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The Communion of the Saints
‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’
Hebrews Ch: 12 v. 1.
The Christian Calendar is littered with feast days and celebrations of the lives of the saints. Sunday November 1st, is remembered throughout the Church as All Saint’s day. Every week Christians, when reciting together the Creed, affirm their belief in ‘the communion of saints’. What do they actually mean by this? According to the Oxford English Dictionary a saint is defined as being ‘a holy or canonized person regarded as having a place in heaven, or a very virtuous person’. The cult of the saints still surrounds us today. Our Churches, even those built in recent years, are often still named after a saint who lived in the dim and distant past. Surely though the cult of DASCST, the saints is more than a mere name worth remembering, something we talk about in our creed must mean something more than mere nostalgia.
The Cult of the Saints in the Middle Ages
Perhaps the highpoint of the saints in popular culture and consciousness was during the Middle Ages. Every medieval Church in England was covered with wallpaintings depicting scenes from the lives of the Saints, often in the form of vibrant, even garish to modern eyes, colours. Statues of the Saints filled every possible niche in the church interior. In many senses the communion of the saints served as an ‘invisible but intimate family’ to the medieval Christian. People baptized their children after the name of a saint, made frequent offerings to their shrines, went to visit sites associated with them as a pilgrimage, prayed to them, and turned to them for protection. The most widely read book in late Medieval Europe was not the Bible, but ‘The Golden Legend’ by Jacobus de Vorgine, which described the lives of the saints, relating each one to a day in the calendar year.
Medieval Christians viewed the saints in a very personal manner. There would often by several altars in side-chapels dedicated to an individual saint. These would form the spiritual focus for a group of parishioners who formed themselves into a brotherhood or a guild (both men and women would be members), which met together to help serve both the spiritual and the social needs of its members, rather like a mutual benefit society or a ‘rotary group’. Quite literally the saints were viewed as ‘spiritual neighbours’. – almost like an unseen friend. On a pastoral level the communion of the saints provided a real connection between the living and the departed. They help assuage feelings of grief and gave a sense of hope in a better life beyond the grave.
Early Protestant reformers criticized the strong attachment people had to the saints, and, in particular, attacked the practice of praying to them, reminding Christians that Jesus Christ was ‘our only mediator and advocate’. As with so many aspects of medieval life there was a wide divergence between popular customs and the more sophisticated teachings of theologians. The idea was that you would ask the saint to pray for you, not that you would pray that the Saint would answer your prayers from their own power.
The reformers, however, acknowledged that Christians who had joined the faithful departed were still to be honoured as examples of virtous and godly living. They were ordinary Christians who had lived a life of holiness and devotions which future generations should seek to imitate.
This is the key to understanding the communion of the saints. They are those who have gone before us and who are still concerned for our spiritual well-being. Saints were never believed to be able to help people simply because they were a Saint but rather because God worked through them. For medieval Christians in particular, they were often easier to associate with because they were entirely human. And, as such, had themselves needed to work at their relationship with God. They served the faithful more as a ‘chaplain in heaven’ than as a demi-god in their own right.
Praying with the Saints
Both the Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox Churches strongly support the belief in the intercessionary power and role of the saints in the Christian life. Citing Matthew Ch: 25 v. 21 the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims that:
‘The witnesses who have preceded us into the Kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into thejoy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things’, Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.’ 1
Whatever theological wing of the Church you come from, either evangelical or catholic, the presence of the saints in Heaven is an undeniable truth. Praying to the saints may not be a helpful practice for all Christians but Christian worship and devotion is meant to join with all the company of Heaven in singing God’s praises.
During the Reformation most of the saints were removed from the Church of England’s calendar. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer pruned the list of saints to only those who were mentioned in the Bible such as St. Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Stephen, St. Barabus and the Apostles. Although Cranmer rejected the Roman Catholic practice of praying to the saints as ‘a fond thing, vainly invented’, he still saw the saints as an important part of Christian devotion and spirituality.
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Many Anglicans still struggle with the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary because of the large role she plays in Roman Catholic theology. Arguments about the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into Heaven should not hijack the importance of Mary from orthodox Christian thought. She remains a central character in each of the four Gospels. Her unique role as Christs’ earthly mother and her dutiful obedience to God’s will single her out as the most important saint in the Christian calendar.
However Mary can be seen in a number of ways. Generally she is perceived as the meek and mild, submissive young girl, often depicted in blue and white as the handmaid of the Lord. There is however, from the very beginning of Christianity an alternate image which depicts her as the Queen of Heaven and as the Empress of the Angels. Mary can be seen as a very challenging and radical Christian which highlighs the central role by which femininity can play in what is, essentially, a male dominated religion.
