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Wrestling with Angels

The Rev. Patrick Ward
September 26, 2019

On Monday the wider Anglican Communion marks the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  We’ve gotten a jump on this here at Trinity, marking the day at Wednesday Evensong yesterday and at noonday Eucharist earlier today.


Truth be told, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about some of the wider cultural energy around angels. The Littlest Angel, a made-for-TV film popular in my childhood, featured Johnny Whitaker (aka Jody from Family Affair) as a ten-year-old shepherd boy who falls to his death from a cliff, only to be received into a tedious sort of clock-punch heaven that is all about discipline and the quest to earn one’s wings. I think that even the people-pleasing pre-adolescent I was then couldn’t quite get behind the idea of heaven as the Cub Scouts writ large, the afterlife as simply a scramble after a fresh merit badge.


Scripture, of course, supports very little of the popular culture’s notions of angelic identity. Whatever angels may be, they are of a different order than humankind (Hebrews 2:7). That their typical greeting upon appearing to humans is “Fear not!” (Luke 2:10) hints, I think, that their appearance is neither conventionally beautiful nor comforting, but unsettling and even terrifying. “Angel” is itself derived from the Greek word for “messenger,” so in that sense they bear God’s word, reveal God’s glory, and perhaps are in common cause with the prophets: directing humans, often against our will, back into contexts of God’s care, community and collaboration.  Jesus implies to Nathaniel that angels are at work in the world continuously, “ascending and descending” (John 1:51).


My favorite angel story from scripture is in Genesis (32:22-32), in which Jacob wrestles with one. Eugene Delacroix painted this scene as a mural, now fading, in the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris in the late 1850’s. You can see it digitally here


I saw this myself one quiet weekday morning some years ago.  The angel seems to be attempting to draw Jacob into a kind of dance. The mortal is pushing back with all of his might. I loved so much what a nearby placard had to say that I’ll share it with you now: 


In Delacroix's interpretation, the angel serenely supports the disorderly struggle of man, who does not want to submit. It is a metaphor for our daily internal battle, where we should discover that God is not constraint but freedom and it is over ourselves that we must triumph.


Angelic wisdom there: God has built us to waltz. We insist on wrestling.


Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


See you in church!




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