On Angels and Demons
Elisha and the Israelites woke in the morning to a terrible sight. They were ambushed. Their enemies surrounded the city. Fires burned and the ravens gathered for the kill. Like Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Manassas, Elisha stood unmoved. “Don’t be afraid,” he told his servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then the prophet prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” The servant looked and saw the hills filled with horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:17). Life is not what it seems.
The scriptures tell us of countless angels that surround us day and night. Yet, when we look around, we see only the natural world, stones, sticks, and a blue sky. This makes us feel safe and grown up. In reality, we are no different than the little child who thinks he is safe because the light switch is turned on. Walruses see in shades of black and white. Imagine if you could have a conversation with a walrus (which would be quite the experience). As much as you might try, you would never convince the walrus that he was surrounded by a great spectrum of colors. His eyes are limited. He could only believe in faith. In the same way, if there is one thing that science has made clear, it is that there is far more going on around us than we can comprehend. Most of us spend our lives oblivious to the very real spiritual world.
C. S. Lewis suggests what might be the devil’s most brilliant move. He hides his existence behind tights and a pitchfork. Medieval paintings were sublime and stern. Angels appeared as daunting soldiers. Demons were drawn as dragons or beasts. The early Christians were bold in their belief in spiritual forces. Over time, Christian art softened. By the renaissance, the culture began to imagine angels that were feminine and cuddly, a cupid or infant with a harp. In our time, the popular image of an angel has become comical, the devil most of all. We have all seen the cartoons. When we think of evil, we imagine a man with red tights and silly smile. Nowadays, to believe in angels and demons feels superstitious and ignorant. To take them seriously feels absurd and embarrassing.
What does Scripture say about the angels? St. John describes hundreds and thousands of angels around the throne of God. Jacob’s vision reveals a ladder from that throne to earth, with angels coming and going. The holy stories reveal angels guarding Eden, teaching Tobit and his son, delivering messages to Mary and Zechariah, and even breaking Peter out of prison. Our Epistle reading today brings us to one of the most dramatic accounts of angels:
“War arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him…Rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev. 12:7-12).
There is nothing comical here about angels and demons.
What do angels and demons have to do in our own lives? The heroes in biblical times may have been privy to angelic visions. In our cozy and modern lifestyles, angels do not seem to have much place. Most of us Christians do not live lives altogether different than our secular co-workers. We might go to church occasionally and even say a prayer or two over a meal. Yet, when it comes to the day-to-day, we live like everyone else. We see the world like everyone else too. It is part of the times. Life boils down to psychology, upbringing, the weather, or a mix of all three…or does it?
The best psychologists will tell you there is much more going on. It is one thing to put together an idea of this world by reading the People Magazine, watching CNN, or maybe relaxing to a series of Supernatural on Netflix. It is another thing to interact with people in an insane asylum or spend time in the streets. Some of the sanest psychologists that I have studied under have worked in these asylums. They have seen paranormal activity that rivals the horror films – human behavior that surpasses physical and neurological explanation. But all that is ‘hush, hush.’ I suppose we feel safer by laughing at it. If only a prophet like Elisha would pray for us today: “Open their eyes, Lord, that they may see.”
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul warns us: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). What does this have to do with me? After all, I’m an American citizen. I can read the morning newspaper and go about my normal business. Every ordinary Joe knows that angels and demons should be left to the priests and exorcists, not me…What is the problem? This is all lies and delusion.
Every thought, every decision, every breath is part of the spiritual world. When we begin our day in prayer, we clothe our selves in the protection of bright angels. An air of peace follows us through our front doors and into the work place. When we nurse anger, lust, or pride, we open our soul and the events of the day to all manner of forces. St. Basil taught: “The guardian angel will not retreat from us, unless we drive him away by our evil deeds. As the smoke drives bees away, and stench the doves, even so our stinking sin drives away from us the angel who protects our life.” From the other side, the psalter promises, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Ps. 34:7). We are spiritual beings in a spiritual world. We cannot take this seriously enough.
How should we live? Most of the time, we spend our lives oblivious. Like the soldier who walked into the gunfire whistling, we go about our days blind to reality. On the other extreme, we have all known the fanatic who looks for demons behind the door and under his pillow. The Church provides a very simple approach. Be aware of the spiritual warfare, and simply fix your heart on Jesus Christ.
“Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with readiness…take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit (Eph. 6:13-18).”
May our Lord give us strength to live intentionally and to keep our eyes fixed on Him.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.