Some attempts have been made by modern theologians and writers to tap into this. Mary can be a powerful icon and role model for the ministry of women. A Methodist writer, Pauline Warner makes much of biblical portrayals of Mary at the Annunciation, at Pentecost, and at the Foot of the Cross. In referring to a Roman Catholic icon she writes how it:
‘pictures Mary at the centre with the apostles looking towards her as the Holy Spirit descends. This is the beginning of the Church and there, in the middle of the male apostles, is this elderly woman. They look to her as one who can teach them because she knows what it is like to receive the Spirit and live a Spirit-filled life. She has been doing so for the past thirty four years or so since the Spirit overshadowed her. She really is the Mother of the Church, the one who can educate and nurture them through hre love and her experience.’ 2
Mary, like many of the Saints, can present modern day Christians with uncomfortable challenges to their lifestyle. In many senses she is the most radical of the biblical saints – an illegitimate teenage mother who became a cause for scandal in her own society. Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, contains a number of radical, almost revolutionary images, far removed from the image of one who was ‘meek and mild’. She extols how God:
‘has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty-handed.’
Questions for Study
- 1, Who in today’s world would you describe as a saint? Who in the recently departed would you describe as a saint? Why?
- 2, What qualities do you associate with sanctity? Name two or three you find particular difficulty relating to? Why?
- 3, Is there any particular saint that you feel especially inspired by?
- 4, What do you think of the reverence some Christians show to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Is she more important than any other ‘dead Christian?’ Do you think Mary brings a vital feminine dimension to Christianity which counters its male pre-occupations?
- 5, Do you think the Anglican Church has saints of its own? Should it develop a more developed theological system of sanctity?
- 6, Is there any point praying to a saint?
- 7, In order to become canonized two miracles need to be proven. Do you believe in miracles?
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 571.
2 P. Warner, Women’s Icons of Ministry p. 7.
The Christmas story is about light and darkness, both good and evil. There is a tendency to subvert the story and make it out to be just about joy and happiness. However, this becomes an exercise in denial and pretense. If we make it that, it doesn’t last. We can deny the darkness of this world, we can pretend that everything is sweetness and light, but denial and pretense collapse and reality comes crashing in – even perhaps before the Christmas celebrations are over.
Christmas is about light and darkness; it is about how the light shines in the darkness, and how the darkness can never overcome it. It is about good and evil; it recognises that there is much evil in the world. It is about how a strong and resilient kind of goodness was planted in this world, and is working to redeem it.
Matthew and Luke both have the same take home message – there is darkness, but it doesn’t overcome the light…
The Pursuit of Paradise
“No Eye has seen, nor hear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
1 Corinthians Ch:2. v.9.
One of the most important and influential works in the development of Christian theological thinking was written by St. Augustine of Hippo in c. 412. “The City of god” was written as a philosophical justification of the Christian Faith against the widespread pagan beliefs of the Roman world. Augustine sought to convince his readers that there was only one true God who was the source of all being and of all creation. This new God was all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving.
- In contrast to the numerous God’s and beliefs that inhabited the pagan Roman world this new belief may seem rather simplistic. Augustine’s vision was, however, much more complicated. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ outlined a Christian utopia which would inspire the existing world. This world was a reflection of God’s heavenly kingdom.. Augustine’s vision was, essentially derived from a spiritual world. The city he describes is the paradise of god’s kingdom, which is more beautiful, more perfect, more rich and intricate than the wildest human imagination could ever comprehend.
- When we think of God’s relationship with the world we often only approach the question from our own, human, perspectives. What place does god have in my life? How might I see him? How does he relate to me? what, in the seen world makes me aware of His presence?
- In the past, popular imagery of heaven tended to re-inforce an earthly utopia rather than a vision of other worldly reality. Heaven is seen as a beautiful garden, a shining, romantic, fairy tale city, a sensuous experience where all the greatest pleasures we have experienced in life are heightened. In all of these Heaven is equated with the most beautiful earthly experiences. This is an understandable viewpoint, aspects of the Creator are present in His seen creation. It may, however, be the wrong starting point. The Heavens are part of an Unseen Creation rather than the material world which surrounds us. Although the word in which we live is described in the Genesis creation accounts as ‘good’, it is still a fallen and corrupted world. The greatest part of creation is the Kingdom of Heaven, that is God’s throne, the earth is only a footstool.
