  Where is his mitre?  Dust.  Where is he?  Dust and bones, a few strands of linen, now turned yellow, once entwined round his body, lying in dust and darkness.  His bones remain, now collapsed in a heap, and there is the skull that once contained eyes that surveyed and judged the world from lofty high office.  The effigy depicts him with hands placed together in prayer, fingers pointed to heaven, a man who once walked the dust of the earth.  Is he in heaven?  It is not for us to know.  This man who is listed in various works of Church history and hardly mentioned among those who talk about such things, whose tomb is entombed in the fabric of the cathedral, held fast between massive pillars, who once held sway in this diocese and supped with princes and prelates.  Bones, ashes, dust.

Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace.  (Daniel 12.2)

St. Anselm’s Chapel

Now I am seated in the chapel dedicated to St. Anselm, one of the luminaries of the theological world who was Archbishop, 1093-1109.  May I say that the title ‘Saint’ is not important?  Let us also give due respect to the countless ‘saints’ (with a small ‘s’) who have ever lived, Christ’s servants who on this earth were not sanctified by the Church but by their faith, and who are now honoured in heaven for eternity.  These are the ones who by the grace of God have passed through the gate where the sheep and the goats are divided and have gone into receive their just reward.  These unsung, unknown folk who lived within the customary limitations of human existence, beset by longings and desires, living a constant cycle of sinfulness and piety, many with low expectations of achievement or longevity, most merely striving to gather about them sustenance, warmth and the milk of human kindness.  They walked in holy fear of God, that fear which engenders awe and a sense of littleness, dependence and thankfulness.

Oh yes, let us not only remember them, let us relate to them in the here and now and think about our present state and how much or how little we fear our Creator, He who can destroy both body and soul.  Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Do not be afraid of them….for everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear (Matthew 10.26).  Our lives are a mystery, formed in secret by Him who watched our bones take shape, He who created our inmost self (cf. Psalm 139.13, 15).  He set us at large in freedom (cf. Psalm 31.8) and with a perpetual sense of wonder.  He lifts us up when we have spent our brief time here in toil and strife.  For the faithful ones who have taken shelter in the shadow of His wings, there is reward (cf. Psalms 36.7; 63.7; Luke 6.36-38).  Then fear and wonder give way to rejoicing as we return to our maker.  For it is not fame or worldly success, nor even the fervour of our piety that will form the criteria for divine judgement.  Above all else it is how much we have loved, what we have done with our love to overwhelm self-love, to bring depth of compassion of mercy.  This is how we will be judged (cf. 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; 2 Corinthians 5.10).

Ah, would that these words of mine were written down, inscribed on some monument with iron chisel and engraving tool, cut into the rock for ever.  This I know, that my Avenger lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth.  After my awaking, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God.  He whom I shall see will take my part: these eyes will gaze on him and find him not aloof.  (Job 19.23-27)

St.Paul in Malta

High up on an arch over the altar of this chapel, a medieval wall painting has been uncovered depicting the apostle Paul shaking off the viper that had attached itself to his hand.  This painting goes unnoticed by almost all who chance upon this chapel, including the tick-box tourists who speed through the cathedral faster than the knights who slayed Thomas Becket.  The account of the incident is given in Acts 28.1-6.

What do we make of it?  Here is my take on it, for what it is worth:

