This feast day reflection was first delivered in the Gloria Dei Chapel of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at a joint worship service of Trinity and Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminaries on St Michael and All Angels’ day, September 29th, 2009
It was my second form English teacher – that would be, I think, around seventh grade – who first introduced me to the metaphysical poets. I thought they were great, and she, my teacher, suffered from adulation by association. Unfortunately, my admiration was unrequited; she thought I took these poets too seriously, entered too readily into their labyrinths of metaphor and emotion. She might have been right.
I remember reading John Donne’s Air and Angels, and the teacher explained the central conceit as being based on a contemporary belief that angels, those messengers of God and servants of the heavens and earth, were made in their essence out of condensed or compressed air; that you could see them in the disturbance around a candle flame, or the shimmering of a heat-filled horizon. Although the poem itself is not really about air or angels, but women and men, that was the image which stayed with me. Just as in the letter to the Hebrews we heard about God making the angels into and out of winds and fire (Hebrews 1:7), so Donne cast the angels into and out of the air, and found them shimmering there.
Those of you who were also once thirteen-year-old girls may not be too surprised that I spent the next several weeks (or months) looking over my shoulder and peering into shadows. But that’s ok, I tell myself; if we are to love God with our whole hearts, minds, souls and strength, that must include our imaginations.
So here’s the thing.
As unscientific and impossible as it is, I want you to imagine for a moment that angels, those messengers and servants of God, are hidden between the molecules of the air all around us; that they are in fact the very air we breathe.
What, then, would it be like to inhale an angel?
What would happen if the messenger angel were to oxygenate our blood, serve our muscles, to build and strengthen our sinews, to pump our hearts? What would it feel like to have God’s message, the gospel, become one with our very essence, to course through our veins and calcify in our bones?
And what would happen if we were to exhale that angel?
Would we, like the angel, find ourselves spontaneously moved to cry out, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest!”
Would we find ourselves joining our breath with the company of heaven? Singing with choirs of angels? Proclaiming the gospel with tongues of fire?
I’d like that.
Of course, we don’t have to do much more than inhale to encounter God’s messengers. Just open our lungs. Open our ears. Open our eyes. Open our hearts and our imaginations.
Thanks be to God.
Note: John Donne’s Air and Angels can be found in many anthologies, but here’s a handy link to an online version, if you’d care to refresh your memory: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/air-and-angels/