If we focus only on the world which we can see then there will be little place in our lives for the mysterious, for the miraculous, for the angelic and the spiritual. Modern rational thought struggles to accept a belief in the invisible. Too often the unknown is dismissed as superstitious speculation. There are more ways of understanding creation than a through pure scientific proof or rational thought. This is a hard and challenging world view for a sceptical twenty first century thinker to grasp, even for those within the worshipping and devotional life of the modern Church rational thought has brought spiritual casualties. Miraculous events are greeted with scepticism, the place of the saints are overlooked, the ministry of the angels is dismissed as spiritual romanticism. The world of heaven is simplified and stripped of its wonder.
The world in which we live is a unique dwelling place, full of wonder and beauty which even the advances of modern science has not fully unravelled. The depths and complexities of the human mind, the human emotions and even the human body still lie far beyond our understanding. The natural world continues to surprise us with each new scientific discovery. Why then do we have such difficulty with the term ‘miraculous’?
- In the ‘City of God’ Augustine writes that ‘It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles and the minor marvels … and he has included them all in that unique wonder, that miracle of miracles, the world itself.’1
Imagining What Heaven might be like is probably the greatest escapism from the material world which we can experience. If our material world is such a beautiful, rich and complicated place then how much more must heaven be? If our busy world is populated by so many species then how much more must the Heavens be inhabited by a wonderful array of spiritual beings, from the highest seraphims and cherubim’s to the lowest of the angels, not to mention the communion of the saints and the company of the blessed?
Medieval writers tended to think of heaven as a series of levels or hierarchies with God at the apex. Artists depicted God dwelling in the heights of Heaven with up to nine orders of angels descending beneath him, with the prophets, the martyrs and the saints being intermingled with the lower echelons of the angelic host. (St. Jerome, an early Christian scholar) who enjoyed a far-reaching influence claimed there were only seven orders of angels, from which the phrase ‘being in seventh heaven’ comes from – the greatest pleasures of earthly existence allowing us to fleetingly touch the lowest parts of the heavenly realms.) Much of this we will return to in the third chapter. It would seem clear, from a medieval perspective, that Heaven is not an egalitarian society and yet questions of rank and place are not important. These are earthly concerns which have no place in the Unseen World. Christ frequently reminded his disciples how ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’ in the kingdom of Heaven.
Images of Heaven
Medieval Images of Paradise
Medieval notions of heaven were entirely centred around the presence of God. Two particular images developed in the medieval period. One saw heaven as a paradise garden like the garden of Eden in which there would be no toil or sweat being spent to make the land produce food, but instead a fragrant, sweet-smelling garden in which the sun always shone. Other similar images described heaven as ‘a beautiful grove with singing birds’, or the pleasure garden of a monastery. Heaven, in these images, was essentially a rural place.
The second image was completely different. Heaven was portrayed as a city, as the New Jerusalem, similar to that described in the Book of Revelations. The Heavenly metropolis shimmered against the skyline, was built from the richest of materials – diamonds, jaspers, emeralds and cordelions. Above all else, however, the city was a place that was devoted to the praise and worship of God. Its citizens were bathed in a spectacular supernatural light from God whilst they sang his praises and worshipped in adoration before him.
Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Social Heaven
- Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swdish scientist and mystical philosopher who travelled extensively in England and was deeply influenced by Henry Moore, Isaac Newton and other great intellectuals and scientists of his day. Swedenborg’s interests were many and varied, extending from mathematical problems, to economic affairs and political issues. His main interest, however, was, in what life in heaven would be like.
Swedenborg was a very prolific writer. His greatest work was the eight-volume ‘Arcana Coelistia’, which was published in 1756. He was a radical thinker who, despite his deep Christian devotion rejected the doctrine of the Atonement and developed an alternative understanding of the Christian faith which led to the founding of a new church, the Swedenborgians, who, in 1897, adopted the name of ‘The General Church of the New Jerusalem’. They still exist today and claim about 65,000 members throughout the world.
Although Swedenborg’s doctrinal views sit ill at ease with mainstream Christianity the imagery he used to describe the afterlife has had a massive impact upon modern perceptions of the heavenly realms. Swedenborg was the first visionary to see Heaven as a continuing, natural fulfilment of earthly life and desires. He portrayed Heaven as a state in which humanity continues his spiritual journey upwards towards God.
Swedenborg claimed that there were three Heavens which were called, in descending order; The Celestial, The Spiritual and The Natural. The soul of man enters one of these three Heavens and cannot ever move between them. Each Heaven has an interior and an exterior. As the soul spiritually grows so it moves further and further into the interior of the Heaven to which he has already been sent and, through that becomes purer and closer to God.
