Angels and demons: a farewell

MichaelS Michael and All Angels 2019

Revelation 12: 7-17. Matthew 18: 1-10

Rambling Rector’s last Sunday homily as Vicar of Burton upon Trent

When you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort and, in fact, he was the devil himself. One day the devil was in a very good humour because he had just finished a mirror which had this peculiar power: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever. In this mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the very best people became hideous, or stood on their heads and had no stomachs. If a person had a freckle it was sure to spread until it covered both nose and mouth. If a good, pious thought passed through anyone’s mind, it showed in the mirror as a carnal grin.

“That’s very funny!” said the devil, who, laughed aloud at his invention. 

The hobgoblin’s apprentices scurried about with the mirror until there was not a person alive that had not been distorted. Then they flew up to heaven itself, to scoff at the angels, and our Lord. The higher they flew, the wider the mirror grinned. They could hardly manage to hold it. Higher they flew, and higher still, nearer to heaven and the angels. Then the grinning mirror trembled with such violence that it slipped from their hands and fell to the earth, where it splintered into billions of bits, or perhaps even more.

And now it caused more trouble than before it was broken, because some of the fragments were smaller than a grain of sand and went flying throughout the wide world. Once they got in people’s eyes they would stay there. These bits of glass distorted everything the people saw, and made them see only the bad side of things, for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed.

A few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice. Some of the fragments were made into spectacles, and evil things came to pass when people put them on. The fiend was so tickled by it all that he laughed till his sides were sore.

But fine bits of the glass are still flying through the air.

Like the passage from Revelation that we heard earlier, it’s a fairy story about the origin of the human propensity to sin, to do bad things, to do things that harm others and ourselves. It’s the beginning of Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

It makes the connexion between devil and diabolic. Diabolic, in contrast to anabolic, means splintering, and here we have splinters of evil glass that pass into eyes and heart to distort vision and turn the heart to ice. You don’t have to look too hard to see these twisted characteristics of world leaders: Pyongyang, Damascus, Khartoum, even Westminster, for this nation is being splintered asunder. It is diabolical.

But this applies not just to “them”. It applies as much to “us”. It’s our tendency to hard-heartedness, lack of compassion, forgetfulness of loving-kindness, determination to see the worst in people and situations. It is egocentricity. It is self-obsession. It is total self-indulgence. And that is Satanism.

Am I deluded to use such terms? Listen to S Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Revelation, Paul, and Andersen tell vividly of what Michaelmas is about: the battle between good and evil, the “force fields” in which we exist. It’s a personal battle, in my experience often lost in a fit of temper or a surge of adrenaline: the things I do in the heat of the moment, no chance even to consider consequences, leading to regret and shame.

The question is: how to deal with this? Does Scripture have anything to say?

The Common Worship lectionary for Michaelmas does not: it gives the story of Nathaniel with Jesus telling him that he’ll see angels ascending and descending. I can’t make anything of that. But the historic lectionary of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, comes spectacularly to my aid for Michaelmas with these words of Jesus:

Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

There are other wonderful bits of today’s gospel, not least that anyone who harms a child should be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. With all the church scandals, I sometimes wish we took that literally. But for Michaelmas the message is that the forces of evil within are more likely to be vanquished if we assume the mantle of a child.

Here are some of the characteristics of childlikeness that we might use in our struggles: innocence, trust, fearlessness, imagination, having fun, making the best of things.

I spoke of some of this last week, particularly at S Modwen’s where I urged you to approach the future with imagination and without fear. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear leads to hatred. Graham Greene wrote that hatred is failure of imagination. Fear leads to suspicion, name-calling, abuse, oppression, cowardice, failure to fight injustice. And fear leads to death of the spirit in both oppressor and victim. We harm ourselves every bit as much as we harm others.

Am I suggesting, then, that we should become like children in order to fight wickedness?

I am.

But I’m not so naïve as to think that we don’t need to be careful. Our world is one of suspicion, cynicism and selfishness as much as it is of beauty, delight and joy. We need to be watchful. We need 360° vision. We need to consider likely consequences of our actions. But the more we can adopt the attitudes of childlikeness—not childishness—as a starting point, the more likely it is that good will follow.

This message is hammered home in The Snow Queen. It’s the trust of a child, Gerda, that helps her confront adversity. It’s the persistence of a child that keeps her going. It’s the prayers of a child that defeat the demons around the Snow Queen’s ice palace. And in what is quite the most moving part of the story, it’s the tears of a child that melt Kay’s heart of ice and wash out the evil splinters in his eye.

