Walk on the side of the angels

In Features /

By Eliana Schneider

It was almost noon in Israel when Sharon Leiber went to the supermarket to buy her usual Friday groceries.  As she and her husband manoeuvred their shopping cart through the crowded fruit and vegetable aisles, they smiled at the familiar shoppers.

But one old man caught Sharon’s eye.

She had never seen him in the supermarket before.  Sharon looked closer.  The man looked exactly like her father.  Same face, same build, same walk, same hat.  In fact it could have been him, but he was supposed to be back home in New York City at the time.  Sharon stared long and hard.  She was in awe at the close resemblance.

She turned around to call her husband, Zvi, to take a look.  “There’s a man who looks just like dad,” she said.  But when they looked back, the old man was gone.

Sharon checked her watch.  Noon.

Hours later, Sharon got a phone call.  It was her brother in New York, telling her that their father had passed away at 5 a.m.  Noon in Israel.

Sharon is my aunt.

Could it be that my grandfather tried to say a last goodbye to his daughter.

Seventy-five per cent of Americans might think so.  According to a 1997 Barna Research Group poll, that’s how many people believe angels exist, up from 56 per cent 1978.

You’ve probably seen an angel today.  Maybe on a TV show, or as a dancing cherub on a Hallmark card.  The heavenly inspired angels are finding their way down to earth.  They’re being filtered into pop culture.

With angle showing up on mugs and movie screen, in best-seller books and on the Web, a new era of angle belief is upon us, one that’s a far cry from the traditional image of angels as God’ errand-runners.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

In biblical writing, both the Old and New Testament, there are hundreds of references to angels as God’s messengers to mankind.  The word angel is a translation of the Hebrew word for messenger.  The biblical passages refer more to angels’ actions rather than what they look like, which includes human forms and creatures with different faces.  The two major Western faiths, Christianity and Judaism, are filled with angel lore, while other religions also include angels in their traditions.

In Jewish theology, all angels are subordinate to God and follow Hi directions.  Even references to Satan in the Book of Job make clear that he does not act on his own.  Satan only carries out sentences on man that God imposes.  In Christianity, however, the fallen angles, or devils, were created innocent but rebelled against God and now act according to their own will.  Led by Satan, they tempt people towards evil.

Biblical writing includes references to guardian angels.  When Hagar the housemaid was sent away by Abraham, an angle comforts her in the wilderness and brings water to quench her son’s thirst.  Even though there are Biblical records of a guardian angle, the concept has mainly been popularized in modern times, with people looking towards guardian for comfort guidance.

 

On April 25, 1993 Don Spann, then 58, accidentally fell off his yacht into the freezing, dark Atlantic waters, reports People magazine in a 1996 story.  He and first mate John Thomson were 20 miles from shore.  “I knew I was in trouble,” says Spann.  He began to pray, and 40 minutes later, barely conscious, he heard Thomson calling out his name from aboard the yacht.  Thomson threw out a rope, but as Spann tired to grab on, he sank 10 feet under water.  “Then it was like, kapoosh.  I thought John dove in.  I feel this firm grip on my biceps, then a grip on my other arm.  We’re 15 feet from boat, and we got straight to the boat in one second.”  Safe and sound, the two men were reunited later that day after being examined at a local hospital.  Spann thanked Thomson for jumping into the water and saving him.  “I never went into the water,” said Thomson.

Spann is convinced “a guardian angel” saved his life.

Angels got their wings in the fourth century, when artists began to illustrate them that way to distinguish them from human beings in paintings (although there are some Biblical references to “winged” angels).  Two centuries later, theologians began to study angels (angelology) and classified them into categories that were further developed the 13th century.  Angels come in all shapes and sizes.  From Seraphim and Cherubim to Dominions and Virtues, each perform their own special duties.

In the 18th century, belief in angels weakened with the onset of Enlightenment.  That era in European history stressed scientific and rational thought over religious and spiritual dogma.  Belief in angels was replaced by science.

But it is clear that by now we have moved into a post-modern era, where science is not the sole way of thinking, says Keith Hampson, who teaches media and cultural studies at Ryerson.  Ill people are turning to alternative cures, while some doctors are emphasizing spirituality as a key to healing.

“We’re seeing an erosion in science’s ability to provide all the answers to human problem,” Hampson says.  “There’s a void, and something has to fill it.”  People use angels to explain the unknown and to provide answers to life’s random chaos, he says.

Some scholars also argue that with Canada’s large middle-aged population, people are turning to angels for support in dealing with mortality.

With sweet cherubs on T-shirts, and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing an angel in a recent film, we’re putting spiritual entities into a physical form that we can relate to, says Hampson.  This could explain why angels are so popular on TV.

“When you see an angel on a TV show, it works quickly to communicate certain things.  We know what it means right away.”

But how close is today’s angel to the biblical image?

“They’re representations,” says Hampson.  “Often when we interpret the social and visual world, it is reality versus representation.”

For some people, angels and religious icons, while for others, they are Roma Downey and Della Reese in the TV series Touched by an Angel.  Some people are lucky enough to be touched by their own angels — personal angelic encounters are posted on an assortment of angel Web sites.  You can order angel paraphernalia online, you can join Oprah’s Angel Network, or an angel can be the good or evil inside you.

But whatever your idea of an angel, one thing is for sure: the Angels in the Outfield are moving infield.  Much closer to home.

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