- Despite this three-fold dibision swedenborg portrays Heaven as still being united in one state. We are simply unable to understand how such a harmonious union can work – even the angels are unable to understand this. Swedenborg sees divine worship in Heaven as being ‘not unlike that on earth’, except the priests and preachers are angels who are ‘continually perfect in wisdom and love’, but worship in Heaven lies more in a ‘life of love, charity and faith’. In its portals.
Swedenborg’s main contribution to the growth of heavenly imagery was to portray heaven as a society in which social intercourse and human life continued in a different state. Nevertheless he saw the joys of Heaven as essentially spiritual joys, not carnal ones. The joy which we feel on earth from all that is good in our human spirit will be intensified and transformed into a continual state, bathed in that experience.
Heaven, for Swedenborg, was a community in which love and charity between individuals and God was joined together. As an example of this Swedenborg held that earthly marriages continued in Heaven (despite Jesus’ teaching on the subject). Our experience of marriage, however, was vastly different. There was to be no domination or dischord in such marriages, those that lived a strained marital life on earth were transformed into ‘marriages made in heaven’.
Similarly, in respect to sexuality, Swedenborg claimed that there were no carnal pleasures on earth as in heaven but that such unions were still kep parts of human happiness. Instead of the earthly sexual act of lovemaking between husband and wife there will be a ‘union of minds’ in heaven which will produce a similar, but infinitely greater source of pleasure and joy, without any feelings of guilt or shame. Marital life and its pleasures in Heaven will be innocent and as erotic as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Nineteenth Century Visions of Heaven
- Swedenborg’s vision influenced most of the great writers and artists of the nineteenth century. The poet, William Blake, was particularly influenced by him and, for a time, joined Swedenborg’s new found Church. Most of Blake’s drawings and poetry were inspired by Swedenborg’s writings. The art and writings of Pre-Raphaelites was heavily influenced by his developing thought. The nature of human love in the Heavens became increasingly prominent as the subject matter of 19th century art and literature. Most writers held that that love in Heaven only existed between a husband and wife, others with a more jaundiced experience of earthly marriage viewed it as a heavenly consummation of the true love which had either touched them in the past and had now disappeared or, a true love, which would not be met with until the future.
- An increasing emphasis was placed on the eroticism of this love, yet seeing such activity in Heaven as pure and moral. A human sexuality between two faithful partners which was chaste would occupy a key part of heavenly existence. One of the most famous Anglican clergyman of mid-Victorian England, Charles Kingsley, the author of ‘The Water Babies’ and ‘Westward Ho!’, as well as serving as Chaplain to Queen Victoria, was a strong advocate of the place of a pure sexuality in the Heavenly sphere. He once wrote in a love letter to his wife that ‘…those thrilling writhings are but dim shadows of a union which shall be perfect.’
Two Resurrections. Two Judgements?
- When reciting the words of the Creed, Christians declare their belief in the Resurrection of the Dead. What do we actually mean by this? On one level there is a debate between liberal postmodernists who hold that the resurrection is spiritual rather than physical and traditionalists who hold that it is physical as well as spiritual.
Quite apart from this, however, traditional Christian teaching maintains that there are, in fact, two resurrections. The first take place at the moment of our death, when the soul leaves the body, the second takes place at the Last Judgement of All Creation – the end of time as we know it. St. Paul talks about the Last Judgement in his letter to the Romans, when he writes:
- ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subject to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ 2
Christ himself describes, with frightening consequences the nature of the Last Judgement in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25. 31-46).
- When we die, according to traditional Christian belief, the souls of the faithful, who have believed in God and sought to do his will on earth are promised the Kingdom of Heaven. God, who is merciful, loving and just wishes for all of creation to be saved, but not at the expense of denying humanity’s freewill. If this was the case God could hardly be just by rescinding the power of freewill, the power to choose your own fate. We have a choice to deny God’s existence and God is bound to respect our decision. This must surely render the prospect of paradise to be an impossible one for the non-believer. At the moment of our death judgement depends on how much we have loved God and how we have acted out that love. The mystical writer, St. John of the Cross in the sixteenth century once wrote, ‘At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.’ 3 For those who remain penitent and contrite, and who have lived a pure and holy life until their final earthly day, Roman Catholic theology claims that they enter immediately into the Beatific vision, that is they are taken straight into the bosom of God and enjoy his presence and please face to face.
