Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Jan Smith
Welcome to this table,
Whatever path has brought you here,
Whatever load you carry,
Let us rest a while together.
May our hearts be open to accept what comes to us as a stranger,
May our minds be open to wonder at what we do not understand,
And may our spirits be nourished by our time here together,
Before we again take up our loads and set off upon our many paths,
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Albert Schweitzer:
At times, our own light goes out,
and is rekindled by a spark from another person.
Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude
of those who have lighted the flame within us.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
And the clouds of war and climate change hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
And help each other, however we may.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way, Amen
Reading Feast of Guardian Angels from the BBC Religion & Ethics website
Last Monday, the Roman Catholic church celebrated the Feast of the Guardian Angels, which it has done for over 400 years. Here is what the BBC’s Religion and Ethics website has to say about it:
The Feast of the Guardian Angels is a Catholic festival celebrated annually on 2 October. Paul V was the first Pope, in 1608, to authorise a feast day in honour of guardian angels. Pope Clement X changed the date to 2 October and Leo XIII, in 1883, upgraded the date to a double major feast. Catholics believe that each soul, including Christians and non-Christians, has an angel assigned to it to give guidance throughout its life on earth. These guardian angels, according to Thomas Aquinas, are from the lowest rank of angels. They help their humans in several ways, including protecting them from demons and encouraging them to do good works. The angel cannot affect its human’s free will, but only the senses and imagination, and through these, the intellect. On reaching heaven, each person is united with his or her guardian angel.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading What are angels? and Who are our guardian angels From the Catholic Online website
An angel is a pure spirit created by God. The Old Testament theology included the belief in angels: the name applied to certain spiritual beings or intelligences of heavenly residence, employed by God as the ministers of His will.
The English word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos, which means ‘messenger’. In the Old Testament, with two exceptions, the Hebrew word for “angel” is malak, also meaning ‘messenger’. The prophet Malachi took his name from this word. He was himself a messenger, and he prophesied about the coming of “the messenger of the covenant”, Jesus Christ. Although the word “angel” in the Bible, meaning a messenger, nearly always applies to heavenly beings, it can occasionally apply to human messengers. Malachi himself said a priest was a messenger (malak) of the LORD of hosts, and in the Book of Revelation the elders of the seven churches of Asia were called angels. But when we meet messengers doing supernatural things, there is no doubt they are heavenly beings – God’s messengers, working for Him and for the ultimate benefit of mankind.
[The guardian angel is] a heavenly spirit assigned by God to watch over each of us during our lives. The doctrine of angels is part of the Church’s tradition. The role of the guardian angel is both to guide us to good thoughts, works and words, and to preserve us from evil. [God] has charged His angels with the ministry of watching and safeguarding every one of His creatures that behold not His face. The existence of Guardian Angels, is … a dogma of the Christian faith: this being so, what ought not our respect be for that sure and holy intelligence that is ever present at our side; and how great our solicitude be, lest, by any act of ours, we offend those eyes which are ever bent upon us in all our ways!
Prayer by Autumn Raindancer
Catholics are not the only religion to believe in protective spiritual beings. Here is a Pagan Chant for Inner Strength by Autumn Raindancer
I call the light of golden rays
I seek protection thus,
I pray for heavenly forces at my side
angels, sages, spirit guides or wolves
who walk with cunning skill
Come to my aid!
Come at my will!
Black bird soaring light my path
so I am victim to no one’s wrath!
And when my journey knows success,
all those who aid me Goddess bless!
Reading Angels among us by Don Beaudreault (from With Heart and Mind)
And now for a Unitarian viewpoint on angels, by Don Beaudreault:
I believe that there are angels among us all the time, especially at Christmas. But what exactly is an angel? Here is how I suggest we can tell if we bump into one:
Angels deny that they are angels. They don’t all have wings, or halos or smiles – those are only the ones who like to dress up. Angels don’t expect anything in return for services rendered. They don’t always tell us what we want to hear.
Oh, yes, every once in a while, we think we hear their voice; and every once in a while, we think we see them. Angels aren’t all called Michael or Gabriel. We might even be angels and not realise it.
Yes, angels are here among us – giving us gifts beyond measure. Gifts of humour when we think the sun will never shine again, passion when we believe we are unlovable, inspiration when our life force wanes, confidentiality when we can’t tell anyone else our secrets, forgiveness when we so sorely need it, advice when we don’t know which direction to turn, frankness when we try to tell less than the truth about who we really are, and the gift of just being there when we are so very alone.