  1. The snake, or serpent, harks back to the Garden of Eden.  The emergence of evil in the human heart is brought about by the connivance of the serpent, symbolic of Satan.  As a result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, God said to the serpent: Accursed are you of all animals wild and tame!  On your belly you will go and on dust you will feed as long as you live.  I shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will bruise your head and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3.14-15)
  2. The snake lurks and slithers in the undergrowth, analogous with the undercurrents that pervade the human mind, causing a constant tension between impulses of good and evil (cf. Romans 7.14-25).  The devil is apt to strike our ‘heel’, our equi-librium, to undermine our stability, to bring us down to his level.  He constantly tries to place himself between our better judgement and our latent instinct to transgress.  The snake depicted here was concealed in the fire and darted forth to attach itself to Paul’s hand, thus striking at his dexterity.  This is significant in view of Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles, the symbolism of the hand that writes, anoints and heals.  We can only surmise the hand affected was that with which he penned his fourteen epistles, the collection of documents of incalculable importance to our interpretation of the Christian faith.  Here is the hand that transcribed the very word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit for the enlightenment of mankind.
  3. Clearly God grants his protection.  The toxicity of the viper’s venom is notorious, yet Paul is unharmed, merely shaking the reptile into the fire to be consumed by the flames.  We can also draw an analogy with the depiction of the Spirit as fire.  At Pentecost there appeared to them tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit….(Acts 2.3-4).  Note, ‘on the head’, the seat of reason, the forehead being the traditional place where oil is applied in the act of anointing kings, priests and apostles, as well as in baptism and for those in need of healing.  In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that God is a consuming fire (12.29; cf. Deuteronomy 4.24; Psalms 50.3; 97.3).  God manifests himself in fire to speak to his chosen servant Moses, in the incident of the burning bush (Exodus 3.1-6).  The fire of God’s grace both destroys imperfection and purifies the mind in readiness for divine service (cf. Isaiah 6.7).  John the Baptist expected the Messiah to employ fire to destroy the chaff (evil) that will fall away from the purity of the wheat, his faithful servants (Matthew 3.12; Mark 9.43; cf. Psalm 1.4-5).  In Revelation, the lake of fire and sulphur will destroy the beast (Satan) and the false prophets (20.10).  Death and Hades are hurled into the burning lake (20.14), just as the viper is hurled into the crackling twigs.
  4. The incident is symbolic of the defeat of evil.  Jesus Christ destroyed evil by his atoning death on the Cross, ushering in a New Covenant in his blood.  This new Way is marked by the infusion of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14.16-17; 15.26), for Christ is the Word, the very essence of God (cf. Hebrews 1.1-4), not the written word of the Law that cannot in itself save souls (cf. Galatians 3.19-28).  Christianity is transmitted, preached and lived out in all-consuming love, the same love with which Christ drew upon himself the accumulated sins of mankind, a redeeming, forgiving, self-sacrificing love.  And Christ’s resurrection completed God’s plan of redemption, for in death we are transformed and we receive salvation to eternity (cf. Romans 8.28-39; 1 Corinthians 15.35-58).
  5. The account in Acts 28 describes the people of Malta as unusually kind and hospit-able, making Paul and his companions welcome and honouring them with many marks of respect.  These amicable people were pagans, innocent of the great truths which Paul had imparted throughout his missionary exploits, and if innocent then open to the reception of the Spirit.  They represent all who await the joy of knowing the truth of the Gospel.  Paul’s acts of healing in the Spirit demonstrated the grace and power of God among the people.  Let us not await a miracle, we who are recipients of the Word and know so much more and have been given so much more than the simple people of that island two thousand years ago.  We live a miracle, our very lives are a miracle of creation, and all around us we see the wonders of nature.  So let us not await further miracles, let us not await a sign, for we have been granted a manifestation of God.  Christ has entered our lives to transform them.  Therefore, in the name of Christ, let us be a sign for others by our faith, our gentleness, our peace, our sure and certain hope of salvation to eternal life.

The Jesus Chapel

I return to the crypt, this time to seek the pool of light that beams down on the Jesus Chapel, which is situated at the apex of the cathedral.  There are four lattice windows of clear glass in a semi-circle.  In the centre a beautiful medieval stained-glass window depicting scenes from the life of Christ.  In the middle of the chapel is an altar draped with a velvet cloth adorned with a frieze emblazoned with a Latin inscription: Magnum est nomen meum in gentibus, taken from the prophet Malachi, chapter 1, verse 11: ‘My name is honoured among the nations’.  It is fitting that here in a secluded corner, away from the breathtaking architecture and the clatter of restoration work, there is a place for those who seek quietness to commune with the Lord.

