Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Evolution of Angels

Reflections on Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Good Shepherd Church 1/2/11
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

The readings we have been enjoying in the Christmas season describe a very familiar message from the angels – one that we all know and treasure. A baby arrives, like many babies do, in a cold, unsheltered environment, sheltered only by the love of its astonished parents. This is a very prosaic beginning- a baby human born among his human parents, and several common animals. Even the arrival of the shepherds is not overly surprising, but then, the shepherds begin to tell the tale of what the angels said to them: “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah. We read that “all who heard it were amazed” and Mary, astonished, treasures this news in her heart.

But in our Gospel reading today, we hear of a new set of angelic messages- beginning with a very ominous one. Joseph is warned by the angels that he must flee with his family, or Herod will surely destroy the child. Joseph unquestioningly follows the advise of the angel and brings his child to Egypt. Twice more Joseph is visited by the angel in a dream, and twice more he obeys, and brings his wife and child to safety in Nazareth.

When did angels first appear in human consciousness? When did the idea of the Holy begin? When did the first notion of God emerge? These questions are beautifully explored in a great book I am now reading. Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”, is not only a remarkable and intelligent attempt to answer these questions, it also seems to be an answer to the numerous books we now see that are basically “The Case for Atheism.”

In the beginning of Ms. Armstrong’s book, we find ourselves in France, in the underground caverns of Lascaux. The guide has just switched off his flashlight and, as one visitor recalled,” The senses are suddenly wiped out- the millennia drop away. You were never in a darker darkness in your life.” Then as now, in order to arrive at the caves with the famous prehistoric animals painted on the ceiling, one has to go back to the utter, formless, directionless blackness of... the beginning. Then as now, the pilgrims must “stumble for eighty feet down a long sloping tunnel, sixty-five feet below ground level, penetrating ever more deeply into the bowels of the earth.” They then have the privilege of seeing what seems to be an incredibly ancient precedent to ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The earliest French site at Grosse Chavet, dates from about 30,000 BCE. It is now apparently accepted that these labyrinthine caves were sacred places for the performance of a religious ritual- they were man-made wombs for the Holy. They were temples. Why did humans, in these distant times, express themselves, make their mark, go to such extraordinary lengths and expend so much energy, so much apparently unproductive labor, to create these amazing images of oxen and bison horses and mammoths- these startlingly beautiful images? What angels were they obeying?

On my vacation last month my husband and I had a rare opportunity to spend five days in the museums and Galleries of the amazing (and free!) Smithsonian Institution, as I had as a child. We were particularly captivated by a wonderful display of early Homo Sapiens and their tools, art work, early rituals and religion. Probably the very first implication of a ritual action, a consciousness of the afterworld, is the fact that among a number of skeletons deposited in a deep cave, was a smooth carved and burnished stone that had been placed there with the bodies. There seemed to be a need to honor them, or to equip them for the afterlife. The evidence is mounting that even these early humans had some consciousness of the sacred.

Far from shrinking from the scientific evidence of creation, as some modern as well as ancient Christianians have done, our own Bishop Marc brought with him, when he first joined us from Alabama, a wonderful presentation called the Cosmic Walk. This is a ritual created to celebrate and illustrate the miracle of the natural history of the universe, using sacred language. A rope is placed on the ground in a great spiral, and candles are lit at important milestones. We are given the opportunity to see what this glorious creation, so often celebrated in our religion, is really all about. I have always noted that this account has much in common with the Genesis story. It begins with “The Great Flaring Forth” more commonly known as “The Big Bang” 14 Billion years ago, and then describes the development of the stars, the supernovas, the universe, the earth, the emergence of plant and animal life, finally detailing human evolution. Here it is in a MUCH edited and abridged form:

5 Million Years Ago – Human Ancestors Walk on Two Legs
In Africa, our ancestors leave the forest, stand up, and walk!

140,000 years ago – Anatomically Modern Human Emerges
The ancestors of modern humans walk the savannah of east-central
Africa. All modern humans are the progeny of one small group of these.

12,000 years ago- A Homo Sapiens artist paints an image on the walls of Lascaux: A large bison that has been pierced by a spear, thrust through its hindquarters. Lying in front of the animal is a man, with arms outstretched, wearing what seems to be a bird mask. His staff, also lying on the ground, is also topped by a bird’s head. The image is repeated many times in different places, and the man depicted is likely a shaman.

Armstrong contends that the very first efforts at art and the very first efforts at worship were one and the same. There was a irresistible pull to soothe or explain the profound discomfort felt even then, by the killing of creatures so much like themselves. The shaman- a early priest, was doing his or her best to span the mystery of life and death- slaughter and survival. As Armstrong writes, “From the very beginning, it seems, religious life was rooted in an acknowledgement of the fact that life depends on the destruction of other creatures”- on sacrifice.

Angel-like, the shaman were thought to have a kind of mystical power of flight- thus the bird-mask. And the paints were composed of animal elements- blood and fat- so there was an attempt to miraculously resurrect those sacrificed beings.

We have seen how all the wonder of creation came about- how the stars were formed, how humans came to be. But the consciousness of the holy, the yearning and pull toward morality, the existence of love for other creatures, seems to have been there from the very beginning. And as soon as human consciousness was born, we felt it. And just as Joseph listened to the angels, humankind responded to this unnamed Holy Spirit. It does not have a scientific explanation, we cannot measure God, but we feel it. All through all the vast darkness of space, through the trials and errors of evolution, the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This life-giving, loving glory was in the beginning with God, this light, this magnificence, this glorious cosmic creation. It is a vast mystery-we cannot fully comprehend it, anymore than those early artists of Lascaux could. But we have a human incarnation of this holiness, this enfleshment of God’s loving word, this new creation, this reality that outshines every darkness. This is the love of Christ, foretold by the angels, and given by God.