And the result? Reunion, restoration, rescue, healing, salvation, Make no mistake, the two characters in the story are in truth parts of you and me. Oh, how our splintered souls long for wholeness.

Unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This has nothing to do with the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven—eternal life—is a quality of life here and now. It’s an attitude of mind, a way of looking at the world. It is life abundant before death. This is not a matter of appeasing an irascible sky pixie, or collecting nectar points for a seat in heavenly club-class. It’s a matter of making the world we live in more like the kingdom of heaven by fighting injustice and spreading loving-kindness.

Some people believe in angels. I like the idea of Michael the fighter, of Gabriel the messenger, of Raphael the healer, of Uriel the bringer of light. I like the idea of hosts of angels surrounding us, protecting and directing us. But for me it’s just more poetry, and it doesn’t affect my basic Michaelmas message about childlikeness bringing a glimpse of heaven.

Sunday worship is about precisely that: giving us a glimpse of heaven. Before mass, the vestry prayer often includes the words: “may our worship be a vision of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that others may be brought closer to you”. Good sounds, beautiful sights, inspiring words, lovely smells. One of my descriptions of the thing people call God is beauty in all its manifestations, and I have tried my best to cultivate that.

BurtonOnTrentPaul06We’re in S Paul’s, and for me to come into this place several times a week, and bathe in its glass, its furnishings, and the sense of the numinous they help create, has been a real joy. When I came to Burton six years ago with a view to applying for the job, I’d already seen the cool elegance of S Modwen’s, and I knew the moment I stepped in here that I could be at home. And then when a year or so later we unearthed that glorious altar frontal, I recognised it as the Bodley/Watts original: it’s the same design as in the Bodley-designed chapel at Queens’ College Cambridge where I was an undergraduate. What a delight!

This all contributes to the beauty of the liturgy in which relaxed ritual, with contributions from others, give a real sense of “numinous in community”. The party line is that in our services we honour the Lord, but since there is a bit of the Divine in each of us, in truth we are honouring ourselves, we are honouring the best of humanity. And that is a exactly as it should be: we refresh ourselves so as to enable us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed—and remember that unless we do that, all this churchy stuff is utterly meaningless.

It’s not only in church that we can experience this “numinous in community”. Some people, I’m told, have such a feeling at a rugby match. I gather that there is a popular sport in this country in which a round ball is kicked about, and millions of people find spiritual refreshment in that, however implausible I find it. Does this mean that church is merely a hobby for us, like sport for others? Maybe so, but I leave my successor to explore that. Meanwhile, let me tell you a story from my past that at least one of you here will recognize.

About 20 years ago when I was Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, I was standing with a colleague in the Dissection Room – a huge room housing 20+ cadavers and 200+ students and staff. The Anatomy course I was responsible for was acknowledged as being first rate, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Some students were dissecting, some chatting, some looking at x-rays, some considering symptoms and patient stories. Some staff were talking, some listening, some dissecting. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed: I felt as if I were in the presence of something Divine. My colleague must have felt similarly, for he turned to me and said: “you have made this happen”. It is my most treasured memory of sixteen years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since July 2014 I have tried to provoke you to think, to shake you up, to let you see how right Diderot was when he urged enlargissez Dieu! I’ve tried to get you to pluck out eyes that offend—that is, to see differently, to move beyond the Sunday school pap of “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. And I hope our liturgy has enabled us to glimpse Divine grace and glory.

Sisters and brothers, I thank you for the fun we’ve had together, the joy and delight. Since my heart is in large part in Ireland, and since I’d like my ashes to be scattered on an Irish mountain, where almost four years ago I scattered my elder son’s, let me say:

Go raibh maith agaibh. Slán agus beannacht leat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thank you. The grace of God be with you. God bless you

Let me leave you with one question, a most profound question that takes us back to Revelation, to The Snow Queen, to today’s gospel:

would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become?

5 thoughts on “Angels and demons: a farewell

    • Oh no, please don’t change a thing – just stay as you are!
      It was very wet at Blickling this afternoon as we celebrated apple weekend.

  1. I am a garden guide at Blickling Hall in Norfolk where we have two rose arches clad in ‘Rambling Rector’ – I shall continue to think of you, winter and summer, as I pass under them and I will always thank you for your humanity and humility. I wish you and your family a peaceful and tranquil retirement ….. but I hope we haven’t heard the last from you. Very many thanks.

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