Angels today are usually seen as cuddly. They belong on wedding cakes, Christmas cards and play harps on clouds. At Jesus’ time they were serious. They were God’s messengers, bringing destruction to empires and striking fear in people.
The Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and his rising from the dead are full of angels coming and going. They bring messages of great joy at the beginning of both his earthly and his risen life. Although the angels are awe inspiring and have to tell people not to be afraid, they are usually depicted in white. They come from another world to bring brightness and happiness to ours.
In the stories of Jesus’ rising they sit around the tomb, the first indication that Jesus’ execution was not the end of things. In the ancient world tombs marked the boundary between life and death. They were marginal places where demons played, fearful and haunted places. When the tomb is seen to be open and angels are present, they hint that death is slipping over into new life, and that the marginal place may no longer be haunted but enchanted. Death may not be a desert but a garden in which God is to be found.
The angels stand for God’s presence. But they also stand for God’s absence. The women who come to the tomb are upset to see the angels because they are looking for Jesus’ dead body in order to anoint it for burial. They see only that the body of the one whom they loved is absent. They wait to find meaning in the absence of Jesus’ body, which comes only when they realise that Jesus is risen.
The angels provide a space in which people can find hope while waiting. They prepare people for good news, encouraging us to hope in the ‘more’ in all our relationships to other people and to our world. We recognise that there is more to ourselves and our world that can be counted and analysed, and that in things there are a depth and possibilities for which we cannot find words. That sense is the beginning of faith; faith in turn provides faltering words for it.
In the stories of Jesus he displaces the angels. But Jesus, too, is elusive – he comes and goes, and prepares the disciples for the time when he will be absent, but never more close to them. In the ordinary stories of his life and in the sharing of ordinary bread and wine, in the ordinary man Jesus, we find the something more and deeper that sustains our hope.
Our lives are also a story of absence and presence, of hints of something more and of depth, even as we encounter in ourselves and other people much that seems shallow. Every human being is precious beyond belief, but we so often see them only in the trappings of superficiality and despair. In our relationships that risk going stale and in our times of loss and betrayal, we are invited to wait for the joy and the life that God wants for us.
This Easter, we should look for the beating of Angels’ wings bringing good news in the moments of thankfulness when our lives, our world and our relationships are brought to life. Those moments echo the joy that Jesus’ rising from the dead brought to his followers.