The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels: Michelmas
September 29, 2019
O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Angels are markers of divine visions. Their appearance in Scripture signals to us that we are in the presence of the Holy—that which is set apart, set apart as God’s—and that the Holy has broken into our profane world.
In today’s reading from Genesis, the angels in Jacob’s vision, the angels “ascending and descending on” the ladder, lead his eyes upwards to behold the Lord God standing above it all. In our Gospel, Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will truly know that the Kingdom of God has come when he has seen “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Sons of man.” Angels point us to the divine, show us we are in the presence of the holy, and reveal the power and glory of God.
As we read in the Revelation to John, angels can show us in wonderfully figurative language God’s majesty in its fullest, the court of heaven defended against the devil and his apostate angels, continually praising God by singing that hymn we know so well, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are filled with thy Glory, Hosanna in the highest.” The angels, all the different kinds of angels about whom we will sing at the end of the liturgy when we join in that wonderful favourite, “Ye watchers and ye holy ones,” all those different angels serve and glorify God in the court of heaven. Angels reveal to us the extent of God’s rule over all creation, they reveal to us the greatness and magnificence of God. Yet, at the same time, they show us that still, as magnificent and great as God is, we matter to God and that what we do in the world of the here and now is itself important, for angels are also God’s messengers.
While many angels praise God in the Heavens, Scripture—from the ancient writings, through the inter-testamental period, and into the age of the Gospels—also tells us that God has sent the angels to us over and over again. Further on in Jacob’s story, after he dreamt the vision of the ladder ascending to heaven, after he had a vision of angels ascending and descending, an angel descended and came to Jacob and wrestled with him. Jacob was even winning the contest until the angel cheated and sprained Jacob’s thigh. In the struggle, in this contest with the forces of the cosmos, Jacob’s tenacity and courage, his strength and endurance were so impressive that the angel, in a powerful action that foretold great things to come, gave Jacob his new name, “Israel,” or “he who strives with God,” for he had striven with God and prevailed (Gen. 32:28).
In a story from the second-century Hellenistic period, although set in ancient times, God heard the prayers of blind Tobit and Sarah (a young woman haunted by a demon.) and sent to them the Angel Raphael to heal and save them. Raphael, in disguise, journeyed with Tobit’s son Tobias and guided the boy so he might procure the magic fish guts necessary for the task; and in the end Tobias married Sarah. At the end of the story Raphael reveals himself and declares that he is “one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the Holy One” (Tobit 12:15) He makes it clear that he “did not come as a favour on [his own] part, but by the will of our God” (13:18). Our suffering affects God and in this story Raphael’s job is to mediate between the timeless world of the divine and our world, to show how the love and kindness of a neighbour—even a stranger/neighbour—works wonders in the lives of God’s people.
And even in these later days, in the age of the Gospels, the Angel came to Mary and told her that she would conceive and bear a Son (Luke 1:26-38). Gabriel came unexpectedly and perhaps unwanted and delivered to her unbelievable news that would change the course of the world. Luke tells us that Mary “was greatly troubled” when he said “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you.” She “considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel reassured her, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and shall call his name Jesus.” He went on to explain how this would work and that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, whose husband had also been visited by an angel, would also bear a son. Mary listened to everything Gabriel said and in the end could say, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: let it be to me according to your word.”
In scripture angels come and engage with us. They wrestle with us, travel with us, discourse with us. They bring us news, challenge us, and help us. Their visitations are not always easy. If the experiences of Jacob, Tobit and Tobias, and Mary are to be credited, we might very well injure ourselves or, at the least, be, in the words from Tobit, “alarmed” (13:16). God wishes to engage with us, these stories are telling us. God wants to be a part of our lives and wants us to be part of the work of God.
Angels show us both how we are connected with that almighty, powerful, majestic God who reigns on high and that this Glorious Lord God of Hosts also seeks to engage with creation. We heard earlier how Jacob saw how “there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” The ladder to heaven goes both ways. Earth may be joined with heaven and heaven joined with earth. This is the expectation that Jesus shares with Nathaniel. Jesus shows him how there are great things to come, how heaven and earth will cooperate to bring about something amazing, something no less than the unfolding of the kingdom of God.
As we celebrate this great feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, as we mark the beginning of our new year of programs and liturgies that glorify God and unite us with God in the celebration of the Sacraments, let us remember that heaven are earth are joined whenever we sing “Holy, holy, holy.” Let us remember that we unite ourselves with the choirs of Angels and Archangels and all the Company of heaven in this celebration. Let us remember that we unite ourselves with all other Christians around the world who mark this feast. And let us know that truly—if even just for a moment—heaven and earth are joined and God gives us a glimpse of his glory in its fullest.
At the same time, let us never forget that the ladder goes both ways, that God sends messengers to us all the time, in the in between times, in the night, and whenever we least expect it. God sends angels in various forms to remind us that we are connected with God and God is connected with us and that we are called deeply into relationship with God and each other. God, through the messages of the angels, asks us to engage in the work of the kingdom, in building community like Jacob, in healing the sick like Tobias, and even, like Mary, in following the unexpected path on which we might be set. Celebrating this Michaelmas in the knowledge of God’s majestic promise that we are reconciled with God and with each other, let us be strengthened and go from this place empowered in our ministries in the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Cosmas and Damian, 27 September 2010
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume