Touched by an Angel
There are times in our lives when we find ourselves calling upon angels. I remember one such time in my own life quite vividly. I was a newly ordained priest in Baltimore just getting used to wearing a collar in public when I stopped by my mother’s house on the way home from church one afternoon.
I can’t remember why I stopped by; maybe she had a gift for our two-year-old son or perhaps I was feeling guilty about not having visited lately. But she had recently adopted a small, energetic, fluffy, white dog. Along with the dog, she inherited the dog’s name — something she definitely would not have chosen. I admit I’m not a big fan of small, energetic, fluffy, white dogs but I’d forgotten all about her recent acquisition and so when I opened the door the dog ran out. And suddenly there I was on a busy city street, wearing my clerical garb and yelling, “Angel! Angel!”
After a few strange looks, I realized just how bizarre this must have looked — a priest quite literally calling upon angels. So I quickly and unceremoniously scooped the thing up and brought it back to my mother.
I thought about this story recently because we tend to have a dysfunctional, or at least an uncertain, relationship with angels. We’re not quite sure what to do with them. Are they real? Are they kind of like friendly ghosts? Why are they so often depicted as chubby cherubs with wings and golden harps flying around the clouds?
In the popular imagination they’re meant to provide comfort, I guess. People like the idea of guardian angels providing protection through the valleys of life. There’s something about being “touched by an angel” that evokes a warm, fluffy embrace, like spiritual cotton candy. And there’s a whole cottage industry of bad angelic art coupled with saccharine sweet sayings fueled by religious superstition.
But where does this notion come from? How did this whole angel-industrial complex arise?
Well, it doesn’t come from the Bible. In Scripture, angels are many things but sweet, gentle, harmless creatures is not one of them. Angels are bold and daring; they bring messages of glad tidings and comfort but also messages that turn life as we know it upside down. They are warriors and comforters and deliverers of both good news and bad. So I want you to set aside your preconceived angel notions for a moment.
The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word for “messenger.” And angels are, above all, just that — messengers of God. They are all over Scripture doing all sorts of things and delivering all sorts of messages — none of which involve strumming harps. In the Hebrew Bible we hear about Jacob wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok River; we hear about angels in the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Daniel encouraging Daniel during times of struggle.
And in the Christian tradition it is the angel Gabriel who brings word to Mary that she would bear God’s son; and it is Michael who fights and destroys the forces of evil in the Book of Revelation. Angels tend to Jesus after his trial and temptation in the wilderness; an angel comforts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the hours before his crucifixion; an angel announces the Resurrection at the empty tomb on Easter morning.
These are not Hallmark moments! So where did this notion of chubby cherubs arise? In the ancient classical art of Greek and Roman mythology, flying babies represented nature spirits of some sort. Renaissance artists like Donatello and Raphael coopted these images into Christian iconography as a way to depict the transcendent balance between heaven and earth and the image stuck. For better or worse.