To see the 10,000 angels above us
On entering Ripon Cathedral:
when all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of
Ten thousand, to be precise.
Yes, we were there yesterday afternoon and were dazzled by the display suspended some 50 feet above the nave, a crowd of vivid white paper angels catching the afternoon light streaming through the clerestory windows.
I wasn’t sure what it meant except it must have meant something, especially for the host of origamists, some 400 volunteers including 300 school children.
Taking hold of the leaflet I learnt that the installation was called “A wing and a prayer.” The creation was designed by the cathedral's development team during lockdown as a way that the church could support the local community through the coronavirus pandemic.
Each angel represents a simple ‘thank you” to key workers as well as a prayer for a loved one. In many ways it reminded me of the kilometre-long Covid memorial wall facing the Houses of Parliament, each of the 130,000 hearts drawn by an individual. The impact is in its sheer scale.
We see such scale in the final book of the Bible, Revelation, where John in his vision is seized by the spectacle of innumerable angels:
“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. . . In a loud voice they were saying:
‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!’”
Don’t forget that this is in a context of John being alone and isolated, exiled to the island of Patmos, moved – so to speak – out of the way where he could be safely forgotten. Banished, in his own words, “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9).
No doubt a testing experience, acutely aware of the powers arranged against him, those he could see in the form of Roman soldiers and even more so in the unseen principalities and powers contesting God.
The current collapse of the Afghan government in the face of the Taliban onslaught must mean sheer terror to many citizens, especially Christians. It reminds me of the similar collapse of the South Vietnamese government to the Vietcong in 1975.
One of those who was to fall victim to the Communist takeover was the newly appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon, Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận. It didn’t help him exactly that his uncle had been the first President of South Vietnam.
It must have been a terrifying experience as the Vietcong entered Saigon. Thuận was targeted and sent to a re-education camp. He was there for 13 years, nine in solitary confinement. Nine years, alone and isolated.
However, when you are a disciple of Jesus you are never alone and isolated, however overwhelming your oppressor. Jesus promises his presence no less, to be alongside us. And this makes all the difference.
For Thuận this meant regular communion with just a grain of rice and enough 'enough rice wine to hold in the palm of his hand.' Not by himself but in the company of angels and archangels, far more than a mere ten thousand.
Thuận may have been in solitary but he was always in solidarity with his fellow disciples. So he was able to smuggle out messages of encouragement on scraps of paper. These brief reflections, copied by hand and circulated within the Vietnamese community, have been printed in the book, The Road of Hope.
For him right relationships are everything. So one of his messages: “You excuse yourself saying, ‘I cannot perform acts of charity because I have no money.’ Why do you think you need money to practice charity? What about the charity of a smile and a warm handshake, the charity of human compassion and understanding, the charity of a visit or a remembrance in your prayers?”
This is something to hold onto as we emerge, we hope, from the pandemic. So many lives have been blighted by the experience of social isolation. The example Thuận is just one story from countless followers of Jesus who learnt to see the unseen while at the same time refusing to be intimidated by what they could see.
For it is so easy to be overwhelmed by all that would intimidate us. Like Elisha’s servant on seeing that they were surrounded by the horses and chariots of their Aramean enemy. Another hopeless situation. ““Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.” (2 Kings 6:16)
“And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (v17)
May the Holy Spirit open our eyes to see the ten thousand angels, 50 feet above the nave.#