You see, the angels are people who care about us. This is their message as they sing over the Bethlehem infant, hover at the bedsides of those who suffer greatly, walk hand-in-hand with those whose lives this year have been very tough, and who are there as a source of strength and understanding when life doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Yes, angels are real, and they can bring Christmas to us every day of the year if only we let them into our lives.
Truly, the angels are among us!
Time of Stillness and Reflection A Blessing of Angels by John O’Donohue
May the Angels in their beauty bless you. May they turn towards you streams of blessing.
May the Angel of Awakening stir your heart to come alive to the eternal within you, to all the invitations that quietly surround you.
May the Angel of Healing turn your wounds into sources of refreshment.
May the Angel of the Imagination enable you to stand on the true thresholds; at ease with your ambivalence and drawn in new directions through the glow of your contradictions.
May the Angel of Compassion open your eyes to the unseen suffering around you.
May the Angel of Wildness disturb the places where your life is domesticated and safe, take you to the territories of true otherness, where all that is awkward in you can fall into its own rhythm.
May the Angel of Eros introduce you to the beauty of your senses, to celebrate your inheritance as a temple of the holy spirit.
May the Angel of Justice disturb you to take the side of the poor and the wronged.
May the Angel of Encouragement confirm you in worth and self-respect, that you may live with the dignity that presides in your soul.
May the Angel of Death arrive only when your life is complete, and you have brought every given gift to the threshold where its infinity can shine.
May all the Angels be your sheltering and joyful Guardians. Amen
Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Address A Blessing of Angels
As I said earlier in the service, 2nd October is the day when the Roman Catholic church celebrates the Feast of the Guardian Angels. Why is this relevant to a Unitarian congregation? At the risk of sounding mystical, I would answer that if we believe in the traditional definition of angels as messengers of the Divine, then I think that many of us will at some time have “entertained an angel unawares.” But more of that later.
The English word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek ‘angelos’, which in its turn is a translation of the word ‘malakh’ in the Hebrew Bible, which means ‘messenger of God’, as we saw in my second reading. A similar word ‘malaikah’ is used in the Qur’an. The angels of the Christian Church are portrayed as spiritual beings higher than humans, but lower than God. In the first centuries of the Church, beliefs about angels evolved, until there were various different ranks, such as the principalities and powers mentioned in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, with their own missions and activities. Guardian angels, so Catholics believe, come from the lowest rank, and their job is to give their assigned human beings guidance throughout their lives, and to protect them from evil influences, and encourage them to do good.
The concept of the guardian angel has survived quite strongly in Western popular culture. I am sure that we can all visualize cartoon representations of a character with an angel sitting on one shoulder, trying to give them good advice, and a devil on the other, tempting them to do the wrong thing. And I am equally sure that many of us have watched that hoary Christmas favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life, in which a man’s guardian angel rescues him from despair by showing him how the choices he has made throughout his life, the random acts of kindness, have made a beneficial difference to many people.
I love the words of Frederick Buechner explaining that how we act towards strangers can have a real knock-on effect. He writes, “As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference or with hostility towards the people we meet, we are setting the great spider web atremble. The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops, or in what far place my touch will be felt.” So we can be angels too.
Interestingly, the role of angels as the antagonists of demons is a belief that is shared by both Islam and Zoroastrianism. According to Matthew Gordon, Muslims believe that “God is served by a host of angels and by mysterious beings known as jinn. Faith in God includes belief in the work performed by the angels on his behalf … The angels [are] described as creatures made of light, [whereas the jinn are] creatures of fire, [whose role is to] draw humans away from God.”
In Zoroastrianism, a fravashi is the guardian spirit of an individual, who sends out the urvan (often translated as ‘soul’) into the material world to fight the battle of good versus evil. Zoroastrians believe that, “Each person is accompanied by a guardian angel, which acts as a guide throughout life. They originally patrolled the boundaries of the ramparts of heaven, but volunteer to descend to earth to stand by individuals to the end of their days. If not for their guardianship, animals and people could not have continued to exist, because the wicked Druj would have destroyed them all. The Fravashi also serves as an ideal which the soul has to strive for and emulate, and ultimately becomes one with after death.”
