Thursday 1 May 2014

Angels are Messengers of God

In the Bible, angels are messengers of God. Wherever they show up, it is as if the Bible is saying, Listen up! The Word is near/here/hear!. When angels show up in similar circumstances in one part of the Bible or another, that just adds significance. One does well to assume that the earlier and later episodes are connected; one does well to notice how.

So imagine the angel of Genesis 3 and the angels of John 20. They both appear in a Garden and in the context of Death. The angel of Genesis 3 is placed in the Garden of Eden to guard against Adam and Eve re-entering it to eat of the Tree of Life, for their behaviour in the Garden had led to their expulsion and subjection to Death. They move in the episode from “in” to “out” and by doing so move from “Life” to “Death”. An angel marks the boundary between “in” and “out”, between “life” and “death”. In John 20 angels appear again. Once again they appear in a Garden in the context of Death. But the directions and their association with Death (and Life) is reversed. The “in” of this episode is the “in” of the tomb; the “out” is in this instance the world bodying forth from Gesthemane, the Garden that sequesters and demarcates Death and so de-limits it. In this story angels turn a daughter of Eve from the tomb toward the surrounding Garden and the living world beyond, from Death toward Life. Here too there are “ins” and “outs” to explore, life and death stuff.

In Eden Adam and Eve had been brought to life when all outside was still lifeless by comparison. Their subsequent behaviour thrust them out of the place of Life into the wide lands subject to Death. The angel ushers them out toward Death and guards against any return. In Jesus’ death and burial “in” directs one to Death”; “out” is the place of the living. The advent of the Magdelene into the Garden is a moving inward from the lands of the living to the place of Death. Here the directions are shifted but the movement from Life to Death is recapitulated. Arriving at the tomb she encounters angels who turn her outward from Death toward Life. Here the direction recapitulates the direction of the Genesis story from “in” to “out” but the significance or implications of the movement is reversed, here movement outward is a movement from Death to Life not as in Genesis from Life to Death.

I should add one more parallel. Death and cover-up go hand in hand in both stories. Adam and Eve, as they begin to take stock of their behaviour in the Garden, cover up, with loin clothes of hide. Jesus’ corpse, a dead thing, is also covered with a loin cloth, in this instance, of linen. There is a wild/civilized contrast here that I note but forego. Nevertheless, I do take up the theme of cover-up. In proximity to Death things are shrouded, one’s sight and awareness are dulled and untrustworthy. What is of Life and of Death appear confusing. One can easily mix them up. Take the story in John. The Magdelene is turned by the angels in the tomb marking the spot where Jesus’ corpse had lain and questioning her presence in the place of Death. She turns and sees a man, but her eyes are confused. She is in the Garden and in contrast to the Genesis story it mediates Death not Life. That means that the pall of Death hangs over it. The Magdelene is in its thrall. The shrouds of Death still dominate her vision. They cover up the identity of the man she meets. His grave visage is mistaken for grave clothes. She thinks him the gardiner, one who works to serve Death and the dead. Since her master is dead, surely, this one knows where she can go to serve him in her turn. It is only when he says her name that he is revealed her Teacher, alive beyond expectation.

The Garden then in this story is not only the context for the tomb and the Death it enfolds, it is the mediation between the Place of Death and the Living Lands beyond.

And this image is, I think a valuable image for the context of Christian life and living in these times between Christ’s Resurrection and his Coming Again. We live and strive in the garden between the tomb and the living lands. The light is tricky; it is difficult to see things as they are for the pall of Death lies heavy in this between-place. We and our works are easy to mistake as a sign pointing back to the tomb and the Death it plays host to. Others see us and our works and see nothing but grave clothes. Of our actions they can make nothing more than a mawkish pantomime of some macabre Death cult. They do not hear in our voice the echo of the Teacher, they do not see in our visage the pulsing glory of New Life. This is true, to our shame, of all of us and our works, Christ followers though we be, for we are yet in a between-place, not yet in the living lands. We find ourselves still with sweaty brows, labouring mightily in the agonizing birth pains of a New Creation.

When I was a graduate student a number of students of medieval theological writing would take their afternoon coffee time in the common room of the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies. Their fellowship was loud and erudite as they argued about the interpretive problems they struggled with studying the manuscripts they were examining as part of their thesis research. Their discussions were clearly tinged with devotion and a source of great joy. Over time, I noticed that another friend, a hardworking historian of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in medieval Spain slowly stopped coming to the common room to take his late afternoon coffee. I asked him why and he said that he found the talk of the theologians off-putting. You see, he spent his days reading inquisition records by which the Jewish community of the Iberian peninsula was rounded up, hemmed in, pressured and eventually liquidated with enormous cynicism and a thief’s eye. The tragedy unfolding before his eyes as he worked his way through his research dossier was personal for he was himself a distant descendent of Spain’s thus oppressed and exiled shephardic community. He said that after a day of witnessing human cruelty and greed passed off as religious concern, he could not bear to listen to discussions of the compelling beauty of Christian notions of the Holy Spirit and of the self-giving Love that is to mark Christian existence, the glory of the saints and all the rest. In the metaphorics of John’s story, when he looked at the medieval Church or at least one of its corners, what he saw was not the Teacher, but a corpse whose rot was shrouded in pretty grave clothes.

When one lives life in proximity to the grave as we who inhabit Gesthemane even as we move toward the living lands, we do well to acknowledge the figure we cut. Even in the aftermath of Resurrection, it can be hard to tell the living from the dead. It is a shame and a mystery our continued resemblance to Death. But it also gives our marching orders their heft: “Go out into the Land of the Living! Never give up! Continue to speak from out of a humble perseverance in the hope that in and through the timbre of our voices those who listen may hear the living Voice of the Word and come to encounter subsequently the very Lord of Life.”

It is surely the case that many have counted ICS among the misplaced corpses over the years of its existence. Its fiscal and spiritual death has been predicted over and again. And yet it too is a work of women and men who have been addressed by the angels and directed out to the living places in which they might bear witness to their living Lord.

We may not have gotten far from the tomb; we may at times deserve to be mistaken for a corpse or at least for a servant of Death and the dead, but that is simply an occupational hazard of those of us called to inhabit the between-space between “in” and “out” and between “Life” and “Death” so as to bear witness as best we may to the Lord of Life. May we by our academic work and by our scholarly care for God’s people present ourselves as available to the Grace by which we are enabled to sustain such witness even to the end of the age.

Bob Sweetman