Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Angels Aren't Cuddly

A distinctly American form of supernatural libel.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, a maligned subspecies of trivialized order of beings, who are most often seen these days striking cloying poses in cheap ceramics and molded resin. 

The readings for today’s Mass remind us that Angels are not cuddly.

In the first reading from Exodus, we hear:
See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and heed his voice. Do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sin. My authority resides in him. 
In the gospel from Matthew we are told:
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.
An old-school angel as painted by a friend.

In contrast to smiling Precious Moments figurines and the drek of TV shows like Touched by an Angel, scripture and tradition give us a very different view of the angels.  In scripture, angels not only stand in the court of heaven singing the praises of God, they also watch over the lives of individuals, as we see in the passage above from Matthew; of groups, as in the vision of the angels of the seven churches in Revelation 2; and of whole nations, as we read in Daniel 10, where Michael and Gabriel contend with the Angel of Persia. There is more in Tobit, and even more in Enoch, if you want to go a bit further afield.  The stories agree that the angels are powerful creatures not to be trifled with.  This high view of angelic power put courting their favor at the center of esoteric thought from Babylon in the days of the exile on through to the work of the hermetic schools of the 19th century.

We seem to live in a contradiction at present.  On the one hand, popular culture is obsessed with angels.  On the other hand, we seem equally obsessed with domesticating and trivializing them, in turning these creatures who dueled it out to shape the fate of nations into tame little fairies who grant wishes and give us warm feelings.  One might conclude that even the good is threatening to us if it is powerful and unyielding to our own wills.  Perhaps the diminution of the angel is an index of the growth of our own narcissism.  

The propers for today’s Mass remind us of the older vision of angelic power:
Bless the Lord, all ye His angels: you that are mighty in strength, and execute His word, harkening to the voice of His orders.  
-Intriot of the Mass of the Holy Guardian Angels 
O God, Who dost in wonderful order dispose the ministries of angels and men, mercifully grant that our lives be fortified by those who continually stand in Thy presence and minister before Thee in heaven. Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.  Amen. 
 -Collect for the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels
Receive, O Lord, the gifts which we bring Thee in honour of Thy holy Angels: and mercifully grant, that by their unceasing watchfulness, we may be delivered from present dangers and may attain unto life everlasting.
-Secret of the Mass of the Holy Guardian Angels