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Patronal Festival: sermon

It was a joy for us to welcome Fr George Westhaver as our preacher on St Michael's Day. Fr George is Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, and has kindly provided the text of his sermon to be displayed here.

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Pusey House was founded in 1884, two years after E B Pusey’s death, as a house of sacred learning. Pusey House is a place which seeks to hold together worship and study in the context of a community life which shapes disciples of Christ for service in Church and world – a house of sacred learning, a centre of catholic life. Pusey was Regius Prof Hebrew and a Canon of Christ Church from 1828 to his death in 1882. He is known especially as a leader of Oxford Movement, that great revival of catholic life in Church of England centring on Oxford in 1830s and afterward. Pusey wrote great tracts and sermons on our dying and rising with Christ in baptism, and about the gift of Christ himself in sacrament of his body and blood. He had a vivid sense of our sharing as members of body of Christ in nothing less than divine life, our being ‘In-Godded’, ‘Deitate’. For all his great learning and holiness of life, he could relate easily and simply to children. He had a vivid sense of the wonderful mystery that the angels of God’s little ones always behold the face of our Father in heaven (Matt 18.10).


I will begin by sharing a letter Pusey wrote to a young girl which is on the one hand simple and beautiful, and on the other hand, a letter which invites us to consider more profoundly the nature and work of the holy angels. He helps us to appreciate more of the greatness and reality of the holy angels, to see more in them than religious accessories which are pretty or cute. God has so ordered heaven and earth, the visible and invisible creation, so that angels both minister and serve God in heaven, and watch over and defend us on earth. Angels are living powers and rays of divine light and glory which communicate divine truth and beauty. By this same power, the holy angels fight with us and for us in the struggles of life.


Near end of his life, on Easter Monday, 1881, Pusey wrote to a little girl named Beatrice to thank her for a painting she made for him of some flowers:

[Dear Beatrice] Your loving little painting reached me this morning. I love flowers very much. They tell one such histories of the love of God. He seems to have given them all that varied beauty for no other end than to give His creatures pleasure … I have often thought that they must be for the Blessed Angels to gaze upon and thank God for. The Daisy, as it spreads itself out as wide as it can, seems to be drinking in the love of Heaven; and the Rose, which opens itself to that glow from above and gives out all its fragrance, seems to be giving back love for love. It gives back all which it has in return for the warmth which opens it.[1]


‘I have often thought that they must be for the Blessed Angels to gaze upon and thank God for.’


The great Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov wrote one of the great works of the 20thc on angels. Expelled by the Bolshevik gov’t, Bulgakov moved to Paris in 1925. Ayear later when he was 54, he was very sick, hovering between life and death. At that time, he heard the voice of his guardian angel with him, ‘I/he was not alone, but together with my/his other I/self’, his guardian angel. He understood himself to be summoned back to life, and slowly recovered.[2]


Bulgakov sees in the beauty which Pusey describes, in the ordinary-extraordinary beauty of flowers, as the manifestation of the beauty of the angels, who robe the world with beauty:

‘Is it not by angelic power implanted in them …[3]that flowers blossom. Is it not by their guardians that all forms of beauty, from the lowliest animal to the human body, are robed with beauty? … The whole beauty of the world is nothing other than a ray of light in heaven, the transparency of the angelic world for our sake.’[4]

The prophet Daniel has a vision of this angelic world. The ‘ancient of days’ is seated on a throne of angels, ‘fiery flames’ with wheels of ‘burning fire’. ‘A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him’


What keeps the thousand thousands enrapt? Pusey and Bulgakov marvel at the ordinary-extraordinary beauty of flowers. But in God, the angels see all the beauty of all the flowers which have ever been and will be, and infinitely more.

Whatever we have known and seen of God’s beauty, and goodness, and truth, whatever beauty we have heard in music or songs which delight us, whatever beauty we see in great sportsmen, whether playing rugby or cricket or football, whatever real truth we find in study or in works of art, whatever heroic examples of sacrifice and love have inspired us, all of this inspiring beauty, truth or goodness are only pale reflections of unsurpassable beauty which the angels see who gather around the throne in the book of Daniel.


The angels do not just see this beauty, God has so ordered the world, ‘a wonderful order’ that it is the work of the angels to communicate the divine beauty which they see to us: ‘The whole beauty of the world is nothing other than a ray of light in heaven, the transparency of the angelic world for our sake.’[5]


Whatever beauty we see in the sweetest face of a dear child or in a mountain vista, is the ‘the shining of an uncreated light’[6], the stream of angelic fire coming forth from the throne and giving life and robing with beauty all that is alive with the life of God.


There is a sculpture in Oxford which expresses the work of the angels in a more scientific form. Above the entrance to the museum of natural history there is a seated angel. At first glance, it looks like the angel is holding a book in one hand and a round disk, a symbol of the world in the other. However, the circle which the angel holds is not a symbol of the world, but rather is a dividing cell.


This image of the angel holding a cell, a symbol perhaps of the building blocks of biological life, is one way of expressing what the medieval theologians saw when they described angels as the principles or laws by which God governs reality. Taking the sculpture as a guide, we could say that the scientist who searches for the order of things or the laws which govern the division or multiplication of a cell they are investigating the work of the angels.


