Saturday, 26 January 2013

St Paul and angels: the conversion of St Paul

Fra Angelico - conversion of St. Paul
Paul's references to angels shows that they have a central role in understanding what is for Teilhard the cosmic dimension of the Heart of Christ.  Yesterday, when the Church remembered the conversion of St. Paul, prompts us to reflect once again on the presence of the angels in the icon.  They do make their appearance in some images of the Sacred Heart, but they are, for the most part, chubby little cherubs - putti- rather than the kind of angels as represented in the icon.  Perhaps there was a good reason why we find Paul frequent references to angels in his writings: Acts record that he 'belonged to and served an angel.  On board the ship during his voyage to Rome it says that :

 .. after long abstinence from food, .. Paul stood in the midst of them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me.  However, we must run aground on a certain island.”( Acts, 27: 21-26)

Thus for Paul angels were no mere metaphor.  Jesus is the son of the Lord of Hosts. His references to angels is, therefore, to remind us that Christ as the Son of the Lord of Hosts has command of all creation: the angelic and material worlds.   The mention of angels in the gospels  serves to illustrate the extent to which God was humbling Himself.  The Lord of Hosts chooses to allow his Son  to suffer  at the hands of men.  On his arrest, for example, Jesus says to his disciples:

"'Put your sword back in its place,'" ...'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:52-54).

It is an angel, not a human who comforts him in his agony in the garden. (Luke, 22; 43)

Angels feature prominently in the  resurrection accounts in all four Gospels. An angel rolled back the stone and told the women that Jesus was risen (Matthew 28:2-5). The women saw angels inside the tomb (Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4, 23; John 20:11).  And, on His return, angels will come with him and will gather the elect for salvation and evildoers for destruction (Matthew 13:39-49; 24:31).

Thus, by including angels in an image of the Sacred Heart the icon is serving to connect the devotion with its scriptural or theological context.  In this regard it is very much in keeping with the re-instatement  of the Lord of the Hosts in the new translation of the Mass.  Out goes, 'Lord of power and might', and back comes ' Lord God of Hosts' in the Sanctus.  The presence of the angels serves to remind us of the fact that the Sacred Heart - as the symbol of God as Love - is the very centre and driving power  and energy which fills all creation: the Lord of Hosts is the God of the Universe.  And the wounded and loving heart of Christ is at its very centre.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Sacred Heart and the angelic world

St. Paul and angels are not generally associated with the Sacred Heart. And yet, our icon of the heart of Jesus  is noticeable for being an image in which both are much in evidence. Paul's writings are full of references  ( around 50 on my count) to the heart as a spiritual centre.  So many come to mind. Ephesians 3:17-19, in particular -  which refers to Christ dwelling in our heart as enabling us to become more rooted and grounded in love.  The icon is in so many respects drawing on Paul – especially in respect of angels-  as well as the spirituality of the heart.  As I reflect on the icon a passage from Colossians (1:15-17) often comes to mind.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The icon reminds us to contemplate these words, how we see Christ before and in all things and as the image of the invisible God and in whom dwells the fullness of God’s love.   The Sacred Heart represents the fullness of God – as Love.   All things were created for this love.  In the icon we see all things – including (invisible) representatives of the angelic host.  Our God is the ‘God of Hosts’, the God of ‘Sabaoth’- as we say in the Sanctus in Mass, ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’  and as the Preface states:

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your Glory.. 

In this icon, therefore the Sacred Heart –as denoting  ‘the entire mystery of Christ, the totality of his being, and his person considered in its most intimate essential: Son of God, uncreated wisdom; infinite charity, principal of the salvation and sanctification of mankind’ – is (rightly) placed in the very centre of our hymn of praise.  In our prayer we join with the hosts in praising God as the Love which holds all creation – invisible and visible – together and pulls it forward towards its completion in unity with its creator.   So, as we see the Sacred Heart glowing in the centre we become aware of the host we are joining.  We see an Angel (top right) measuring out the new creation, we see the Archangels (Gabriel and Michael)  (top centre) and the Angels who are closest to the Throne of Christ Omega: the Seraphim (top left) and the Cherubim  together with the ‘Thrones’ or ‘Ophanim’ the wheels who transport the Throne of God who move when the Cherubim move.