As a Unitarian, I am more attracted to the Bahá’í understanding of angels. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, referred to angels as people who through the love of God have consumed all human limitations and have been endowed with spiritual attributes. Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son, defined angels as, “those holy souls who have severed attachment to the earthly world, who are free from the fetters of self and passion and who have attached their hearts to the divine realm and the merciful kingdom”. Furthermore, he said that people can be angels in this world, writing, “Ye are the angels, if your feet be firm, your spirits rejoiced, your secret thoughts pure, your eyes consoled, your ears opened, your breasts dilated with joy, and your souls gladdened, and if you arise to assist the Covenant, to resist dissension and to be attracted to the Effulgence!” In my understanding, this is similar to the role of the Buddhist bodhisattva.
I would imagine that most Unitarians do not believe in angels as supernatural beings, certainly not with the traditional wings and white nightshirt so beloved of Christmas card artists. But I do believe, as I said at the beginning of this address, in the possibility of ordinary people being messengers of the Divine, whose words or actions give us a nudge in the right direction at a crucial moment. This has certainly happened to me. I believe with Rev. Lindy Latham, former minister of our Bristol congregations, that people can be angels, messengers of God, to each other, by giving good advice, or through small acts of kindness. Each one of us has the potential to be an angel to somebody else, by being a beneficent presence in their lives, enabling them to move beyond their limitations and grow.
That is why I said earlier that we may all have entertained angels unawares. This idea of ordinary people being angels is shared by many Jews. In his book A Backdoor to Heaven, Rabbi Lionel Blue calls them “the mal’achim, the angeloi, the messengers one encountered in one’s life who were sent by God.” And he explains, “An angel can be the first person you fall in love with, who lets you down gently and lightly and helps you go forward into the risks of light and love. You can hear one in a bus queue whose name you will never know, but who says something which answers some inner questions, some need which is barely understood. It can be that intimate and strange figure, one’s guardian angel. The analyst who came to my aid at a party was a messenger to me of deep significance. So was a charwoman, so was a Carmelite nun I only saw behind a grille.… Understanding one’s own, defending one’s own and loving one’s own are natural. Through a few creatures, human or animal, we are redeemed from our limitations and learn to meet what is strange and unfamiliar, and this is not quite natural – it is a little more, therefore it is supernatural.”
He freely admits that this conception of angels has a certain mythic quality, but argues that, “The acceptance of them has meant that the incidents of my life are not accidents for me; they are clues to a meaning I sometimes grasp but cannot keep.” This is something I have come to experience in my own life, which is why I am open to the idea of angels.
But I’m not saying that we should consciously try to be angels to other people – that would be pretentious and arrogant and would not work. What I am saying, I guess, is that we should be alert in our own lives, so that we can recognise an angelic intervention when it happens, and be receptive to the advice or kindness received.
Of course, some of you may think that the idea of an external agency having influence on the morals of individuals is ridiculous. For you, your “angel” may be the voice of your own conscience; the ‘still, small voice’ within that prompts you to take one action rather than another, because that is the ‘right’ thing to do. Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of A Unitarian, described it thus:
“We do not know what absolute good is; we only know right because we are conscious of wrong, and evil because conscious of good. We cannot become aware of evil until we are alive to virtue. Those who affirm that conscience is the voice of God mean that whenever, for example, love and hate are seen in conflict, it is within the knowledge of everyone that love is the higher.”
Sixty or so years on from these words being written, I think that life is somewhat more complicated than that – would it were that simple! As part of my ministry training, I did a course in Christian ethics, which introduced me to the dilemma of ends and means. When making a decision about what is the right or wrong thing to do, do you follow the law or the path of duty, regardless of the consequences, or do you take the consequences into account, and hence (perhaps) break the law, or a promise made before the consequences became clear?
Cliff Reed gave us one answer in his book Unitarian? What’s that? when he wrote, “Unitarians are suspicious of any morality that is too rigid in its decisions or which is lacking in mercy. Such ‘morality’ often comes with a religious label attached. But a liberal religious Unitarian morality offers another model: one that imposes the highest standards on oneself, while treating others with justice and compassion.”
This of course is what the Golden Rule is all about. In order to be the best people that we can be, we need to be called back to a deeper practice of compassion.
To conclude, I believe in two kinds of angels, or messengers of the Divine: those people who give us some wise advice that points us in the right direction in a time of testing, and those who small acts of kindness to others make the world a better place to live in.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be aware of the presence
of angels in our lives,
whether they are people who give us
a nudge in the right direction,
or who do us small acts of kindness.
And may we appreciate them, always.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come, Amen
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley