Friday, 30 September 2011

Angels for Michaelmas

A Brief Homily for Holy Communion
on the Feast of S. Michael & All Angels

Parish Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford

29th September, 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Readings: Genesis 28:10-17 & John 1:47-51

Tonight is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, a fond day for Oxford and Cambridge because it is the name our universities give to the Autumn terms; a fond day for me because it is traditionally the beginning of the season in which geese are eaten. This is not because geese are fondly associated with angels – if you have ever kept them, as I have, you’ll know they are decidedly NOT angelic, especially in the Spring – but because geese eat grass, and once the free grass stops growing in the autumn, you might as well eat them, rather than waste valuable corn feeding them.

Our Scriptures are full of angels, like our two readings tonight, but nowhere are we really told what they are, or even what they are for. In literature that never made it into the Bible there is an elaborate “angelology”, literally, the science of angels, which divides them into nine ranks. Some of you may know the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones”. It is by Athelstan Riley. I suppose Mr and Mrs Riley thought that with such a plain surname, he needed a colourful first name. My parents took a similar approach, but the other way round. The first verse speaks of

“Bright Seraphs, Cherubim and Thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluya!
Cry out Dominions, Princedoms, Powers,
Virtues, Archangels, Angels’ choirs,
Alleluya ….”

We used to sing this at school where we learnt nothing about Christianity, it being a C of E foundation, so it was a very long time before I realised that all these outlandish characters represent the nine ranks of traditional angelology, starting with the Seraphs, and ending with the common or garden angels who just sing a lot and hang around on ladders.

I don’t think it could be demanded of us that we believe in angels, although I’ve never heard of it doing anyone any harm. Some people believe we each have a Guardian Angel, who is the voice of conscience which stops us making fools of ourselves, or reminds us we are driving too fast.

But what are angels, what do they do? The name comes literally from a Greek word meaning “messenger”, and when we read about them in the Bible they are usually messengers of God. Sometimes quite literally, as when Gabriel told Mary the Good News of the Incarnation, more often, as in our readings tonight, pointing out the presence of God in places and in people where we might not expect it. In his dream, Jacob’s angels open his ears to the voice and presence of God, not only with Jacob, but in the land itself, the Promised Land. Jesus tells Nathanael that angels will show him a greater truth even than the one he has realised, that God himself is revealed in the Promised Son.

I knew a mystic once, a very old, and rather deaf, lady who would sometimes come and tell us her visions after the service. One time she said, “I know we say it every week, but I don’t think I ever listened before – “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” – and I looked up, and the church roof was gone [at this point, the vicar’s face went white, fearing a prophecy!], and there they all were, singing with us. Wasn’t that a lovely thing, dear?” And she trotted off to her lunch.

She was my angel that day. May you too be someone’s angel. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
September 2011


  1. Richard,

    Thanks for a lovely brief homily. I didn't realise that Angels had ranks, sounds like the Army :)

    Must do some reading on the stuff you mention about Angels, just in case my Guardian Angel thinks I'm being facetious. :)

  2. For everything there is a hierarchy! Literally, that means "rule by the priests", so it's a pretty grim word in its roots, but Jesus seems to have turned it adeptly on its head by teaching that the last shall by the first, and the first, last. Martin Israel wrote a book about angels which was a little barmy, but also useful. He knows his stuff.