Most of us would not feel confident at passing such a test. The catholic doctrine of purgatory in which our many sins and failings are cleansed or purged, in which sins can still be forgiven beyond the grave, is intended as a comfort to those who have faith in God but who have not loved him as well as they might but, who, having turned away, remain desirous to return. Purgatory, however, is not a place in which salvation for the non-believer can be found. The first judgement has already taken place. Purgatory is the waiting room or ante-chamber of heaven, not a second chance to accept God’s existence.
- In 19th century Protestant theology, which rejected the Catholic understanding of purgatory a belief still persisted of there being an intermediate state between heaven and hell and this belief has become increasingly widespread in modern times. Certain Eastern Orthodox beliefs also hold that there are a series of embodied states of life beyond death, there are several heavens which we might pass through which allow a gradual progression towards the beatific vision. Whichever belief is held to, however, a response to belief in God remains essential. Our life span is too brief to be allowed to pass away with a neglect of our faith. An anonymous medieval English poem illustrates this sense of urgency which both Catholics and Protestants feel alike:
‘Lord, you called to me,
And I gave no reply
But slowly, sleepily;
‘Wait a while yet! Wait a little!’
But ‘yet’ and ‘yet’ goes on and on,
- And ‘wait a little’ grows too long. 4
1 The City of God p. 985.
2 Romans 8. 19-22
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church p. 233.
4 Medieval English verse p. 72
The Presence of the Angels
‘If the lowest angel could be reproduced or born in the soul, the whole world would be as nothing in comparison, for from the single spark of an angel there springs all that is green, leafy and bright in this world.’
Meister Eckhardt, Mystic and Theologian (c. 1260-1327)
Heaven and Earth
In the previous two sessions we have looked at ways in which Heaven and Hell have been perceived by succeeding generations. For Christians, the pursuit of paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven is the desired end of our earthly existence. However, during the course of our mortal lives Christians are called to work towards a better world to live in, which more closely reflects the love of God. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:
‘…when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray; “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”’1
This is the most frequently repeated prayer in the history of Christian worship, petitioning for the building up of the Kingdom of heaven, here, on earth. Earthly utopias are, however, impossible ideals to create. Sir Thomas Moore clearly exposed the folly of this endeavour in his book ‘Utopia’ in the early sixteenth century. Nevertheless, although the Heavens may seem far removed from the realities of our ordinary lives, heaven and earth are not entirely divorced from each other. The kingdom of Heaven and its citizens touch our lives on earth in a myriad of different ways. The ministry of the angels act between heaven and earth, seeking to draw humanity into a closer relationship, and understanding with its Creator.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that the Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition.’ The catechism goes on to observe that ‘… the whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of the angels … from its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.’ 2
Protestant theologians have tended to downplay the importance of angels in the Christian life yet they agree on their unequivocal importance in the Scriptures. Angels appear all over the Bible in countless guises and employed in a wide variety of tasks. Sometimes they appear as messengers, as protectors, as judges, as guardians, as comforters or as the herald of death. In the Gospols they frequently appear to Christ, announcing his birth, ministering to him in the Wilderness, rolling away the stone from the tomb and bring the first witnesses to the Resurrection. In the book of Acts they continue their activity in the life of the Church, often in a literal, seemingly prescient manner – liberating Paul from prison and guiding the Apostles during their missionary expeditions. There are, in fact, 117 references to Angels in the Old Testament and 188 references in the New Testament. Sometimes they are only mentioned fleetingly and, on occasions, the reference may be a metaphorical or literary device, but in many cases a clear, literal understanding is implied.
A belief in angels is common to most world religions. It is one of the few doctrinal beliefs which is common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as to a range of indigenous Oriental religions. Angels also appear in ancient pagan beliefs from Roman and Greek mythologies. In the modern world they are widely revered in New Age or Holistic Spirituality circles and continue to hold a fascination in modern popular culture, from Hollywood films to paperback bestsellers. A Google search on the internet in November 2005 revealed more than 43,900,000 sites associated with Angels, 9,960,000 sites associated with Archangels and 9,960,000 sites associated with Christian Angels.
A skeptical modern mind might dismiss the angelic world as part of religious romanticism. They have become part of a supernatural, spiritual world which is often perceived as a sentimental cliché. Faith in a God may still be accepted by many, but a belief in angels often vanishes from the world vision of even very devout Christians. The ‘disneyification’ of Angels on greeting cards and popular art has hardly helped a credible belief in them to continue. This is a tragic loss for our spiritual growth. The angels are supposed to radiate the Glory of God throughout all his Creation. The brilliant, pre-raphaelite nineteenth century artist, Edward Burne-Jones once wrote to Oscar Wilde that ‘…the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint; their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul.’ 3
Time and time again angels appear in the Bible as a clear and dramatic manifestation of the Heavenly realms touching the lives of people on earth. However, since the publication, in 1972, of John V. Taylor’s best-selling book; ‘The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission’ many English Christians have given greater recognition to the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time the ministry of the Angels has become increasingly overlooked. Perhaps some Christians attribute their spiritual nourishment to a direct experience of the Holy Spirit, rather than being touched and guided by an Angel. We will return to this in Session Five. The Holy Spirit and the Angels are, however, not incompatible, even if may sometimes appear that the work of the Holy Spirit has rendered the Angels redundant.
