This sermon was given Oct. 4, 2017 at the service of Noonday Prayers, in honor of the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Enid, Oklahoma.
Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and honoring him would be a very worthwhile use of our time. But since we will be honoring St. Francis with our prayer service and Blessing of the Animals on Saturday, Fr. John asked me to rewind a bit and focus today on the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, which actually occurred on Monday.
I am glad that we’re pausing to remember this feast day. With so much suffering and violence in our society, I think it’s fitting we reflect on the role of the Guardian Angels. It’s worth asking: When we see the violence in Las Vegas and the suffering in Puerto Rico, among many other examples, how can we believe in and celebrate the presence of Guardian Angels? To answer that, we have to look back, at their place in tradition, in Scripture, and in the contemporary lives of some of our spiritual leaders.
The idea of Guardian Angels both precedes and continues to exist today in and outside of Christianity. The Platonic philosophers of Greece, Assyrians, Mesopotamians and other pre-Judaic faiths all had versions of Guardian Angels. And as an Abrahamic belief, Guardian Angels today are represented in not only Judaism and Christianity, but in Islam as well.
We see the roots of this in today’s reading from Exodus (Exodus 23:20-23), where we read: “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”
We see the role of Guardian Angels again in our reading today in Matthew 18:10, the most-quoted source in the Bible to affirm the existence and role of Guardian Angels, when Jesus tells us we must become like children in our faith. To me that has always meant the ability to experience God without having to rely upon sight, or other physical evidence, and Jesus warns those who would dissuade such pure faith: “I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”
In Acts of the Apostles we see again the active role of a Guardian Angel. In Acts 5 the Apostles are freed from prison by an angel of the Lord, and are sent to preach in the temple courts. Again, in Acts 12 Peter is freed from prison to continue his ministry.
Based on these and other Scriptural references to angels, the notion of Guardian Angels gained traction in the early church. In the third century A.D., the theologian Origen Adamantius wrote that “each one of us, even to the ‘least’ who are in the church of God (has) a good angel, an angel of the Lord, who guides, warns and governs.”
In 1615 Pope Paul V officially added “Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels” to the Roman calendar, and the belief in and reliance on Guardian Angels has remained strong into our contemporary history. According to some polls, 95 percent of Christians who attend church weekly believe in angels, while those who profess atheism or agnosticism rank angels as one of the most preposterous notions in our faith.
I’d like to consider three paths in this spectrum of belief, because I think it is illustrative of faith in general, and not just of Guardian Angels: there are those who, in their faith, are blessed with the ability to see; there are those who do not see, and yet have faith; and there are those who lose faith because they cannot see.
There is perhaps no better example in modern history of someone so strongly associated with the role of Guardian Angels as St. Padre Pio, an Italian priest and mystic who lived from 1887 to 1968. From an early age – some sources say five years old – St. Padre Pio had the ability to see guardian angels, and regularly spoke with Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Contemporaries later reported this was something that was not taught to him, and “occurred so naturally that he assumed other people could see them too.” For St. Padre Pio, belief and the ability to see were closely linked, from an early age.
As a priest, in a letter to one of his “spiritual children,” he advised her to always be mindful of the guidance offered by her Guardian Angel, and to “Have great devotion to this beneficent angel.”
“How consoling it is to know that we have a spirit who, from the womb to the tomb, never leaves us even for an instant, not even when we dare to sin,” he wrote her. “And this heavenly spirit guides and protects us like a friend, a brother.”
Like St. Francis, St. Padre Pio bore the marks of Stigmata on his hands and feet from 1918 until his death in 1968, and was repeatedly reported to be seen in more than one location at once – a phenomenon known as bilocation. St. Padre Pio’s life, from an early age to death, seemed to bridge the boundary between the physical and spiritual world.
Of course, not all of us are blessed with the ability see the spiritual – and yet we may have faith that is just as strong. St. Josemaria Escriva, as in almost every aspect of our daily lives, gives us a good example to follow in this regard.
