“... there are stories among us that God had taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One on earth. But we know less of this than you; it is a thing we desire to look into.”
– an angel, speaking to a human, in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet
“He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” – Hebrews 1:7
If you were to ask someone “Where do people go when they die?” the answer you would likely get is, “To Heaven.” But, if you then ask “What is Heaven?” you may find that your friend can only go in a circle: “Why, Heaven is the place where people go when they die!”
We don’t tend to think of Heaven much – except when someone we love dies, and even then we don’t have very many clear ideas, except perhaps this: Heaven is a good place to be.
I hear it many times when I am helping people prepare for a funeral: “He is at peace now,” one will say; and another would add, “He’s with his darling Bessie,” all of which suggests that the speakers instinctively believe the dead person is alive, with no pain or discomfort, and in the presence of other deceased who are equally in a state of pleasantness.
We go somewhere when we die; it is pleasant and good; and the people we love, who have died before us, are there, and we will see them once more, and be happy.
Well, at least that is what many of us automatically believe, if we were pressed to think about it.
Sometimes I get asked whether or not animals go to Heaven. A farmer probably wouldn’t ask that... “Good heaven’s, it’s an animal!” he might say, being accustomed to think about his pigs and steers as food, and as an income. But in the city many people take their dog or cat to see Santa Claus, and make sure there is a bone, or catnip, under the tree. These pets seem like people to us, and we wonder if they will be around to keep us company in heaven.
Myself, I don’t usually speculate about life after death for animals, but I do know this: that if it pleases God to make such an infinite variety of creatures to live in the world which we can see, why wouldn’t God have just as much variety or more, in worlds we cannot see? There is no reason why there cannot be a spiritual version of goats, and budgies and turtles and lions in the next world, not to mention the family dog. God is God -- and God can make whatever pleases him, including beings and creatures we ourselves cannot possibly imagine.
Take, for instance, angels. At Christmas we talk and sing a lot about them. They announce the coming of Jesus to Mary and to Joseph; they throng the skies singing around the shepherds; they are featured in countless Christmas carols; and, at this midnight service, we have read a lengthy Biblical reflection about them from Hebrews, Chapter 1.
Angels are, according to Hebrews 1:7, a particularly wonderful sort of creature – “winds,” and “flames of fire.” True, they are not as wonderful as Jesus, but they are magnificent all the same, it says.
Personally, I have not myself ever met an angel – at least not that I was aware of – but I don’t think it is very much of a stretch at all to believe that God can make such beings, and indeed populate heaven with a goodly number of them!
Normally you find angels in the presence of God. Although various places in the Bible tell us that they do battle with evil, and carry messages, being in God’s presence is central to their existence. In fact, of angels, humans, dogs, cats, tigers and iguanas, the most likely being you will find in heaven – if you should ever get there – is angels. An angel is, by definition, a being whose natural place is the presence of God. Which isn’t quite the case for us.
When speakinging earlier about the possiblity of life after death for animals, what I did not mention was that the mouse might not be so glad to see the cat in heaven – unless the cat had somehow, by death, been turned into a vegetarian – and I confess that if I were to make it into Heaven, there are some humans I might not be very glad to see there either. How on earth is heaven to be peaceful and eternally happy if all the stresses and strains of living end up being just as difficult – just as bad – in heaven, as they are on earth?
The darkness and suffering and sorrow of this world is precisely the sort of thing which we expect to be excluded from heaven. Heaven is peaceful; this world is – often – not. Heaven is full of light; this world can be very dark. The angels move in a place where everything is right, and just, and beautiful, and true; we move in a world where much is wrong, and unfair, and ugly, and false.
It has been said that when God sends the angels to bring messages into our world, they have to go out of a place of light, and dive into a thick darkness to find us. Perhaps you remember this year when a Winnipeg sewage plant valve broke, a diver had to decend into a deep tank of raw sewage in order to begin the repairs. To me, that is a fitting parallel to what it must be like for a pure spiritual being – an angel – to leave the presence of God and carry God’s messages into this dark world of sin.
Now here is the extraordinary thing – the extraordinary Christmas thing....
Angels may dip from time to time into the human murk to bring us God’s messages, but what we celebrate this night is that in the baby Jesus, God himself entered the murk in person – was born like us, lived like us, and died like one of us. Not a messenger at all, but a participant. He let the dark and wrong of human living touch him personally, choosing to cleanse it from within rather than lecture it from on high.
It has been said that the angels, unable to see clearly in the murk that comprises our human existence, longed to see, longed to know, longed to understand all this – to see what the Son of God was doing – but they were too used to being in the light, and they could not clearly make it out.
If you were to ask me “Where do people go when they die?” I may or may not agree that where we go is “Heaven;” I may, or may not say, “Yes, the people we love are there;”
But what I do know is this: if nothing else, when we die we will go to be with Jesus – the very same who was born this night – and, even though I will have to be drastically improved in order live safely with others in Heaven – even though, like the cat-having-to-become-a-vegetarian, I will have to develop skills and attitudes I haven’t done well with here – I know that Jesus will deal fairly with me, for he knows what its like to be human, having done it himself.
Christ, by highest heaven adored, is pleased to dwell as one of us. Mild, he has set his glory aside, and has been born so that we humans might never die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
... the herald angels are singing.
Sermon delivered at St. George’s Crescentwood,
Winnipeg, December 24, 2003