Let us consider the light that streams into the chapel.  I liken it to the power of the Holy Spirit that penetrates and dispels the shadows.  This penetration is inward: the light comes in.  The light enters not only the physical dimensions of the chapel but enables those who sit and pray to dwell in it.  Therefore the light enters hearts and minds as a positive force, just as the Holy Spirit enters the soul to fill it with the knowledge of God.  Jesus said, I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark; he will have the light of life (John 8.12).  In the Book of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit is described in superlative language: it is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp, irresistibe, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits (7.22-23).

The Holy Spirit goes out to the world in those who are infused with it, who rededicate themselves to holiness.  Our battle is with darkness, the darkness of our minds, and with evil forces that constantly try to divert us from the Lord’s work.  Yet these dark forces battle in vain, for Jesus is a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower (John 1.5).  We do well to be armed with that light in the spiritual war that is being waged with ever greater intensity in this fallen world.  There is no eternal city for us in this life but we look for one in the life to come (Hebrews 13.14), and our span of life is a single note in the symphony of time.

Let us therefore be a blessing to the world, an instrument of God’s goodness and peace.

Besides, you know the ‘time’ has come: you must wake up now: our salvation is even nearer that it was when we were converted.  The night is almost over, it will be daylight soon – let us give up all the things we prefer to do under cover of the dark; let us arm ourselves and appear in the light.  Let us live decently as people do in the daytime….Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.  (Romans 13.11-14)

 

St. Michael and All Angels

Feast Day, 29th September.

I approached this subject as a virtual novice.  My knowledge of angels does not extend much beyond some of the Biblical accounts of their appearances and activities.  I cover the Biblical evidence in the second part of the article.

For the first part of the article I defer to the superior knowledge of a respected author. For the second part I defer only to the word of God.

In order to gain further insight into angels I resorted to an author who had already done a good deal of research on the subject, Peter Kreeft.  Let me say at the outset that I do not necessarily endorse everything Kreeft states in his book, or in any of his books.  This is a non-denominational blog.  If I cite the work of an author who is an apologist for a particular brand of Christianity, I feel duty bound to point that out to my readers.  Kreeft is a well-known apologist for Roman Catholicism.  However, in this instance his church affiliation does not detract from the value of his findings.  I have yet to find a book that treats the subject with such detail and without being overly esoteric.

Peter Kreeft  Angels (and demons): what do we really know about them?  Ignatius Press, 1995.

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Scripture are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).

Who are angels?

Kreeft provides a useful overview of ‘angelology’.

‘Angelology has data, and its theories are justified by its data. For instance, the traditional theory of angels….says that angels are (1) creatures of God, (2) bodily spirits, (3) with intelligence, (4) and will, (5) who live in God’s presence in heaven, (6) obey his will, (7) carry his messages (angel means ‘messenger’), (8) assume bodies as we assume costumes, (9) influence our imagination, (10) but not our free will, and (11) move material things supernaturally.  If any of the points in this theory were false the data would be different.  This is the justification for the theory.  For instance, if angels could not assume bodies, they could not eat.  However, in Scripture they do on occasion eat (see Genesis 19.3), therefore they can assume bodies.

‘The only reason today that people are much more suspicious of angelology than in any previous time or place or culture is naturalism, the philosophy that denies the supernatural.  If the data didn’t claim anything miraculous or supernatural, it would be accepted just as data about other natural beings and events is accepted even if it is unusual (like platypuses in zoology or multiple personalities in psychology).’ (pp.28-29)

The attributes of angels are set out at the beginning of the book (p.17):

1. They really exist. Not just in our minds, or our myths, or our symbols, or our culture. They are as real as your dog, or your sister or electricity.

2. They’re present, right here, right now, right next to you, reading these words with you.

3. They’re not cute, cuddly, comfortable, chummy or “cool”.  They are fearsome and formidable.  They are huge.  They are warriors.

4. They are the real “extra-terrestrials”, the real “Supermen”, the ultimate aliens.  Their powers are far beyond those of all fictional creatures.

5. They are more brilliant minds than Einstein.

6. They can literally move the heavens and the earth if God permits them.

7. There are also evil angels, fallen angels, demons, or devils.  These too are not myths.  Demon possessions, and exorcisms, are real.

