In our readings for today, the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes a new cosmic hierarchy and explains how that new hierarchy fits into a proper understanding of soteriology (that is, how we are to be saved from death): “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world… [who] having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (Hebrews 1:1-2, 4)
Like the ancient Hebrews, many of us set great store by “angels” and other persons or events that we perceive to be emissaries from God (whether they actually are such emissaries or not). This impulse is why the author of the letter is at such pains to explain how, after the resurrection, Jesus is greater even then the greatest of the angels and, critically for our salvation, that they are now to work to fulfill God’s will specifically for those who are to be saved: “Are they [the angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).
Unlike ancient Israel, we grossly misperceive angels. In the popular imagination, angels are either fluffy and rococo, like celestial 1970s florists, or they are unsettling pinups of airbrushed androgyny. More urgently, and disastrously, we often want to become quasi-angels ourselves, little deities of great powers and divine destiny.
On television, we can follow the drama of a biker club in Sons of Anarchy.
It is a production of considerable theological insight and some great music. Here are The Forest Rangers/The White Buffalo and “Come Join The Murder”:
There’s a black bird perched outside my window
I hear him calling
I hear him sing
He burns me with his eyes of gold to embers
He sees all my sins
He reads my soul
One day that bird, he spoke to me
Like Martin Luther
Come join the murder
Come fly with black
We’ll give you freedom
From the human trap
Come join the murder
Soar on my wings
You’ll touch the hand of God
And He’ll make you king
Who does not desire to be free of “the human trap”? Who would not want God to make him or her king? In our sinfulness, who does not expect such an outcome?
Yet “murder” has two meanings: a group of crows and a type of homicide. Satan’s emissary, the crow, betrays us as soon as we try to be angels:
On a blanket made of woven shadows
Flew up to heaven
On a raven’s glide
These angels have turned my wings to wax now
I fell like Judas grace denied
The lyrics conflate Icarus and Judas, but we get the point. The flaw is within our hearts, rather than in God’s creation, as the crow reminds us: “He laughed aloud as he flew from Eden/You always knew, you never learn.”
The Beowulf poet got it right more than a thousand years ago, as translated by Seamus Heaney:
The raven winging
darkly over the doomed will have news,
tidings for the eagle of how he hoked and ate,
how the wolf and he made short work of the dead.
The letter to the Hebrews describes the “human trap” full well, but it has better news than the crow and his fellows in the murder: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
Once tasted, death is taken away, mine and yours, forever. The murder is gone.