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When Angels Speak

An address by Fr John Slater

29 September 2002 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Today the Church keeps the feast of Michael and the Angels, and an angel is quite simply a messenger - a messenger from God. Don’t shoot the messenger! is an often quoted phrase in the English language - possibly based on Cleopatra’s treatment of the messenger who tells her that Anthony has married Octavia. And a messenger must have a message - news to tell. So, if you’ll forgive a lesson in New Testament Greek, the Greek word for messenger which is angelos, also gives us the word euangelion, which is usually translated as Gospel but which means literally good news.

So I want to ask, What would be truly good news for our world? Well, we might say the collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein or a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, a cure for cancer, or even a new spirit of tolerance among the world’s religions. A wish list would be so easy to compile - mostly involving radical changes for other people when, of course, we know that real change must always begin with ourselves.

At different times of history, good news has taken very different forms. For Hebrew slaves in Egypt, good news came in the form of a Moses to lead them to freedom. For Jewish exiles in Babylon, good news came in the prophecy of Isaiah announcing the day of their return to Judah. When the Christian faith was first preached in the Roman Empire, good news took the form of the promise of life after death. For medieval men and women, good news was the overcoming of their fear of hell.

But what about us? What are the fears and longings of men and women in London at the beginning of the third Christian Millennium? We are not enslaved or exiled; I don’t believe we fear hell, and many people are unconcerned about life after death. So what do we fear and what do we long for? I believe we fear that our lives may ultimately have no meaning; we long for a sense that our lives have real value and purpose. Many factors have contributed to this mood in our society - perhaps the end of empire after a hard-fought war which brought this country few tangible rewards, or living with the threat of what we used to call Mutually Assured Destruction. The threat of terrorism is now very real, from suicide bombers to the dangers of biological and chemical warfare.

Yes, there are many things we might well realistically fear. We live in an increasingly violent society where crime figures soar, where sportsmen need police protection, and where we dare not let our children play in the streets or parks or countryside. So we do well to ask what is the meaning and value and purpose of our lives.

Even fifty years ago, most people in this country knew at least something about Christianity and very little about any other religion. But in a multi-cultural society it is easy for all religions to be relativized as merely different theories about the nature of human life. Areas where they agree still hold some power - codes of ethics and methods of meditation. But the underlying doctrines which are so very different in each religion are often dismissed as belonging to long-passed dark ages of ignorance.

So what good news does the Church have for our society? History demonstrates that it takes more than ethics and prayer to give society a real sense that our human life has genuine meaning and purpose and to galvanize men and women to organise their common life in ways that will enhance that meaning. For Christianity, the belief that God has affirmed our life by taking our humanity to himself in Jesus Christ is the rock upon which that sense of meaning rests. If God takes our humanity to himself then it must be at root something very good - no matter how often we have corrupted it. And he takes the whole of our humanity, body and soul, so that all the good things of life come within God’s blessing - all that the Reunion des Gastronomes is celebrating and giving thanks for today.

St Irenaeus says that the glory of God is man fully alive. It would be more politically correct today to say that God is truly worshipped and glorified when men and women live life to the full, body and soul, heart, mind and strength. The Christian vision of human life isn’t only about ethics and prayer; it embraces all our joys and sorrows, our loves and our bereavements, the best times and the worst. St Irenaeus goes on to say that the glory of man is the vision of God, which means that men and women are most fully themselves, most fully alive, when we understand that we are the creatures of a loving God, endowed with the freedom to choose the way of love - for God, for others, for the world in which we live. When angels speak, it is always an invitation to take the way of love.
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