8. Angels are aware of you, even though you can’t usually see or hear them.  But you can communicate with them.  You can talk to them without even speaking.

9. You really do have your very own “guardian angel”.  Everyone does.

10. Angels often come disguised.  “Remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13.2) – that’s a warning from life’s oldest and best instruction manual.

11. We are on a protected part of a great battlefield between angels and devils, extending to eternity.

12. Angels are sentinels standing at the crossroads where life meets death.  They work especially at moments of crisis, at the brink of disaster – for bodies, for souls and for nations.

The Biblical evidence

The two covenants

We first encounter an angel in Genesis 16.7-14 when one of their number comes to Hagar, Abraham’s wife who had previously been the slave-girl of Sarah, his other wife.  Hagar had run away due to mistreatment at the hands of Sarah.  The angel told her that she had conceived and that she should return home.  The child should be named Ishmael, for the Lord had heard her cries of distress (Ishmael means ‘God hears’).  ‘Ishmael’s descendents are Arabs of the desert who are as intractable and vagrant as these wild creatures [wild donkeys (v.12)], cf Job 39.5-8’ (NJB footnote).  Hagar is aware that she has seen an agent of God.  The proposition that she had seen God himself in bodily form is unlikely since elsewhere we are told that God cannot be seen.  Even Moses and Elijah, great prophets, were prevented from seeing God.  Instead they experienced terrifying manifestations of him (Exodus 19; 1 Kings 19).  It is only later in salvation history that God manifests himself in human form in the Incarnation, through his Son, Jesus Christ.  At the Transfiguration, God speaks but is not seen, in the presence of Jesus, Moses and Elijah and the disciples Peter, James and John (Matthew 17.13, cf 2 Peter 1.16-18).

In Genesis 18 and 19 we find an account of angelic intervention in the service of God.  In 18.1-15 the Lord sends three men to Abraham, angels in disguise.  They have come to inform him that his wife Sarah will conceive, despite her being beyond childbearing age. ‘Nothing is impossibe for the Lord’ (18.14, cf Luke 1.18).  Sarah later gives birth to Isaac, the child who continues the line that emerges later as the nation Israel.  He is therefore the child of the promise given previously to Abraham by God: ‘This is my covenant with you: you will become the father of many nations’ (17.4).  Ishmael is the child of human nature, not of the divine Spirit.  Ishmael is born of a slave-girl, but Isaac is born of a freewoman.  Therefore Isaac inherits God’s promise for posterity, whilst Ishmael is forsaken and wanders in the desert like a nomad.  This is an allegory for faith based on a divine promise as opposed to human beings who throughout history have wandered in a spiritual wilderness, slaves to their own passions instead of obedient children of God.

The narrative is also an allegory for two covenants, the one promulgated on Mount Sinai through Moses when he accepted the Law from the hands of God; the other as a continuation of the covenant given through Abraham, which is the inheritance of all who have faith in God through Christ, a faith of interior spirituality, not adherence to the Law (see Galatians 4.21-31).  Abraham’s faith in God was fundamental, explicitly placing trust in God.  It predates the giving of the Law.  As Christians our inheritance of faith is therefore from Abraham, not from Judaic rules and regulations.  The Law was in any case a temporary measure.  God ordained it as a framework by which the Israelites would cleave to God as the chosen people destined to carry forward God’s plan of salvation for mankind.

Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, completed salvation history by establishing in his blood on the cross a New Covenant with mankind.  This is a covenant based on faith in Christ as Son of God who has completed the Law in his own person and work, and in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Christ’s work is redemptive, restorative and salvational, something that could never be achieved by the Law (Romans 5-8).  In the New Covenant God resides in the heart.  It is a spiritual transformation, an interior movement of the will propelled by the Holy Spirit, instead of deference to the exterior words of the Law.  Despite its divine origin, the Law cannot effect eternal salvation, ‘for the written letters kill, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3.6).

