|St. Michael the Archangel |
(c) Minhhang K. Huynh
When my parents chose my name, I don’t think they thought they were giving me the name of an archangel, the prince of angels in the Bible, a Jewish name, meaning “Who is like God.” I’m certain they just liked the name, as did countless others in 1961. In my high school class of 42, there were three Michaels.
On my Name Day, September 29th, I wonder about my archangelic heritage, and about the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” with whom we say we join in singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” at every Eucharist. I don’t have any trouble believing in angels, in non-human spiritual beings that exist beyond our sight, although “believing” might not be the right word (it probably is not a coincidence that belief in angels is not required by the Nicene Creed). Angels seem more in the realm of imagining and wondering, so that they, like God, never leave the realm of holy mystery.
I have some trouble in the notion of “guardian angels.” I mean, I can imagine them, and would even like to do so, but if they exist it is clear to me that some of them are not good at their job at all. I much prefer the notion of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd c. c.e.): "A procession of angels passes before each person, and the heralds go before them, saying, 'Make way for the image of God!'" (Deut. Rab., 4:4) I strain to hear them and wonder what the world would be like if everyone so strained and acknowledged the givenness of this divine favor.
It puzzles me that so many people talk as though a human being, when he or she dies, becomes an angel. I hear this a lot, especially when it is a child who has died. “God needed another angel.” Besides the fact that I imagine God already has all the angels that God needs, this takes away the profound truth at the heart of the Jewish and Christian traditions (at least) that our humanity is saved, and our humanity exists in the next life. Jesus did not become an angel when he ascended into heaven. He took his body, and ours, there. He prays for us there in his body. The body is not evil, to be cast off. It is part of our being made in the image of God.
In the end, I refuse to let go of a belief in angels because I refuse to let go of wonder, of the belief—no, expectation—that there is a larger life, that there is more to reality than can be seen with the eye or comprehended with the mind, a realm of being I get a glimpse at in prayer, in song, and in worship.
One of my favorite hymns takes us to this place of wonder:
Ye holy angels bright, who wait at God’s right hand,
Or through the realms of light fly at your Lord’s command,
Assist our song, for else the theme too high doth seem for mortal tongue.