In the icon we see the Sacred Heart as God’s Love enthroned in majesty and glory at the end of time.  Christ is seated on the throne of God at the very centre of all creation – drawing all things to His heart. Hence, we see the ‘thrones’ referred to in St Paul and surrounded and supported by the angels of the throne of God: the Seraphim (top left) and the Cherubim and Ophanim underneath the throne.  The artist here has used the convention of showing the Cherubim and Ophanim as one entity: the Cherubim have wings and the Ophanim are the wheels (with many eyes) of the chariot which transports the throne of God. (  "When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures [the Cherubim] was in the wheels." Ezekiel 10:17 )

We tend nowadays to neglect the role of angels in our Catholic faith.  However, the more we reflect upon the Sacred Heart, the more do they become a vital aspect of the devotion.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

331 Christ is the centre of the angelic world. They are his angels.. They belong to him .. because he has made them messengers of his saving plan.

Thus the heart of the Saviour is the centre of the angelic world.  To be devoted to the Sacred Heart is thus to seek to make this very centre the centre of ones life in this human world.  And to become thereby ‘messengers of his saving plan’.  Angels are what they do – ‘angel’ is their job title - , not what they are!  It is rather like being a baker  as your job, but being a member of the species homo sapiens is what you are – your nature. As the Catechism observes:

329 St. Augustine says: "'Angel' is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is 'spirit'; if you seek the name of their office, it is 'angel': from what they are, 'spirit', from what they do, 'angel.'" With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they "always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven" they are the "mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word.

The Church describes them as a ‘truth of faith’ which is confirmed by scripture and the tradition of the Church.

332 Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise; protected Lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham's hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the People of God; announced births and callings; and assisted the prophets, just to cite a few examples. Finally, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of the Precursor and that of Jesus himself.

333 From the Incarnation to the Ascension, the life of the Word incarnate is surrounded by the adoration and service of angels. When God "brings the firstborn into the world, he says: 'Let all God's angels worship him.'" Their song of praise at the birth of Christ has not ceased resounding in the Church's praise: "Glory to God in the highest!" They protect Jesus in his infancy, serve him in the desert, strengthen him in his agony in the garden, when he could have been saved by them from the hands of his enemies as Israel had been.  Again, it is the angels who "evangelize" by proclaiming the Good News of Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection. They will be present at Christ's return, which they will announce, to serve at his judgement.

Given this, the Church rightly considers the role of Angels as providing ‘mysterious’ and ‘powerful’ help to the sons and daughters of Adam.

335 In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God. She invokes their assistance (in the Roman Canon's Supplices te rogamus. . .["Almighty God, we pray that your angel..."]; in the funeral liturgy's In Paradisum deducant te angeli. . .["May the angels lead you into Paradise. . ."]). Moreover, in the "Cherubic Hymn" of the Byzantine Liturgy, she celebrates the memory of certain angels more particularly (St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, and the guardian angels).

336 From infancy to 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.

Sadly, the role of angels in the practice of the Catholic faith ain’t what it used to be: we have rather forgotten them. And yet, it is clear that the Church considers them to be important dimensions of our spiritual life.  Nowadays, as a look in any bookstore will show, angels seem to be popular amongst New Age crazies who also go in for fairies and spells.  The icon serves to remind us that, just as we are asked to see Christ in all things, we should also be open to those who serve to carry the message of salvation.  We are not spirit, we are flesh and blood: we have a heart just like that which was pierced on the cross.  We are not spirits, but we are called to be angels – messengers for God’s love and His plan of salvation for the created world.  We are not members of the celestial host, but we are  called to join the great chorus of praise.  And in proclaiming ‘holy, holy, holy’, with the Cherubim, we participate in their work. In proclaiming the thrice holy we become messengers and stand shoulder to shoulder and unite with the ‘angelic world’. When we do this, we do indeed walk with angels, just like Tobit, and just like Tobit we cannot actually see them: but they walk with us nonetheless.

Perhaps it is best that we don’t see them!  In the Bible angels are rather scary: they tell those they visit not to fear!  As C.S. Lewis observed  in The Screwtape Letters when commenting on Dante’s angels: “In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there.’ The literary symbols are more dangerous…because they are not so easily recognized as symbolical. Those of Dante are best. Before his angels we sink in awe.”  When we see the popular images of angels they are rather easy on the eye and rather cute.  But whatever you can say about the angels in scripture, they are not cute.  The Seraphim and the Cherubim are not messengers you would want to meet on a dark night. The ‘Ophanim’ are actually beyond description.  In iconography we therefore do not get cute or comfortable images of angels: as we can see in the Sacred Heart icon the Seraphim, Cherubim and Ophanim are not the kind of representation we find in most other sacred art.  But, their presence in the icon should serve to prompt us to reflect on the way in which ‘Christ is the centre of the angelic world. They are his angels.. They belong to him!’  We are called to make the Sacred Heart the centre of our world.  We call upon the 'angelic world' to help us belong wholeheartedly to Him.