Angels as rescuers

Tbe Genesis narrative continues with the account of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Here the angels (now two) rescue Lot from the depravity of the men of Sodom.  The angels urge Lot and his wife to flee to the hills to escape certain death.  God’s wrath results in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18.16 – 19.29). ‘The unnatural vice that takes its name from this incident was an abomination to the Israelites….but it was rife among their neighbours’ (NJB footnote). (See Leviticus 20.13, 23; Judges 19.22 seq; Romans 1.18-32; 1 Corinthians 6.9-11).

In the Acts of the Apostles there are two miraculous deliverances, one of Peter and the other of Paul and Silas.  In Acts 12 we find Peter under guard in prison, awaiting trial.  An angel of the Lord appears and the cell is filled with light.  He taps Peter on the side to wake him.  He wakes up and the chains fall from his hands.  He leads Peter out of the prison, gates opening through the angel’s power (12.1-11).  In Acts 16.25-37 Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from prison.  The event is equally mysterious and dramatic.  Although angels do not appear on this occasion, no doubt they were involved in the miracle.

Angels as messengers

At key points in God’s plan of salvation he sends angels as messengers to announce significant events.

In Ezekiel 40.1 to 44.4 the prophet experiences a lengthy vision.  He is lead by an angel to survey the future Temple in detail, the angel explaining the vision to him, stage by stage.

A similar motif is found in Zechariah 1 to 6.  The man standing among the myrtles is an angel who guides the prophet through eight visions.  The three horses in 1.8-11 represent the angels who have the world under their surveillance.  Are these the archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael?  The narrative notes the colours of the horses, each colour presumably identifying an angel.  Jewish mythology associates white with Michael, red with Gabriel, and green with Raphael.  In Chapter 6 there is a reference to four chariots.  The horses are coloured red, black, white and piebald.  The angel explains to Zechariah that these are the four winds of heaven who have attended the Lord.  We can surmise that they symbolise angels (6.1-8).  In Revelation 6.1-17 there is a similar motif involving four horses of different colours, but the context is different.  Here the angelic riders of the horses are given authority over a quarter of the earth.  They represent wild animals, war, famine and plague – instruments of divine retribution.

The angel Gabriel appears in Daniel 8.15-26 as the interpreter of Daniel’s vision of the ram and the he-goat.  He also appears to Daniel in 9.20-27, telling the prophet that he is a man specially chosen.  He then explains the meaning of a revelation given to Daniel, the prophecy of the seventy weeks (9.1-19).

In Matthew 1.18-25, an angel appears to Joseph, husband of Mary, in a dream.  He instructs him to take Mary as his wife despite the fact that she has conceived.  The angel explains that it is a miraculous conception through the Holy Spirit.  He tells Joseph that the child will be the one to save his people from their sins, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14.

In Luke 1 we read of two visitations from the angel Gabriel.  The first is to Zechariah, telling him that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son and that he must be named John, later known as John the Baptist (1.11-20).  Next an angel visits Mary to inform her that she will conceive.  The child will be called Son of the Most High and must be named Jesus.  Mary is perplexed since she has ‘no knowledge of man’ (1.26-38).

In Matthew 28.1-10 Mary of Magdala and Mary mother of James go to visit the tomb of Jesus.  They experience a violent earthquake and an angel of the Lord appears, rolls away the stone at the entrance of the tomb and sits on it.  He informs them that the Lord has risen, urges them to see where he had been laid and to tell the disciples that Jesus would be in Galilee where they would see him.  As they rush away Jesus himself comes to meet them.  They pay him homage, clasping his feet.  He says to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; there they will see me.’

In Mark 16.1-8 a similar narrative appears, this time with the addition of Salome.  A young man in a white robe (an angel) is seated in the tomb and provides the same information as in Matthew.  However, in this account Jesus does not appear.

In Luke 24.1-11 Joanna has replaced Salome.  In this version two men (angels) in brilliant clothes suddenly appear as the women inspect the interior of the empty tomb.  The angels give them the same message as in Matthew and Mark.  Jesus does not appear in this account either.

