There is a scene near the end of both the book and the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” when all appears to be lost. Harry is trapped in the deep and dark chamber under Hogwarts. His nascent love, Ginny Weasley, is unconscious and near death, and the giant basilisk, a venomous, serpentine monster, lashes out at Harry. Things are desperate.
And then, just as all hope is lost, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix flies unexpectedly through the cavern on outstretched wings, piercing the gloom with sound and light with the means to save Harry. The symbolism is potent and cannot be missed: The phoenix is the bird that rises from the ashes of death into new life, and in this case the phoenix becomes the instrument of Harry’s salvation. This particular phoenix is an extension of his master, Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is surely Harry’s guardian angel.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote the seminal text on the Hero’s Journey (which I taught last semester during the Dean’s Hour) says that when, in the universal and mythic story of the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves his home and sets out for new and strange lands, helpmates will appear. Our great stories surely substantiate Campbell’s claim. Gandalf appears to accompany Frodo when the hobbit leaves the shire. Obi-Wan emerges from the Tatooine desert to teach Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force.
The pattern repeats in Holy Scripture, and the Bible isn’t shy about naming such helpmates angels. Jesus himself, once he has entered the wilderness and faced the temptations of the Devil, is immediately tended by angels, who, it seems, have been perched in waiting just off scene all along. The most striking example of all is in the book of Tobit from the Apocrypha—a book everyone should read—when the young man Tobias is sent by his father on a long and treacherous quest. God looks favorably on the boy, and God sends the archangel Raphael, disguised as a grubby nomad, to guide Tobias on his way. More than once, it is only by the intervention of Raphael that Tobias escapes things that would otherwise drag him down.
The story of Raphael and Tobias, along with several others in Scripture, are the impetus for the opening sentiment in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.”
We can—and I do—affirm with Joseph Campbell that God will not fail to send helpmates. But the reality is that we rarely know who, among all those we meet on our paths, could be God’s angels. We don’t know from whence help may come. It would be easier if Raphael would show up in a blaze of angelic glory, announced with heralds in the heavens. But because God’s helpmates are so often disguised, if we are complacent and inattentive we may miss them altogether.
So, how can we best assure that we catch a glimpse of our guardian angels, that we take the time to acknowledge and notice them for what they are, so that we can become the beneficiaries of their saving aid? The answer comes in Hebrews’ wondrous paradox: The best way, the most assured way, is to live our lives so that we are angels to others. The author of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. Remember those who are being tortured [in body or in soul], as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
You see, if we will take the time and the chance to be an angel to someone else in need, we may discover in that pause that the person to whom we are tending is exactly the angel we, ourselves, have desperately sought.
We tend, I think, to assume that such encounters must be momentous, the stuff of mythic sagas or Hollywood blockbusters. We’ve read and watched everything from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings so often that we tend always to imagine ourselves as the epic hero. Our experience of saving helpmates must be something like Harry Potter with that phoenix! But our hero’s journeys are rarely so. Let me tell you a story. When I had just graduated from the University of Chicago with a newly-minted master’s degree in theology, the associate rector of my parish assigned me to create and teach a new adult Sunday school class. That first Sunday, we had twenty attendees. By the fourth week, though, the only people in my class were Jill and a great guy named Dale Conder who was too nice to quit. The following Monday, I conferred with the associate rector, who asked me my subject matter. “Oh, I’m teaching big stuff,” I said, “Complex theological ideas that even include some German and Greek words. You know, earth-shattering things!”
And the priest replied, “Barkley, it’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.”
He was right. It’s not usually the bombastic sermon, or the sublime experience, or any other big thing that saves us, that serves as the point at which an encounter with one of God’s angels makes the difference between life and death. Our lives are not, usually, lived like Hollywood epics. It’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering. The moments that matter are, rather, what I call the small occasions of grace, that blessedly happen on our otherwise mundane days just when despair or the Devil seems about to get the upper hand: the phone call received at the right moment, the hug, the expression of solidarity or care, the gesture of comfort. Often, the angel who brings this occasion of grace doesn’t even recognize the depth or power of what he or she is doing. I can think of a dozen moments in life when God has placed an angel along my path, when through some person—sometimes random, other times well-known—a small occasion of grace found me at just the right moment, when it had seemed like all was lost. I believe you know what I mean, and I daresay there have been other times of which we’re scarcely aware when we have been such angels for someone else.
Why is it that the world works this way? How is it that God creates angels out of otherwise ordinary women and men, that God renders angels of us, with such profound power in such small gestures? The answer is why, at the end of the day, our audacious claim that Jesus is not merely a man, but is God incarnate, matters. Hebrews tells us today that the same God who knit the stars in the heavens and our children in their mothers’ wombs—remembers us. God remembers those who are in prison as though God is in prison. God remembers those who are being tortured as though God is being tortured. God remembers those who grieve, and who worry, and who face disappointment, and who are alone, as though God is all of these things as well. Because, through the Incarnation, that same God became the fragile man who was imprisoned, and tortured, and grieved, and abandoned. Even God has felt the need for those occasions of grace. There is no substitute in this world for the empathy that comes from one who has walked the darkened paths we sometimes walk. You know this, and so do I. And the promise of our faith is that, in Jesus, God has walked all those paths.
God is not some Deist clockmaker, aloof in the heavens, and neither is God some capricious king, doing his will without thought of those on its receiving end. God is the one who knows what we’re facing because God has faced it all, and God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And that is why God sends angels. That is why God makes angels of us.
It is a mighty responsibility, and the paradox holds. We can only be angels, and we can only meet angels, when we pause to notice others in their need. What angel might you meet today? As an angel, whose life might you save through an occasion of grace?