Worshipping God with the Heavenly Host
In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, the prophet, has a vision of God as ‘the ancient of days’ seated in the Heavenly Court. Daniel describes how ‘Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.’ 4 The number of angels was, by implication, seemingly infinite, often described as ‘the angelic or heavenly host’.
Traditionally the Christian Church has held that there are nine orders of Angels descending from the heights of Heaven to touch the fringes of the earth. In descending order, they are normally ranked as: The Seraphim, The Cherubim, The Thrones, The Dominions, The Virtues, The Powers, The Principalities, The Archangels and The angels. These nine are normally grouped into three choirs, each rank of the Angels having a different function, yet all sharing in a united purpose, to praise God and to perform his will. Only the last two ranks, the Archangels and the Angels are held to have a direct mission to humanity. Some early theologians have developed a different grouping of the Angels, counting only seven ranks. This has arisen over a divergence in the names of the Middle ranks. The Thrones, Dominions and Virtues are sometimes merged into one.
The higher echelons of the Heavenly Host principally serve to worship and wait upon God, face to face. The proper preface for the Eucharistic Prayer on St. Michaek’s Dat provides a brief summary of how our worship may join with them;
‘Through Him the archangels sing your praise, the angels fulfill your commands, the cherubim and seraphim continually proclaim your holiness, the whole company of Heaven glorifies your name and rejoices to do your will.’
Christian worship is believed to join with the silent music of the angels in the praise of God. By definition ‘worship’ can also mean ‘to be full of adoration’, To adore is to be full in love, to be full in love implies a desire to be joined together as one. The unceasing worship of the Angels seeks to create a union with earth, to draw us into God’s presence as the source of all being.
Although the term ‘angels’ appears only once in the Eucharistic Prayers, most of the liturgy is taken from passages in the Scriptures which describe the worship of the angelic host. The Kyrie Eleison, Gloria in Excelsis, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei are all derived from biblical references to the Angels. The Gloria, in particular, is sometimes described as ‘the Angelic Hymn’.
The Inspiration of the Angels
As well as their role in enriching the worshipping life of the Church the angels play an important part in teaching and revealing to the Christian community a closer understanding of God. The angels are often thought of as ‘messengers’ but their teaching ministry is far more than that of a mere emissary. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most influential theologian during the Middle Ages, described the highest orders of angels as ‘intelligences’. Early Christian art often depicted them simply as faces continually looking upon God. They didn’t have bodies, and certainly wings were a much later accretion.
The angels were often also associated with the creation of light. The words of the Creed talk of a belief in God from God, Light from Light. Medieval belief held that God illuminated the hearts and minds of humanity through his Holy Angels. Illuminated medieval Bibles frequently took up this metaphor. Some artists in the later medieval period painted angels with lower halves which resembled pillars of fire. 5
The popular colloquial phrase ‘a flash of inspiration’ is often used to describe a moment when something which has been either troubling or confusing us becomes much clearer. Perhaps this may sometimes be seen as a way in which the teaching ministry of the Angels is at work. It may also be in out intuitive response to a situation when it is not clear why are instincts have selected a particular approach in response. Another way in which the teaching ministry of the angels may be at work in the human mind is through the power of the imagination to inspire us to work for a better world. There are, no doubt, numerous subtle and, perhaps, hidden ways, in which Angels reveal the power of God at work in our lives.