In John 20.1-18 only one woman features, Mary of Magdala.  She goes to the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance.  She immediately informs Peter and John who visit the tomb and see the linen cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in.  They realise that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, as he had predicted (Matthew 17.9; Mark 9.10).  The disciples then leave the scene. Mary remains, weeping.  She peers into the tomb and sees two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been.  Then, turning round she sees Jesus, although she doesn’t recognise him at first.  When he calls her by her name she realises who it is and addresses him as ‘Rabbuni’, which means Master.  He says to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

In Revelation 1.1-2 we are told that God sent his angel to make known to John the revelations that we now know as the book of the same name, so that John can bear witness to the word of God and to Jesus Christ.

In Revelation 4.5, in the passage where God entrusts the future of the world to the Lamb (Jesus Christ), we read of seven Spirits of God.  The NJB footnote states: ‘Not the seven-fold Spirit of medieval tradition but the seven angels of the presence – see Revelation 3.1, 8.2; God’s messengers, cf Revelation 5.6 and passim; Zechariah 4.10.’

Angels as guardians

In Revelation 1.20 seven angels are referred to as guardians of the seven churches that form the narrative of Chapters 2 and 3.  The NJB footnote states: ‘Hence each church is considered to be ruled by an angel responsible for it, to whom the letter is addressed.  But the churches are also in the hand of Christ, that is, in his power and under his protection.’

Angels also appear as guardians in the following narratives:

Exodus 3.20.  An angel precedes the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land.

Deuteronomy 32.8.  In the Song of Moses it is revealed that nations are assigned guardian angels, here named ‘sons of God’ (JB).

Daniel 10-12.  An angel appears to the prophet Daniel as an apparition.  In a long discourse he reveals recent events of prophetic significance and what will happen as a consequence.  It is here that we meet the archangel Michael (which means ‘Who-is-like-God’).  He is the guardian angel of the people of God (cf Exodus 23.20).  Michael is sent by the Lord to confront Satan in Zechariah 3.1-2.  In Jude 9 Michael leaves Satan’s condemnation to God.  Daniel 12 opens with the prophecy that Michael will arise as defender of the Israelites, that it will be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.  This is echoed in Matthew 24.21, Jesus’ prophecy concerning the great tribulation of Jerusalem (cf Revelation 7.14, 16.18).

Michael reappears in Revelation 12.7, leading the angels against the dragon (Satan) who has his own band of (fallen) angels.  The dramatic narrative of the struggle against the forces of evil continues to 21.8.

Angels inferior to Jesus; human beings inferior to angels

God is at the apex of the universal hierarchy, under which are spiritual beings, angels and men.  As both a spiritual and material being, man occupies a unique position.  Below man exist the animals, then the plants, then minerals.

In the spiritual sphere Jesus is superior to the angels, as is made clear in Hebrews 1.5 to 2.9.  However, for a short time Jesus was made lower than the angels.  This was during his presence on earth, a period of around thirty years from birth to crucifixion.  He shared equally in our human nature ‘so that by his death he could set aside him who held the power of death, namely the devil, and set free all those who had been held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-15).  The NJB footnote explains this passage: ‘Sin and death are related because both derive from Satan, whose reign is the opposite of the reign of Christ.  The resurrection is the guarantee to believers that they will rise’ (cf Romans 8.11).

Angels are God’s courtiers, as described in Deuteronomy 32.43; Job 1.6; Psalms 18.10, 99.1, 103.20-21; Daniel 4.10; Hebrews 1.7 and Revelation 4.5.  A seraph, a kind of angel, was sent to Isaiah to annoint him as God’s prophet (Isaiah 6.1-7).

Only three angels’ names appear in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.  The last-named appears only in the apocryphal Book of Tobit, 3.17 and 12.6.  Some Protestant churches recognise Michael as an archangel or the Prince of angels.  Catholicism recognises all three as archangels.

Man is only a little less than the angels (cf Psalm 8.5).  Human beings are inferior to the angels as they do not possess superhuman and supernatural powers.  The lives of human beings are held in balance during their time on earth, with free will a crucial factor in determining their ultimate destiny – that is, our will co-operating with God’s will.  Through faith, God will raise us above our earthly sphere to the spiritual heavens, salvation to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15.1-58; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).

