When the prophet Ezekiel received a vision of God, it began with four living creatures whose appearance “had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings... and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And... their wings touched one another; they went every one straight forward, without turning as they went... each had the face of a man in front; ...the face of a lion on the right side, ...the face of an ox on the left side, and... the face of an eagle at the back. Such were their faces.
“And their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the midst of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.”
And Ezekiel “saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. The four wheels had rims and they had spokes; and their rims were full of eyes round about.
“And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ez 1:5-21)
For most of my life, my only real connection with the vision of Ezekiel was to sing about it: “Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air, Ezekiel saw the wheel - wheel in a wheel - way in the middle of the air.” Having sung that spiritual many times in my lifetime, the image of the “wheel” as part of the angelic apparatus has been firmly imprinted in my mind. And it’s important, I think, that you keep the image of the angelic wheels in your minds, too, for a little while.
Shift now, to recently reported accounts of mysterious encounters that US Navy pilots have had as they flew their missions twenty and thirty thousand feet, way in the middle of the air. According to the NY Times, “strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies.... Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.”*. Some of the encounters were clearly captured by radar, but not visible to the naked eye. “The pilots said they speculated that the objects were part of some classified and extremely advanced drone program.” And there exists footage “taken by a plane’s camera in early 2015 that shows an object zooming over the ocean waves as pilots question what they are watching. ‘Wow, what is that, man?’ one exclaims. ‘Look at it fly!’” Neither the pilots nor their superiors have supplied an explanation of these unusual encounters. And no one has suggested that they might be angels - until now.
It ought to seem kooky to hear me suggest that the UFOs that Navy pilots can’t explain might just be angels. And I suppose it is a little kooky. But on this great feast, it’s my responsibility to think through the suggestion that angels are not merely a literary device or figments of our collective imagination; and that we should take seriously the possibility that angels exist within the great sphere of God’s creation, as the biblical witness more or less insists they do, and not just as ornaments in stained glass.
The collect for today reminds us that part of angels’ ministry is to “help and defend us here on earth.” So I checked to see what was happening in the news from the summer of 2014 through the following winter. I was wondering if I could detect some correlation of events that would plausibly suggest a surge in observable angelic activity.
Late in May 2014, there was a shooting near a college campus in Isla Vista, CA.
Early in June that year there was another campus shooting in Seattle, and then a few days later, a school shooting in neighboring Oregon.
Further afield, the Ebola outbreak had been begun ravaging West Africa by that summer.
In July, Eric Garner died at the hands of the NY Police Dept.
In mid-August Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.
That same month Robin Williams took his own life.
In September, ISIS militants released a video of one of their infamous and sickening beheadings - this one of the American-Israeli journalist Stephen Sotloff.
In October, the day after two Police officers were brutally attacked in New York City, there was another shooting in a school in Washington State.
Riots broke out in Ferguson, MO in November as the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing wore on.
In December, Bill Cosby’s name became mud, to put it mildly.
Later that month, NYC Police officers were attacked again, this time fatally.
As 2014 turned to 2015, gunmen opened fire at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January.
And in February, the shootings moved to Copenhagen, where two people were killed and five police officers wounded.
What a lot of death, and pain, and suffering.
If there were angels in the vicinity, what on earth were they doing? Why didn’t they help and defend all these people in so much need? What good were they to anyone?
We forget that the vision of the archangel Michael’s triumph over the Devil - “the deceiver of the whole world” - is a vision of victory to come, and not a report of a victory won. In our own time Satan and his forces remain very much at work. If you doubt me just think about the various epidemics of addiction that grip the world. The ancient dragon will be thrown down by Michael and his angels, but for the moment the battle wages on. It may be that the angels of God were just a little easier to spot during a period of painful losses in the battle between God’s goodness and the evil that threatens us all.
In the summer of 2014 Lt. Ryan Graves and Lt. Danny Accoin, flying F/A-18 Super Hornets, began noticing objects “after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system.” OK: weird. “But then [other] pilots began seeing the objects. ‘I almost hit one of those things,’ [another] pilot told Lieutenant Graves.”
“The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube.”
Like a sphere encasing a cube... a sphere encasing a cube. It was this strange detail of a hard-to-believe phenomenon that put me in mind of the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision - a wheel in a wheel, with rims and spokes and eyes all around, accompanying creatures with four faces - all facing its own way - and moving with amazing maneuverability, and speed, way up in the middle of the air.
“And when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
For the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
To be honest, preaching on angels is most often a matter of poetry, which is to say that a preacher expects to be granted a certain amount of license when talking about angels. Because to talk about angels in any other way seems to flirt with nonsense. It is often assumed, I think, that talk of angels is largely a matter of our projection of some need or hope, deep within ourselves, for a connection to a remote and unavailable God. We may talk of angels without entirely believing that they exist.
But isn’t it possible that God has, in fact, appointed angels to come to our aid and succor, our help and defense? Isn’t our need for God’s healing, reconciling, and resurrecting power more than just a poetic need? Don’t we require more than just a bit of creative license to bear the sufferings we inflict on ourselves and one another?
God’s work is not just a matter of poetry and projection. God’s work is real, as is his love for all his creatures, as is the aid and succor he gives us when we need it. God is at work in the world. Who knows how many angels he might have created to assist him in this work?
The New York Times was careful to include in its reporting the voice of a Harvard astrophysicist who points out that there could be lots of explanations for what the pilots think they saw. I’m sure that’s true.
But one of the explanations is that there are wheels, way up in the middle of the air: wheel in a wheel, way in the middle of the air. And that those wheels are a part of the angelic apparatus. (Who knows why?) And that the angels of God move with astoundingly quiet speed. And wherever the spirit goes, the wheels go too - way up in the middle of the air, way in the middle of the air.
And doesn’t it seem that the battle against the forces of evil has not yet come to an end. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that St. Michael’s victory over those satanic forces is more than just a piece of lovely poetry to which we afford a certain license, because it sounds nice? Would’t it be just the best thing if there really were angels flying to and fro with tremendous speed, sparkling like burnished bronze, and with four faces, and wings that touch each other. And a wheel next to each angel, a wheel in a wheel, that goes up and down with the angel, and to and fro - way in the middle of the air. And isn’t it easy to believe that to a Navy pilot all this might look something like a sphere encasing a cube as it rushed unexpectedly past, perhaps a bit exhausted by the battle?
Of course, an army of heavenly beings who will triumph over evil seems like too much to hope for. But their Captain is the one who has already triumphed over death. And I, for one, have decided that I am not ready to consign the angels to the category of poetic license. I am ready to believe that angels are real. I believe it is possible that Navy pilots may have encountered angels, who looked to them like a sphere encasing a cube, way up in the middle of the air! And considering that the battle between good and evil clearly wages on, in fact, I’m counting on God supplying such a force of angels, way in the middle of the air!
And so to him who sits upon the throne be honor and glory, might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, from this time forth, and for evermore. Amen.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
*All non-biblical quotations are from “Wow, What Is That?” Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects, by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, & Leslie Kean, in the NY Times, 26 May 2019