Upwards and downwards movement are typical aspects of the Bible’s descriptions of angels (e.g. Genesis 28; Matthew 28:2), and in Judges 13 the announcement of the miraculous conception of Samson ends with the angel ascending in flames.
In Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s short film The Carriers’ Prayer, a feat of theatrical staging plays with such movement to engender a seeming miracle.
Candles with flame-tips that point downwards could be said to both parody and pay homage to the vertical axis which we have long associated with prayer. These so-called ‘scally fireworks’ are made from tightly coiled carrier bags. They are suspended from the ‘ceiling’ of a space that has been built to resemble an austere, white-walled church—but this ‘church’ is upside down. Once lit, the fireworks are filmed. The resultant footage—in which the fireworks drip burning plastic producing an eerie sound track of pops and whistles—is then rotated 180 degrees, so that the church interior appears the correct way up and the fireworks look like malformed candles releasing their ascending pyrotechnics.
While not at pains to hide their trickery, Crowe and Rawlinson’s film brings a sense of irony and playfulness to the reverence that often surrounds prayer—as it also, perhaps, surrounds attitudes to the angels of biblical narrative.
Our attention to the movement between heaven and earth can be rooted in more than the traditional symbols of prayer: the rise of incense and the odour of burnt offerings, the bowing of heads and the upward pull of a candle’s flame. In Judges 13, Manoah’s wife is said to be ‘out in the field’ when the angel appears to her for a second time (vv.9–14). There is perhaps in this an indication of the ordinariness of that moment.
The Carriers’ Prayer reminds us that our own prayers, often mundane and material expressions of need or desire, can be nurtured and celebrated as our best efforts to reach heavenwards. And that—as with the scally fireworks—we should not belittle their everydayness.
13 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
2 And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoʹah; and his wife was barren and had no children. 3And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have no children; but you shall conceive and bear a son. 4Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, 5for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his countenance was like the countenance of the angel of God, very terrible; I did not ask him whence he was, and he did not tell me his name; 7but he said to me, ‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son; so then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’ ”
8 Then Manoʹah entreated the Lord, and said, “O, Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born.” 9And God listened to the voice of Manoʹah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but Manoʹah her husband was not with her. 10And the woman ran in haste and told her husband, “Behold, the man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” 11And Manoʹah arose and went after his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.” 12And Manoʹah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s manner of life, and what is he to do?” 13And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “Of all that I said to the woman let her beware. 14She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine, neither let her drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing; all that I commanded her let her observe.”
15 Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “Pray, let us detain you, and prepare a kid for you.” 16And the angel of the Lord said to Manoʹah, “If you detain me, I will not eat of your food; but if you make ready a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoʹah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord.) 17And Manoʹah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that, when your words come true, we may honor you?” 18And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” 19So Manoʹah took the kid with the cereal offering, and offered it upon the rock to the Lord, to him who works wonders. 20And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoʹah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground.
21 The angel of the Lord appeared no more to Manoʹah and to his wife. Then Manoʹah knew that he was the angel of the Lord. 22And Manoʹah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” 23But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.” 24And the woman bore a son, and called his name Samson; and the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. 25And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Maʹhaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshʹta-ol.