There dwells in the human heart a continuous tension between the forces of good and evil (Jeremiah 17.9).  Sin crouches at the door of the mind, but it can be mastered (Genesis 6.7).  Light, true Light, cannot be overpowered by darkness (John 1.5) but the ill-disposed and weak-willed are always vulnerable in the swirling tide of human affairs.  Men and women can embrace the faith or they can choose to reject God and deny that he exists.  By so doing they condemn themselves to an autonomous existence without God’s protection.  It is a fateful decision.

Postscript

We hear of theologians who have lost their faith.  I have to question if they had much faith to begin with, or any at all.  Was the study of Christianity an intellectual exercise to accrue academic trophies?  Was the fascination transitory, a tantalising morsel washed down by the heady wine of intellectual arrogance?  Doubt is a seed that germinates in the mind, then it sprouts, then grows into a parasite.  Ivy attaches itself to a tree and draws the lifeblood out of it, eventually killing it.  Such is doubt, a creeping contagion that becomes a clinging permanence.  Over-analysis leads to spiritual paralysis, speculation triumphs over objective truth, philosophy replaces divinity.  Thus the great truths of the Christian faith are swept away in the floodtide of secular opinion. But when the tide recedes the Word of God remains in the sands of time, in the Rock of Ages.

All humanity is grass, and all its beauty like the wild flower’s.  As grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord remains for ever. (1 Peter 1.24-25, cf Isaiah 40.6-8)

Those who are sceptical about the supernatural demand a sign, a stupendous display to convince them, but even this may not succeed.  Better still to receive a metaphorical tap on the shoulder from the Holy Spirit, to hear the voice of God in the stillness of solitude, and then say, like the awe-struck prophet, ‘Ah, Lord God; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child!’ (Jeremiah 1.6 JB).  Yes, a child of God, made in his image, a child destined to bathe in the light of his grace for all eternity and to sing with the angels.

St. Matthew

Feast Day, 21 September. Apostle and evangelist. Little is known about Matthew, when or where he was born or his eventual fate. His Gospel contains more references to the Old Testament than the others. This is done to illustrate from Scripture that Jesus Christ is the expected Messiah, not only fulfilling prophecy but completing in his own person and work the Law upon which Jews were enjoined to live out their lives. Matthew’s gospel was intended to convince the Jews of Christ’s divine credentials. Luke wrote his gospel on the same basis but largely for a Gentile audience.

The one certain fact is that Matthew was a tax collector for the occupying authorities, the Romans. As such he would have been anathematized and shunned by all right-thinking Jews, a collaborator who would have taken a percentage of the tax revenue for his own pocket. Picture the scene. Here was a man who readily accepted the call from Jesus to be one of his followers (Matthew 9.9). He came away from a lucrative occupation and embarked on a venture with an uncertain ending. Was it out of deep-seated guilt, self-loathing for being a traitor? His position would have made him a social pariah amongst his fellow countryman. This might have been too much to bear for someone who would otherwise have considered himself a devout Jew.

The Gospel of Matthew contains much to aid our understanding of Jesus Christ and his mission. The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 to 7, is a masterful exhortation from the lips of Jesus, setting out as it does the spiritual, moral and ethical framework in which Christian disciples must live, the dispositions of heart and mind necessary to sustain our walk with Christ. The Beatitudes (5.3-12) capture the new ethos in eight blessed evaluations of the Christian life.

For Matthew to be accepted as one of the inner circle, the twelve disciples, shows the radical nature of Jesus’ mission. Those who are in most need of God’s love and redemption are the first to be invited into the Kingdom. God’s grace is to be offered to sinners too. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.’ (Matthew 5.3). To respond to the call of Christ requires humility, repentance and a radical reorientation of one’s life. An encounter with Christ is transformative. It is also exclusive. ‘No one can be the slave of two masters….You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’ (Matthew 6.24).

As an official in the service of the Romans, Matthew may have been better educated than some of his confreres. Jesus’ words in Matthew 13 could well refer to Matthew: ‘….every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both old and new.’ (v.52). Matthew was a scribe who became a disciple and left us a wonderful account of his master’s teachings.

