Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

A Little Lower Than the Angels

Posted on: September 29, 2020

Last year, just before Rosh Hashanah, I decided to use a rectangular canvas, 30 x 20 centimetres, to paint an angel. The big white wings spread across the width of the canvas. The angel himself was a teenage boy, early twentieth century Europe perhaps, old enough to wear a tallit but too young for a beard. He wore a peaked flat cap above which floated a silver halo and his tallit had gold fringes. His trousers appear either too short or too long, ending just above his working boots and he stood firmly in the sky casting a slight blue shadow. Most importantly, he carried an open book, bound in red leather and this, I supposed, was the book of life or, due to its relatively small format, the book of my life. This year, I look at the painting again and it strikes me that this is my guardian angel, not an archangel but one who died in Europe in the twentieth century and ascended to heaven and whose remit is to do whatever guardian angels do, in respect of myself.

I can go no further without mentioning Clarence, about whom George Bailey muttered ‘You look about like the kind of an angel I’d get.’ Henry Travers as Clarence in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is the prototype of the kind of angel we expect  to take an interest in the daily grind of our labours, problems and pleasures. And he is precisely the right angel for George as the benign Clarence is no fast-tracker but on the contrary, rather slow to get his wings, which is true also of George, bound by duty but not inclination to Bedford Falls.

When George remarks sourly ‘I got a bust in the jaw in answer to a prayer,’ Clarence corrects him: Oh no no no George, I’m the answer to your prayer.’

Peter Stanford in his book ‘Angels, a Visible an Invisible History’ (Hodder & Stoughton 2019) refers to a decline in theological angelology from about the mid twentieth century and cites Karl Barth’s view – which probably Peter Stanford does not share – that it is a mistake to treat angels as if attached to individual human beings. (Stanford p 283). Angels, according to Barth, are a force of heaven, not operators on earth for the resolution of human problems.

One must therefore rule out Cary Grant, the angel who befriends the eponymous bishop’s wife whose repressed husband, an uncharacteristically subdued David Niven, appears to disadvantage compared to Grant’s debonair and attentive angel. (The Bishops’s Wife directed by Henry Koster, 1947).

Films about angels are legion, literally in the case of Legion, Scott Stewarts’s 2010 horror movie. Often the angels are fallen, troubled and anthropomorphic, as in Kevin Smith’s 1999 comedy fantasy Dogma. I eschew horror film about angels and generally cannot take to stories about angels falling in love with individual human beings. Why would they? Our days are as grass.

I have worked in bookshops where the genre Mind, Body and Spirit was big business. Included on the MBS shelves were tarot cards including angel tarot with their Botticelli-meets-DG-Rossetti illustrations and popular memoirs by authors who spoke of being visited by angels.

The word for angel in Hebrew (מלאך) and Greek (ἀγγελος) means messenger as well as angel and the Latin angelus is virtually the same word as the Greek angelos. In the Hebrew bible, an angel is not always called a malakh but sometimes an ish – simply meaning man – especially when there is direct interaction with a human being. In the case of Jacob, he has a vision of angels of God ( malakhei Elohim) ascending and descended a ladder, but it is a man (ish) who wrestles with him until break of day.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel (face of God); for I have seen God face to face and my life is saved.

Genesis 32:31 in Tanakh or Genesis 32:30 in some translations

There is certainly a human desire for intermediaries between us and God: angels, saints and messengers whose messages bear life-changing import. Perhaps also, there is a desire for human beings to be more than merely human and only a little lower than the angels.

מָֽה־אֱנ֥וֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃

What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him,

וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃

You have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and majesty.

Psalm 8:5

On Yom Kippur, we abstain from food, drink, sexual relations, bathing and wearing leather and we wear white, all these things in imitation of the heavenly host.

Of course we want to keep our angels close.

For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee upon their hands, lest thou strike thy foot against a stone.

Psalm 91:11-12

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