by Gill Newton.
During the first week of Advent, I joined hundreds of other people standing outside Sheffield Cathedral to experience “The Angels Are Coming.” This show had been billed as a “lights and sounds spectacular telling the story of Christmas” and prior to the five days over which the event was held, over 9000 tickets had been sold.
The experience consisted of a 15-minute light show on the outside of the cathedral building which was watched from the Cathedral forecourt. It included animated images of contemporary Christmas symbols as well as images of angels. It also contained a mixture of dramatic music and familiar Christmas carols and tunes. This was followed by an opportunity to enter the cathedral itself. Once inside there was more light and sound to be enjoyed with the major focus within the cathedral being the famous Sheffield Steel Nativity. Prayer cards were being distributed by cathedral volunteers and many visitors took the opportunity to light prayer candles.
So, what drew thousands of people to such an event in a building that they may not consider entering at any other time? Was it just another Christmas extravaganza for all the family to enjoy? Or is there a genuine fascination with angels?
There’s a huge range of ways and places in which angels are portrayed in the world today and it’s never difficult to find art, jewellery, clothes or decorations for our homes and gardens adorned with cherubs or winged creatures. And of course, in this season of the year there will be countless nativity plays being performed up and down our land in which young children are robed in white with tinsel-covered coat-hangers for wings and halos!
It seems that much of what we see or hear about angels in our 21st century culture would seem to be based on speculation or good old-fashioned fantasy! So, how do we separate fact from fiction and what does scripture have to say about angels and their part in our lives today?
“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”[i] These words from the writer to the Hebrews encourage us to believe that angels are still among us but are they really just the comforting guardians which the world would have us believe they are?!
The notion of a guardian angel has become quite prevalent in our society and there is no doubt that there are accounts in scripture of God sending angels to protect and guard. Daniel in the lions’ den[ii] and Elisha in a besieged city[iii] both experienced the protection and guidance from angels that God promises.[iv] There are other examples of God sending angels to those who were struggling and needing strength. When Elijah was running for his life an angel provided food and water for the journey[v] and when Jesus himself was praying and wrestling with what was to come whilst in the Garden of Gethsemane, an angel appeared.[vi]
However, there are other accounts in scripture which would encourage us to see that encounters with angels might bring us much more than comfort and strength! Their very name means “messenger” and scripture is full of examples of God sending angels to bring specific messages to people. It’s the way Abraham and Sarah discovered they would be parents[vii] and it’s how Gideon knew that God was with him when facing the might of the Midianites.[viii] And in this season of the year we are reminded of the numerous occasions when angels bring surprising news to Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds.[ix]
God may also use his angels to fight on his behalf, deliver his judgement and strike terror in the hearts of those who act against him or his people as King Hezekiah discovered when fighting the Assyrians.[x] However, significantly, it seems that angels spend most of their time worshipping God – “Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”[xi]
So, is their major purpose to draw our attention to God?
A poll conducted in the year 2000 suggested that 81% of the adults consulted believed that “Angels exist and influence people’s lives.”[xii] But does that mean that they are expecting to encounter the cherubs or winged images that our society so often portrays or do they recognise the smiling neighbour, or the bent old man or the person of a different culture as the angel sent from God with the help or the comfort or the challenging word that they need?
Will the angels really have come to Sheffield in these recent weeks? Will there have been encounters that visitors to the cathedral find hard to explain? Will there have been messages relayed that have surprised the recipients? Possibly so! Why should Sheffield be any different to Nazareth or Bethlehem or any other place where angels have appeared with important or surprising news?!
God undoubtedly still sends his messengers today with words of hope and challenge. Whether through sound and light spectaculars or other means, how do we best help those with stories of angels to recognise and know the God who sent them?
“Him the angels all adored, their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord they now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty, of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be, and God himself is born.”
Charles Wesley (1707-88); Singing the Faith 199
[i] Hebrews 13 v 2
[ii] Daniel 6 v 22
[iii] 2 Kings 6 v 17
[iv] Psalm 91 v 11
[v] 1 Kings 19
[vi] Luke 22 v 43
[vii] Genesis 18
[viii] Judges 6
[ix] Luke 1 and 2
[x] 2 Kings 19
[xi] Revelation 4 v 8
[xii] Barna Research Group