This time of year, we sing a lot about angels. Hark the herald angels sing. Come and behold him, born the King of Angels. Angels we have heard on high.
In Scripture, angels are all over the place—far beyond just the Christmas story where they seem to terrify everyone they encounter.
We see them ministering to Jesus in the desert. They show up in the Resurrection and the Ascension. The book of Hebrews is full of them, with repeated reminders not to worship them or confuse them with the Divine. We see them throughout the Old Testament—in Sodom, in the book of Job, and repeatedly in the Psalms. Elisha sees an army of them. They turn up hundreds of times throughout the whole canon.
Yet, until recently, I basically ignored angels. I never rationally came to a place of disbelief in angels. I never examined the evidence for them and found it lacking. To me, angels just seemed to be a bit cheesy.
In all my years in evangelical churches, I cannot recall hearing much teaching about them except from one Sunday School teacher who was oddly preoccupied with mysterious phenomena. She would close each class with an "angel story" that she'd read from a magazine, where men suddenly appeared, did some good deed, and then disappeared again.
I loved her stories, but my understanding of angels never grew up. Angels remained frozen on Sunday School felt boards or in pageants at Christmastime. I have a foggy, uncomfortable memory of donning impossibly heavy wooden wings for our church pageant and being instructed to smile even though I felt like a glittery version of Atlas.
A few years ago, I heard an interview with the British theologian John Milbank, where he said, "I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I'm really bitterly opposed to… disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals."
He told a story about the Nottingham diocese in England, which he described as "a very evangelical diocese." They had received a request to participate in a radio show about angels. They surveyed their clergy, asking, "Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?"
Milbank chastised the diocese saying, "Now in my view, this is scandalous. They shouldn't even be ordained if they can't give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy." He called for a re-enchantment of the church, that we should believe, confess, embrace, and admit all of Scripture and much of church tradition—even the weird stuff.
I'm sure that there are circles in evangelicalism where it's common to discuss the angelic, but those aren't the Christian circles in which I find myself, so it was convicting and refreshing to hear this highly respected scholar embrace the seemingly magical parts of Scripture.
My sheepish hesitancy to think or talk about angels was irrational nonsense. I am not a materialist. I believe unflinchingly in the Resurrection of Jesus, the Incarnation, the miracle of salvation. For whatever reason, I did not have difficulty believing in demons. And certainly, the presence of angels is no more or less implausible in my urban, postmodern circles than what I confess each Sunday in the creeds.
My ambivalence about angels was not due to reason; it was a failure of my imagination.
C.S. Lewis stated in his introduction to the The Screwtape Letters:
It should be (but is not) unnecessary to add that that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art or literature… In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico's angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteen century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a teatable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol.
Between oil painting cherubs and my mother's angel figurine collection (which mysteriously survived our house fire, as was often retold to me with winking awe), and John Travolta dancing to Aretha Franklin in Michael and Precious Moments and infantile pet-names like "angel baby," it wasn't that I rejected a belief in angels so much as that they were drained of reality. Without realizing it, they were sentimentalized into parody, a subconscious caricature, the stuff of myth.
Then, to my surprise, I noticed that I had developed a habit sometime in the first years of my daughter's life of asking God to send angels to protect her. A Greek Orthodox friend had given me an icon of an angel to put in her room, and I found myself pointing it out and explaining to my daughter that angels were in our home.
Somehow, from the deep recesses of my church upbringing, this belief in angels came bubbling up to the surface. I realized slowly that I was increasingly thinking about angels and that I found them amazing and fierce and faithful. I found great comfort in the belief that there were created beings, like me but not like me, who spent their time worshipping and serving God. I looked into them more in the Bible.
So I'm coming out of the closet: I believe in angels.
And not in the cute, acceptable, buy-me-a-ceramic-mug-that-says-"I-believe-in-angels" kind of way. I actually believe in terrifying, invisible beings that are servants of God.
And I believe that right now, day and night, night and day, they are glorifying God. They are shouting and singing with words that I long for but cannot yet hear. Not on felt boards or inked in books, but in real time, they are worshipping God as he is to be worshiped and doing God's bidding. And for that I'm incredibly grateful.
Tish Harrison Warren is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband work with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. She writes regularly for The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women, and was featured on The White Horse Inn. She's newly on Twitter at @Tish_H_Warren.
(Photo by sidewalk flying / Flickr)