Sunday, October 21, 2012

Popcorn by The Colonel #14

Bake Sale to Run as Write-In Candidate

The Colonel is just back from a trip out West. On the return to Middletown from Bradley International Airport, he heard a song on Anthony Fantano’s radio show “The Needle Drop” by a group called “How to Destroy Angels.”

It’s good for musical groups to have memorable names (another song was by “The Babies”). The particular name “How to Destroy Angels” reminds one of Yukio Mishima’s “The Decay of the Angel,” the final novel of  his “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The name is bitterly ironic to the point of nihilism, as the Moon’s “Mare Fecunditatis” is airless, dry, and sterile.

Western angels seem to have originated in ancient Persia and found their way into Jewish writings from the Babylonian Captivity and thence into Christian writings. Although long depicted as feminine-looking winged men and women, or in the case of cherubs, as babies, angels were originally fearsome-looking, which is why most angelic visitation stories begin with the angel exhorting the visitee not to be afraid.

When Zechariah dares to doubt Gabriel’s message that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, Gabriel presents his credentials (“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God”) and strikes Zechariah dumb. In Gabriel’s parallel annunciation to Elizabeth’s kinswoman Mary, he apparently does not interpret her question about a virginal conception as doubt or a crass demand for a “sign” and gives her an answer instead of a punishment.

The angels of Mishima’s title were Buddhist "angels," a minority translation of “Devas.” In Buddhist scriptures, Devas are mortal. The five signs of the decay of a Deva-angel are:

  1. The flowery crown withers,
  2. Sweat pours from the armpits,
  3. The robe is soiled,
  4. They lose self-awareness, or become dissatisfied with their station, and
  5. The body becomes fetid or ceases to give off light, or the eyelids tremble.

Although angels enter literature in ancient times, they were much elaborated in the Middle Ages, which appreciated angels’ intermediacy or middleness. They were “middlemen” in the sense of messengers from God to humans or the doers of tasks assigned by God to be done among humans. They were also intermediate in being immortal and bodiless like God, but capable of sin like humans.

The story of the War in Heaven is ancient but not biblical, although the Bible has a few echoes of it. Rebel angels sought to overthrow God, or at least not to serve him anymore, lost the ensuing battle, were thrown out of heaven into hell, no longer called simply angels, but "fallen angels," demons, and devils. Their leader Lucifer (“light bearer”) takes on the titles “Satan” and “the Devil.” Milton has his "lost Archangel" say, "Here at least/ We shall be free." (Paradise Lost 1: 255-56) Lucifer had obviously been reading his Norman Vincent Peale.

Jealous of humanity for its its enjoyment of God's favor, the fallen angels generally bother humans (possession, sickness, disability) and especially tempt humans to replicate Lucifer's "non serviam" ("I will not serve"). Examples: the serpent’s successful work in the garden of Eden, Satan’s unsuccessful work in the Book of Job, and “the devil’s” unsuccessful testing of Jesus immediately after his baptism.

Ancient identification of the serpent in the garden of Eden with the Devil is attested by a verse in the Apocalypse: “The great dragon was thrown out, that ancient serpent, also known as the Devil and Satan [the Adversary], the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him.” 12:9 CJB (Complete Jewish Bible)

The basic idea of the Hebrew word “satan” is “someone or something standing in opposition,” so it can be used variously to mean for example “stumbling block,” "obstacle," or “enemy.” Who or what is "satan" can change with circumstances, like a political party losing an election and becoming the "opposition," while the former opposition becomes the new government. Jesus calls Peter "Satan" when Peter rebukes Jesus for predicting his suffering and death. (Mt 16:23)

Catholic readers may remember learning the grammatically challenging “Angel Prayer” as children:

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God's love commits me here,
ever this day, be at my side
to light and guard, to rule and guide.

The belief that God sends a spirit to watch every individual was common in ancient Greek philosophy. Plato alluded to it in Phaedo, 108. It existed in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Jesus apparently takes the existence of individual guardian angels for granted, at least for children, for in  Matthew 18:10, he says: “See that you never despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually seeing the face of my Father in heaven.” (Emphasis added.) (CJB)

The drive back from Bradley was around ten last night, but the traffic was still heavy, and not just trucks. The song by "How to Destroy Angels" wasn't very good, but it did suggest the thoughts above.

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