The fact that we can investigate and describe the powers and processes of biological life makes those powers no less a marvel, no less an expression of the one source of all that is, a manifestation of the streams of fiery energy and life pouring out from the heavenly throne.


The angels who appear with wings or wheels or streams of fire are symbols of the dynamic power and forces which, according to wisdom of God, constitute and order created world.


In our worship this morning, we gather with the thousand thousands before the heavenly throne. The song which we sing is the song of the angels, Holy, Holy, Holy. We worship God the Holy Trinity who gives love for love in flowers and in divine-human world, we worship the glorified Son of God enthroned in heaven and present on the altar in the precious gifts of his body and blood. In him all things hold together, from the lowest sub-atomic particles and the dividing cell to the highest heavens.[7]In joining our voices with the voices of the angels we worship the love manifest in the sacred humanity of our Saviour, and we adore the fountain and source of all the beauty and goodness which has ever delighted us and fed us: Lord God of hosts,of thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, heaven and earth are full of your glory, from the highest to the lowest, visible and invisible.


The divine beauty and goodness is not flimsy and weak, but strong and powerful. In the reading for the book of Revelation we see in there the angels fighting for us and alongside us in the struggles of life:


Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.


This is a passage with many layers of meaning. We have here a description of something which has taken place in the past, which is also a present reality, and a battle which will be fought.


Most theologians describe this battle as a part of the same battle in which the incarnate Son of God fights for us in his cross and passion, the same war, but a different front. As Christ conquers Satan on the cross in the human world, in earth, so at the same time, in heaven, does his captain Michael fight against the power of un-love and evil in the fallen angel Lucifer or Satan. In some mysterious way Michael and his angels share in the danger faced by their Lord – ‘they loved not their lives even unto death’ – and their victory is secured by the victory of Christ – they conquer ‘by the blood of the Lamb’.[8]


The battle also describe a struggle which continues in the life of the Church, where the rebel angels who were thrown down from heaven still harass and attack the servants of God. They have lost, but there is still a sting in the dragon’s tail. Turned away from the divine life, the lives of Satan and the fallen angels are only parasitic, the feed on and corrupt the life and goodness which comes from God. We know this corruption all to well from the inside, and how we can mar and damage a gift of beauty or love.


Michael appears throughout Scripture as a warrior angel protecting God’s people. Perhaps it is Michael also who rolls away the stone from the tomb on the 3rdday, sharing in the victory of his Lord over death, and it may be Michael who is there with the apostles, and perhaps the Archangel Gabriel, on the day of the Ascension.[9] In the struggle with temptation and with everything that attacks the love, the beauty, and the goodness of God, we are not alone. We may feel lonely, profoundly lonely and weak.


And yet, at the same time, God’s holy angels fight alongside us. God has so constituted and ordered the world that he gives us not only a participation in the divine life, making us temples of the holy Spirit and heirs of heaven, but he also gives us the angels to fight with us and for us against the powers of un-truth, un-love, and ugliness wherever we find them, within us as much as around us.


Every moment, an angels stands before God with you on his heart day and night – an angel in perpetual prayer for you.[10]We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. By the prayers of St Michael and All the Angels may the Lord in his mercy save our souls, and give us a share in his victory, by the ministry of God’s Holy angels, may we delight in his beauty and truth and goodness.


[1]Liddon, Life of Pusey, iv, p 374. ‘…You, my very dear Beatrice, are the rosebud which no force could open (as children sometimes try to force an opening rose with their little fingers and only spoil it) but which the glow of God's love will open as time goes on, more and more. And the white of the lily of the valley tells of purity, and its low-hanging head of tenderness and humility. And then by the name of that lovely flower the Forget-me-not God tells you Forget not Me ….For God will be as much your own as if He had never made Angel or Archangel, or Cherubim or Seraphim: quite your own; quite belonging to your own individual tiny self: for St. Paul says, ‘Who loved me and gave Himself for me,’ as if there had been no other….’

[2]Bulgakov, Jacob’s Ladder, trans. intro, xi

[3]…in keeping with the will of God…

[4]Bulgakov, Jacob’s Ladder, p 86.

[5]Bulgakov, Jacob’s Ladder, p 86.

[6]David Bentley Hart, 252, Beauty of the Infinite. Augustine: ‘The beauty of creation is a proclamation of divine beauty’. Hilary of Potiers: God who is all beauty reflected in the beauty of his creation, David Bentley Hart, 252, Beauty of the Infinite. ‘Creation’s being is God’s pleasure, creation’s beauty is God’s glory; beauty reveals the shining of an uncreated light…this beauty of the Trinity, this orderliness of divine perichoresis, is the very movement of delight, of the divine persons with one another, and so the analogy that lies between worldly and divine beauty is a kind of analogia delectationis….a Taboric effulgence, upon all things’ – Reference here to the Transfiguration, when our Lord’s clothes and body shone with the uncreated light before Peter and James and John.

[7]Col 1:55 ff:‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-bornof all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything hemight be pre-eminent. 19 For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven….’

[8]Bulgakov sees here battle which took place before the foundation of the world when the great angel lucifer, the devil, rebelled and tried to take God’s place.

[9]These are Bulgakov’s ideas.

[10]This paragraph inspired by Fr Christopher Snook and using his words. Deo Gratias.

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