Michaelmas and Modern Imagination

Today is Michaelmas, the feast day of Michael the Archangel, and so my thoughts are on angels. This is a topic to which I have given little thought in my life. Perhaps in that way I am simply a good Calvinist: Calvin admonishes Christians “not to indulge curiosity or the study of things unprofitable.” Or perhaps not: Calvin follows this admonishment with nine sections considering what angels are and what our proper response to them is. He speaks clearly of their magnificent glory, and of the need for Christians to pay them honour: “Nor, indeed, is it right that no honour should be paid to those instruments, by whom God particularly exhibits the presence of his power” because in them “the splendour of the Divine glory is…abundantly displayed.”

Still, it’s difficult to get my head around their existence, not to mention what that existence means for me. I’ve been teaching some of C.S. Lewis’s literature this semester, and one of the things we’re exploring together is medieval cosmology, in which Lewis’ imagination was steeped. For the medievals, the night sky didn’t reveal the limitless emptiness of outer space, but the living, lighted, dancing, singing heavens: the aetherial realm of angels who orient themselves towards God in eternal praise. 

In contrast, my imagination is decidedly modern. At night my fears are not of spirits but flesh-and-blood villains of the real-life crime show variety. And while Melbournians joke about the apocalyptic signs of an earthquake in the middle of a pandemic, our imaginations are decidedly materialistic. We may brace ourselves for more tremors from ruptured plates, but the tremors of the Second Coming remain on the periphery of our imaginations, if present at all. 

In the stories of Scripture, angels appear at momentous events in salvation history—the defeat of Sennacherib, the annunciation to Mary, the declaration of Jesus’ resurrection. Their actions are within the arena of spectacular acts of deliverance and worldwide significance. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that I—along with most of us?—struggle to understand what they have to do with my life, in all its mundane comings and goings, and repetitive responsibilities of teaching, housekeeping, and errands. 

Calvin describes the angels’ relationship to us as one of God’s gracious kindness. Surrounded by so much trouble and danger, Calvin writes, we easily fall into fear or despair. To encourage us, God appoints the angels as “the dispensers and administrators of the Divine beneficence towards us; and therefore it informs us, that they guard our safety, undertake our defence, direct our ways, and exercise a constant solicitude that no evil befall us.” This is not necessary, Calvin argues, as God has no need of messengers, or others to act for him, nor do we need anyone but God to protect us. And yet their creation, like ours, is the result of God’s freely given love. 

I don’t expect to be heralded by an angelic messenger. But I think there is reason to be discontent with our present imaginative lack. Perhaps remembering them—today, remembering Michael in particular—can help us contemplate the gratuitous nature of creation: God creates freely, out of the overflow of his love, rather than to meet any need he has. The angels remind us of this.They are a glorious creation of God, their beauty speaking of the infinite beauty of their creator, and their continuous praise and adoration of him a sign of what is to come for us, when we are finally brought face-to-face with our Triune God.