Escriva, according to accounts written by those close to him, believed in Guardian Angels, though the accounts make no mention of him being able to see them. Escriva was taught his belief in angels by his parents, and carried with him into adulthood a spiritual connection to something he could not see, and yet felt just as strongly, it seems, as Padre Pio.
Escriva chose October 2nd, 1928 as the day he founded Opus Dei – translated as The Work of God – because it was the feast day of The Holy Guardian Angels. Commenting on that connection between Guardian Angels and our daily work for God, Escriva wrote: “Familiarity with, and devotion to, the holy guardian angels is at the heart of our work. It is a concrete manifestation of the supernatural mission of Opus Dei.”
Escriva’s connection to the unseen angels remained so strong throughout his life that he would greet them at the Tabernacle during Mass, and when he met someone new he often would greet that person’s Guardian Angel first, then introduce himself to his new acquaintance. For Escriva, lack of sight was no barrier to faith. He had, as Jesus instructs us to have, the faith of a child — refined and enhanced by, but not replaced or diminished by learning.
Of course, there is the last group: those who for lack of sight lose faith in all things spiritual.
Dean Van Drasek, in a blog post for “Atheist Republic” titled “Five Reasons Why Angels are Nonsense,” detailed how his inability to touch the spiritual realm caused him to profess atheism.
“One of the first ways I proved to myself that there was no god was when I tried to touch the angel that my mother insisted stayed with me in my room,” Van Drasek wrote. “When my mother caught me jumping on the bed trying to touch it, she told me that angels didn’t like it when you tried to touch them. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because they don’t’ she explained, and then I was sure that they were not real, as sure as I was that the sun was in the sky.”
I think most of us wrestle with this at some point: we want to be able to reach out and touch what we believe in. And when we can’t touch it, or see it, it can be hard at times to maintain faith. This is especially difficult during times of trial. In the context of current events, when we look at the atrocity in Las Vegas, when we see people suffering in Puerto Rico for want of basic human needs, when we see hatred tearing people apart in our country, it can be hard to believe that Guardian Angels are overlooking all those people, every step of the way.
In these times we must fall back on the words Scripture provides on faith in things we cannot see or touch. In Hebrews we are told “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, again in Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
It is useful also to remember the role the angels played in our Scripture readings. We have a kitschy, hackneyed view from popular culture of angels sweeping aside any harm that might befall us. Of course, when this doesn’t happen in real life, we may become discouraged. We may ask ‘Where was my angel?’ or ‘Do angels exist at all?'” We have to remember that this popular view of angels is not what is given to us in Scripture.
Angels, as given to us in Scripture, are God’s messengers and our spiritual guides — but the path on which they guide us is not guaranteed to be safe or easy. The angel God sent before the Israelites was there to guide them. But they still had to gird their loins, and go about the hard, dangerous task of moving into the Promised Land. They had to get to their feet, and get to work. The angel released the apostles, and later Peter, from prison. But they weren’t released into safety and ease. They were released to carry God’s word into a world where they would face difficulty, danger and death. They were released to do God’s work.
Jesus promised us this work would be hard. He did not promise ease. He did not promise safety. He called us to take up our cross, and follow him. Our angels are not there to carry that cross — that is our work. The Holy Guardian Angels are there as our ever-present reminders of God’s love, God’s grace, and the promise that the world we have yet to see will prevail over the darkness of this world.
Guardian Angels are not here to remove our God-given free will, or that of others who may choose to misuse their free will. The angels are with us to guide us in spirit, but like the Israelites of old, the task remains to us to get to our feet, and get to work. When we see our world gripped by fear, hatred and violence, it is our task to open our hearts and our ears, to listen to the message of God’s peace and love carried and reassured to us by our Guardian Angels. And then, with that message in our hearts and the angels at our side, we must get to work.
We must get to work transforming this world in God’s image. We must get to work creating a world of more peace, justice and love. With the angels at our side, we must get to work. Amen.