The English twelfth century historian and biographer, Eadmer, who wrote the life of St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drew heavily on Anselm’s reliance on his Guardian Angel during the closing years of his life. In one of his later texts he described how when:
‘…being far from my native soil and from my companions and friends, I often sat and turned over in my mind many things, some of them transitory and temporal, and some – but more rarely – eternal. At times, the enormity of my sins overcame me, and I sighed with confusion and wonder at the long-suffering patience and goodness of God. I seemed to see Him deputing some good Guardian to defend me from the attacks of evil demons … meditating often about this, I greatly desired to know the name of my Guardian, so that when possible I could honour him with some act of devotion. One night I fell asleep and saw someone standing by me saying that my prayer was heard and that I might know without doubt that the name I desired to know was Gabriel.’ 6
A belief in Guardian Angels remains widespread amongst Roman Catholics to this day. It also appears to be a popular and comforting belief for many who struggle to accept the doctrinal teachings of institutional Christianity. How though do Guardian Angels take care of their charges? On one level it may be seem as a literal protection from harm, a mystical way in which one may understand good fortune or a lucky escape from a threatening situation, but the role of Guardian Angels may also be viewed in a different manner. St. Thomas Aquinas argued that:
‘Men can avoid evil to some degree through free will, but not completely, for their affection for the good is weakened by the many passions of the soul. Similarly also, universal knowledge of the natural law which naturally belongs to men to some degree directs men to what is good, but not completely, for men fall down in many ways in applying the universal principles of the natural law to particular acts. So it is written, “The thoughts of mortal men are fearful and their plans uncertain” [Wisdom CH: 9 v. 14] Thus it is necessary for men to be guarded by angels. … God guards men in that he is their universal teacher, and his instructions come to them through the angels … Man in the present condition of his life is, so to speak, on a road along which he must make his way to his homeland. On this road lurk many dangers, both internal and external. This, as the Psalm puts it ‘On this road on which I walked they set up an ambush for me.’ [Psalm 42 v.4.] So, as guides are given to men walking along an unsafe road, guardian angels are also given to each man while he is a wayfarer in this life.’ 7
Aquinas uses the phrase ‘the promptings of the good angels, which take place invisibly when they enlighten men to do what is right.’ The angels then act as an external reference on our conscience. The Guardian Angel, for Aquinas, pricks our consciences into a more holistic understanding of what is the good path to follow. In this regard Aquinas saw a role of the Guardian Angels was to strengthen within us, a sense of faith in a providential and all-loving God.
‘There are two things needed for faith. First, a disposition of the mind that leads it obey the will’s orientation to the divine truth. For the mind does not assent to the truths of the mysteries of faith by being rationally convinced, but by being impelled to assent by the will. From this point of view faith comes from God alone.
The second condition for faith is that the objects of faith are made known to the believer. This is done by human agency, for according to St. Paul, faith comes by hearing, yet primarily by the Angels through whom the divine mysteries are revealed to us. Thus angels play some part in the enlightenment that faith brings. In addition, we receive enlightenment from the angels not only about what we are to believe, but also with respect to how we ought to behave.’ 8
Questions for Study
- 1, Do you believe in Angels? How would you describe them? If not, why do you find it difficult to believe in them?
- 2, Have you ever had any experience of an angel? Can you describe this?
- 3, Do you believe in Guardian Angels? Have you ever felt’ rescued’ from a very difficult situation or ‘protected’ from harm? Can a true Christian believe in pure luck without any reference to divine intervention?
- 4, Have you ever felt ‘strengthened’ by an invisible presence during a moment of temptation or weakness to do something morally wrong? Do you think Angels play a role in pricking your conscience or in strengthening your faith?
- 5, Why do you think a belief in Angels has become so popular today, albeit outside mainstream Churches? Is it simply a result of the Holistic Spirituality movement?
- 6, Why do you think a belief in Angels is so widespread in world religions?
- 7, Have you ever entertained an Angel and been unaware of its true nature?
1 Matt. Ch: 6. v. 7-10.
2 Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church pp. 76-78.
3 Quoted in B. Graham, Angels: God’s Secret Agents pp. ix-x.
4 Daniel Ch: 7 vv. 9-10.
5 G. duchet_Suchaux and M. Pastoureau (eds.,) The Bible and the Saints (Paris, 1994) p. 30.
6 R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in Landscape (Cambridge, 1990) p. 432.
7 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (London, 1970) Vol: 15, ‘The World Order’ p. 51 and 59.
8 Ibid., p. 21.
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What is the church? The church exists on two levels: at one level it is a human organisation; at another level it is what the prayer book calls the ‘blessed company of all faithful people’ – the mystical body of Christ which is ‘the blessed company of all faithful people’.
So there are two sides to the church – the spiritual side and the human side. In much the same way, a piece of needlework has two sides – the working side where you can see the rough ends, and the picture on the other side, which is the point of it all. The working side is necessary but it’s not what it’s all about.
The human organisation side of the church is not what it’s all about, (even though it’s essential), but it has a tendency to take over. The church needs constant renewal: it needs to remember that it is above all a spiritual community.
