Embraced by a fast-food angel

  • August 31, 2011

We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from God.

Hidden wisdom at the fast-food restaurant, reminding us that God speaks to us. Directly perhaps, but often indirectly, through messengers like herself. A consistent facet of this divine-human dialogue in both Old and New Testaments is that some of God’s messengers are spiritual beings whom we call “angels” (from the Greek aggelos, messenger). Church doctrine about angels may seem to us modern folk quaint or a little silly. It may seem unlikely, absurd even, the existence of intangible, ethereal beings. As Hamlet’s mother Gertrude said, when Hamlet was showing her the ghost standing before them: “all that is, I see.” Do we see all that is? In the creed, we claim God as creator of “all things visible and invisible,” i.e. material and immaterial. Empirical sciences are not afraid to acknowledge the existence of what can’t be seen, felt or even  properly understood. Why should people of faith be?

Our concept of angels may be shaped more by movies than by Christian theology. One of the most influential teachings on angels is the early-Church writing of Dionysius the Areopagite. He points out that scriptural images of angels are often somewhat ridiculous: beaked eagles, flaming wheels, multicoloured horses. This can be readily rejected. If Scripture used nobler images, as Hollywood sometimes does — golden figures dressed in robes of light — we might be tempted to think that’s what they really are. The earthy images clearly aren’t what angels are like; so we quickly recognize they’re only symbols of what can’t be expressed, helping open us to more than we know.

Dionysius tells us their real purpose is simply this, to be in communion with God. And to share what they’ve received from others: the life of God. This means they’re not individualistic, nor even pragmatic. They’re part of the harmony of all things, and turned towards human beings as they receive from each other the life of God. The culmination of their being is seen in Luke’s account of the angels visiting shepherds at night, filling the heavens with the good news that Christ God is born in Bethlehem.

The question, “Why doesn’t God speak to us?” was echoed back by the fast-food server as, “Why don’t we hear God?” Indeed, it’s puzzling that we so often seem not to, when we glimpse through Dionysius’ eyes how all creation, seen and unseen, tell God’s transcending His own transcendence by “drawing everything into His continual embrace.” The angels speak to our hearts. On the other hand, with our ears tuned to the pain, uncertainty, drudgery and injustice of daily life, it’s less surprising that we have trouble hearing His voice, even with all His angelic messengers carrying it to us personally. The angels themselves can close their ears (so to speak) to God’s voice, as did Lucifer, “Light-Bearer,” who leads humans away from God’s light.

The evil is that he contradicts his own being. (That’s the effect of sin.)  The purpose of angels is to look upon God, and in turn reveal Him to beings lower than themselves. Like us. The lower angels, like Gabriel, Michael and Raphael who are named in Scripture, are turned towards humans; that’s their role. Dionysius presents this harmony as the ordering of things — not a pyramid of power in which the lowest serve the highest. The greater serve the lesser, and this should be our way, too.

Church teaching about angels may be our way of wrestling with how God draws us into His “embrace”; a communion that goes far beyond ourselves and our senses. At least, it reminds us we’re not alone. We live in a universe that flows out of the Trinity and draws all creation, visible and invisible together, to know and love God in a never-ending embrace.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)