‘Tradition relates that Matthew preached in Judea after the ascension for a number of years (twelve or fifteen) and then went to foreign nations.’ (Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

Read: The Gospel of Matthew, making a particular study of the Sermon on the Mount. Look for various themes and narratives – for example, the birth and infancy of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, parables, miracles, discipleship, the Second Coming, the Last Judgement, Passion and Resurrection.

Prayer: Eternal God, you who have formed the universe and breathed life into mankind; call out from the Church men and women to serve you in the world. Equip them with the gifts of your Holy Spirit and entrust to them the great task of bringing new life to the deadness which surrounds us; that there may be a new creation in the hearts of all who turn to your Son in repentance and faith. It is in his name, O God, that we bring our prayer. Amen.  (Michael Saward)

St. Bartholomew (aka Nathanael)

The apostle, whose feast day is 24 August, appears in the list of disciples in the synoptic gospels and is identified as Nathanael in John’s gospel.  Bartholomew is a patronym, literally ‘bar Tolmai’, which means son of Tolmai.

Nathanael’s contribution to the gospel narrative is in John 1.43-51.  Philip draw’s Nathanael’s attention to Jesus, saying, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: he is Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’ Nathanael casts doubt on the worthiness of anything from that place.  Jesus soon dispels his scepticism with the declaration, ‘There is an Israelite worthy of the name, incapable of deceit.’ ‘How do you know me?’ replies Nathanael. ‘Before Philip came to call you I saw you under the fig tree,’ is Jesus’ response.

Nathanael is astonished at Christ’s supernatural knowledge (cf John 2.25).  On the basis of this experience he believes: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.’

“Christ responds by promising Nathanael that a day will come when his belief will be founded on something far more profound than Christ’s superhuman knowledge – the day when he will see ‘heaven laid open, and, above the Son of Man, the angels of God ascending and descending.’ This is John’s way of saying that a greater revelation will come to Nathanael when he realises that it is Jesus Christ through whom God has access to man on earth and through whom man has access to God in heaven.  John is here referring to the death and resurrection of Christ, the moment when this full revelation will be given.  Nathanael stands in vivid contrast to the unbelieving Jews who are later pictured as unwilling to open their eyes to the possibility that in the words and works of Jesus God is revealed (John 7-9).” (Kee and Young, The Living World of the New Testament, p.390).

Of Nathanael’s subsequent life we know very little.  He was one of a small group of disciples at the Sea of Tiberias to whom Jesus showed himself after his resurrection (John 21.2).  According to Eusebius, later accounts have his apostleship extending all the way to the Malabar coast of southern India, where he was martyred.

Nathanael “seems to have been one of those calm, retiring souls, whose whole sphere of existence lies not here, but ‘Where, beyond these voices, there is peace.’  It was a life of which the world sees nothing, because it was hid with Christ in God.” (Farrar, quoted in Unger’s Bible Dictionary)

The spiritual value of Nathanael’s conversion

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus highlights the importance of evangelism, whether directly by preaching and by word of mouth, or indirectly through the written word or on the internet.  But words alone will not suffice.  We need to be touched by Christ through the Spirit, such that will ignite a spark of recognition in us of our spiritual poverty and neediness.  None of us can claim to occupy the high moral ground.  We need to confront our failings and seek a remedy.  Our introduction to Jesus may not be as dramatic as that experienced by Nathanael, but the result will be the same, a transforming friendship maintained through constant reading and study of Holy Scripture, by prayer and by lifelong witness in the service of the Lord impelled by the Holy Spirit, a friendship built on love that exceeds all expectations and the bounds of human knowledge.

Read: John 1.43-51; Psalm 16.5-11; Acts 1.6-14

Prayer: We thank you, Lord Jesus, for your last words.  We treasure them for the promise of your Holy Spirit to give us power.  Help us now to obey your command to be witnesses to the ends of the earth, starting from where we are now.  In your name we pray.  Amen.  (Ian D. Bunting)