The church is subject to a number of temptations: power easily corrupts the church; ‘extremist’ purity, where we fail to acknowledge our own impurity; pride, and particularly spiritual pride, and a tendency to get pleased with itself – pride here is ultimately self-defeating.
The church needs to move beyond these temptations: it must be the mystical body of Christ…
We take the opportunity once a year to think about the reformation, particularly in and around this church, a time when new translations and scholarship became available, and people began to blow the dust off their New Testaments and find the Word illuminating all. Last year we talked about Latimer; this year we will focus on Cranmer.
Cranmer was at Jesus College and may have preached from the pulpilt of St Edwards. He was a generous and an accommodating man.
With respect to his being accommodating: he had both the strengths and the weaknesses that go with that word. An accommodating person makes room in his mind for multiple points of view in a time of real foment and controversy. Cranmer didn’t rush to a single point of view. He was also accommodating in the literal sense, particularly to wayfarers from the continent, literally providing house-room for them. His accommodating mind made him a very good teacher and scholar, and was part of the genius of his work on the liturgy – if you want a book called `Common Prayer’ then it must be rich and large enough to accommodate and make room for all the many different thoughts and feelings that a congregation may be having when using that liturgy. Cranmer also accommodated both the new and the old – and included in his book of Common Prayer the traditional and the novel…
An introduction to Christian mindfulness for those who wish to explore silent prayer. It is easier to learn to meditate in the company of others, and we invite you to come and join us. All meditation involves learning to still the chatter of the mind, but Christian mediation has a particular emphasis on the positive experience of the Spirit of God at a deeper level than is normally possible.
The session begins with an introduction, that both offers a specific theme for meditation and, over the weeks, provides basic guidance in the technique of meditation. Then we go into silence by lighting a candle, burning incense, and singing a chant. The silence lasts about 20 minutes; then there is time in which people can share with the group any issues they wish. The session ends with brief prayers.
There is also a Meditative Eucharist at 5.00 pm on Sundays.
Three things come together at this time of year. First, there is the Christian celebration of the coming of the Light of the World into the world through the birth of Jesus. Second, at least in the Northern hemisphere, there is the passing of the shortest day and the winter solstice, and a movement towards greater light and warmth in the natural world. Third, in human society, there is a turning point in the Calendar, and the beginning of the New Year, 2006. All of these, in their different ways speak to us of hope, and each of the three can reinforce the message of the others as we try to try to take more deeply to heart God’s eternal message to humanity of hope, growth, renewal, opportunity and transformation. It is a message that the Church needs to absorb ever more deeply before it can witness to that message in the world. Fraser Watts
Each century sees progression in Christian understanding. There were several developments in the 20th century; for example, there was a deeper understanding of the suffering of God, and His identification with our own suffering. Another development of the 20th century concerned the role of doubt, and its contribution to faith.
We are complex people: none of us are entirely believers, or entirely doubters. Most of us are a mixture of the two. The faith of a person who has also known doubt is stronger than that of someone to whom doubts have never occurred. Doubting Thomas journeyed through doubt to faith, and finally to the point where he could say in a truly heart-felt way ‘smy Lord and my God’.
So to those who have doubts: doubt is alright; doubt is part of the journey to faith.
How can doubt benefit faith? Relationships are often strengthened through testing times. So it is with doubt.
Doubt at least shows you are taking things seriously; you are thinking them through. Further, it’s not just what we believe, but how we believe that is important. This is the contrast between a merely intellectual faith, and a faith that is heart-felt. Doubt gives us the time to explore things thoroughly and to make them our own…
This sermon is a word in favour of weakness. Weakness and strength are not what they seem; God turns them upside down. What seems weak can be surprisingly strong, and what seems to be strong can be just disguising weakness. It is a fundamental message of the New Testament; appearances can be deceptive; what is going on on the surface is often different from what is going on deep down.
God is often calling us to be weak because there is a hidden strength in weakness. There are hints of this in the Old Testament, for example, the suffering servant of Isaiah, by whose wounds we are healed. In the New Testament Christ takes the form of a servant – to become weak, to become one of us. Jesus Himself says the servant is not greater than his master.
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Jesus became weak for our sakes: we are called to become weak too. But we can’t really give up strength unless we are first strong.
Paul talks a good deal about weakness – how he became weak to bring the weak to Christ.
For those who feel weak, the Lord can give you strength: ‘God is our hope and strength’. In the Old Testament, God was the strength of Samson. The key phrase in Samson’s story is ‘he did not realise that the Lord had departed from him’; it was when the mark of Samson’s dedication to God left him (his uncut hair), that he lost his strength.
There are many occassions in the bible when the weak find strength in God…