Angels and Monsters
It’s kind of a joke, but only sort of: I’ll tell my students that if they are ever visited by an angel, they already know exactly what the angel will say, and what they should do. The script is all there in the Bible.
The angel will say two words, I tell them. Guaranteed. And those two words are always the same:
And then, I tell the students, their job is to fall flat on the floor in wonder, awe, and holy terror.
The students always laugh. Our generations not being terribly familiar with wonder, awe, and especially holy terror, I suppose they’re laughing at the idea that such an encounter could be so scripted. Or more likely – with the world-wisdom of undergraduates bent on the deconstruction of all myths except the presently-important ones of the market – they are snickering at the idea that such a spiritual and otherworldly encounter could happen at all.
And it is funny, in a way, that the Bible’s angels all seem to have taken the same class in public speaking. They really do say more or less the same thing. In fact, the phrase “fear not” is firmly attached not just to angels in the New Testament, but also to most of the events where what is “normal” in our world is portrayed as breaking down.
The disciples see Jesus doing what no human being should be able to do: walking to the boat across the storm-tossed water. “Fear not,” he tells them, as the laws of nature are tossed out. The confused women enter the tomb on Easter morning to anoint the dead body of Jesus with oil and perfume and instead of the stink meet a young man who says to them “Fear not.”
Perhaps with all that warning against being afraid, a question that could be asked is “what is there to be afraid OF?” And on that subject, we have plenty to learn.
The Bible uses the phrase “fear not” when there is some kind of theophany….some kind of “appearance of the supernatural”. We have forgotten that the Bible is an alien book, from a foreign, strange and sometimes horrific world. It is full – absolutely full – of a kind of monstrous depiction more reminiscent of a Transformers movie than of an English country garden. There are sea creatures that can swallow a man whole, witches that call up dead prophets, armies of skeletons standing at the ready, hell-rain to destroy cities, plagues, pestilences, and a pillar of cloud and fire scalding the ozone in the wilderness. There are angels and seraphim, magical windstorms and signs in the stars.
The understanding of what constitutes holiness, in the ancient Biblical world, was what was “set apart”. And what was set apart was, almost by definition, considered dangerous. When God is a lifestyle option and Jesus a bobble-headed doll, the idea of a terrible presence is something we have moved off to movies about space invaders and genetic mutations. But for the ancients who wrote the Bible, holiness was not just sacred. It was also scary.
And those who think Christianity is all sweetness and light haven’t looked closely at the two defining moments of their faith: the incarnation and the resurrection.
What could be more bizarre and repugnant than the idea of a holy God taking on flesh? The very term – incarnation – shares its root with something like “chili con carne” (chili with “flesh” or meat), which tells us something about Jesus. He was real (all the Gospels agree on this). He was human, which means he had headaches and ear wax and gas problems. If you cut him he bled. And yet he was, according to Christian teaching, the infinite God, somehow collapsed into a puking, mewling, baby with blood pumping furiously through fragile veins.
Holy miracle, freakish myth or monstrosity: a lot depends on your perspective. Given the unnaturalness of the initial story, it’s no surprise that eventually, there were legends about talking animals (run screaming from the barn) and strange foreign astrologers. In our own day, we have seen a whole slate of movies around Christmas that celebrate the monstrous: The Grinch (a monster), Scrooge (who might as well be), It’s a Wonderful Life, Nightmare before Christmas, One Magic Christmas, and the surreal and very spooky “The Polar Express”, just to name a few.
It’s interesting that the same Tuscany that produced the sweet Botticelli cherubs of the Renaissance also is home to the Etruscan urn reliefs. Many of them carry terrible images of the deceased meeting angels who look suspiciously like the modern conception of angels…except that the Etruscans lived centuries before Christ. The ancients weren’t always happy to meet such angels, and so the reliefs often show them carrying goods on their donkey, or sometimes accompanied by a slave carrying gifts, designed to placate the otherworldy powers.
The Bible unflinchingly looks at the “other” and the unusual, and – here’s the point – names it, quite often, as holy. The Biblical God is no stranger to what is different….God welcomes it. In our world, where there are fewer and fewer babies born with genetic abnormalities, and where the rich and stressed can undertake surgery to “correct” the slightest blemish to nose or ear, breast or chin, where is our reverence for what is strange, and our understanding of the holy “other”?