St Michael and All Angels
Sunday by Sunday at Mass we are bid by the celebrant to propel ourselves into the Sanctus with the words: “…with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven we proclaim your great and glorious name forever praising you and saying:…”
The Feast of St Michael and All Angels helps us to focus on the meaning of these words and takes us to a place certainly beyond our everyday experience and probably for most of us, beyond our wildest imaginings. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The word “angel” means messenger. In some cases in Scriptural encounters with angels those involved do not know that they have met angels until later. What God chooses to reveal to us and what human imagination chooses to create can sometimes be difficult to distinguish. On one hand are those who believe that it is no more rational to assume that human beings are the only spiritual beings God has created than it is to assume that ants are the only species of insect. Others say simply that it is impossible to believe in angels or indeed any form of spiritual realm in an age when medicine cures our ills and science subdues the vagaries of the universe.
Holy Scripture records many encounters between humans and angels, many great minds have been challenged by the possibilities of the supernatural and untold Christians testify that encounters with their guardian angels have given them timely warning or even saved their lives.
The “chief of angels”, St Michael, is known as the protector of Israel and the captain of the heavenly armies. His name means “Who is like God”. There are several Old Testament references to him. In the New Testament there are two. One in the Epistle of Jude and the other most famously in the book of Revelation:
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
In Christian tradition Michael is invoked for protection against enemies both spiritual and temporal.
We know of other archangels. Gabriel, whose name means “God is my champion”. Gabriel is the bearer of special messages to people. He comes to Zechariah to foreshadow the birth of John the Baptist and to Mary mother of our Lord to announce the birth of Jesus. Two archangels appear in the Apocrypha, Raphael, whose name means “God heals” and Uriel whose name means “God is my light”. Some traditions name seven archangels in total.
Beyond the naming of archangels there have been some rather imaginative schemes of the structure or hierarchy of heaven. Some of these were created not just to satisfy the curiosity of those interested in the supernatural but rather to ensure that the inhabitants of the heavenly realm were given their right place in heaven. This was important because people had a tendency to worship the heavenly hosts rather than offer rightful veneration.
Many of us will have grown up with the hymn by J Athelstan Riley which begins:
Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
Riley wrote his hymn around the time of the publication of the English Hymnal in 1906. He renders into verse a hierarchical scheme of heaven created by Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century. Taking the names of the supernatural entities from Holy Scripture Gregory came up with a vision of heaven that placed nine choirs of heavenly entities in three groups. The first angelic hierarchy consists of seraphim, cherubim and thrones. The next consists of dominions, princedoms and powers and the third consists of the virtues, archangels and angels.
It seems that the higher ranks have a greater focus on adoration of God while the lower ones are free to act as intermediaries between earth and heaven. In orthodox theology the seraphim are closest to God, “blazing with love for God and kindling love for God in others”. The angels on the lowest rung have the greatest concern for humanity. Each person we are told has a guardian angel.
It is this last point I want to reflect on because I find the notion of the guardian angel very challenging. This story illustrates why. The narrator relates something her mother said at a family gathering. The mother remembered that as a young child she was walking home from school with a friend. They came to the road they crossed every day and although they had always been told to be careful no one ever seemed to drive along it. On this day just as they were about to cross the road the mother froze and felt that she was being physically restrained from crossing the road. Her friend continued on as they had every other day. At that moment a truck came speeding along and hit the girl on the road. She later died in hospital. The mother told the gathering that she believed it was her guardian angel who stopped her from walking across the road. As thankful as family members were that their mother had survived, it was not lost on them to ask where the other girl’s guardian angel was. The woman relating her mother’s story concludes: “My mom sincerely believes that her guardian angel saved her life that day, but that makes me wonder about the other little girl. Her angel was taking a smoke break or something?" Those who experience life-changing and life-saving events seem unshakable in their belief despite the logical difficulties.
Another person tells the story of an incident that happened when he was rock climbing. He lost his grip and felt that he was about to fall. He would certainly be seriously injured or even killed. He reports that at the very moment he was about to fall he felt what he described as a hand on his back – the feeling was so clear that he could identify a right hand – pushing him back against the rock wall enabling him to get a better grip. An experience of his guardian angel he thought, but he also mused about where his guardian angel was when he was hit by a car. Some people must sorely test their angels.
Many have not had such experiences and are not able to make sense of them. I found help in understanding the milieu in which the angels operate in the work of the influential American Sociologist Peter Berger. Berger believed that religious or not all human beings are in touch with what he termed signals of transcendence – those experiences which take us beyond our immediate, material situations. In his book Rumour of Angels he describes several such experiences: The perception of order; the enjoyment of play; the experience of hope; the desire for justice; and our ability to engage in humour. The experiences, especially in the face of uncertainty, are common enough but they take us beyond our immediate concerns and alert us to a reality that is more than the sum of its material parts. [See for example: David Helm and Robert Allan Hill]
The feast of St Michael and All Angels draws us humbly and mysteriously into the creation of God far beyond what we see around us. Far beyond what we can measure or explain. Perhaps the best and only response is in the words of the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.