St. Michael and All Angels
A sermon preached at Holy Cross Monastery for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, 9/29/15.
I speak to you in the Name of the one, holy, and living God.
In the words of the traditional prayer: “I confess to God Almighty; to blessed Mary, ever Virgin; to blessed Michael the Archangel; to blessed John the Baptist; to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul; and to all the Saints, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed…”
I confess to blessed Michael. Saint Michael and All Angels. I’m drawn this morning to two words in the name of this feast day: saint and all. So, first off with saint. I’m fairly certain that Saint Michael is the only non-human saint that we celebrate in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. He’s one of only three angels named in Scripture, the other two being Gabriel and Raphael. Michael (Micha’El), means “Who is like God?”; Gabriel (gav-ri-El) is “the Strength of God”; and Raphael is “God’s Remedy,” God’s healing. And, of course, the wider tradition goes on to expand their numbers, and we get angels like Uriel, Zadkiel, and Raguel, among others.
One Jewish tradition has it that Michael is composed entirely of snow, and Gabriel entirely of fire. And Madeleine L’Engle liked to remind folks that the first words out of an angel’s mouth whenever they appear in Scripture are usually “Fear not!”—and this, she said, should give us some idea of what they must look like.
So I’ve been contemplating this feast in light of these beings’ non-human and, for the most part, invisible status. However we understand angels, we’re being reminded today that, as Christians, we believe in realms and beings both seen and unseen. We believe that we are embedded in, engulfed by, the Unseen, and that the seen only takes up the smallest fraction of reality. Of course, quantum physicists would tend to agree.
And so it seems fitting that there be at least one Major Feast in our calendar that celebrates the beings and the reality of the unseen realms. Of course, those human saints who have gone before us now reach back to us from the Unseen as well—the Communion of Saints embraces both of the worlds. But today’s feast assures us that the Communion of Saints is not limited to human souls.
In that light, it doesn’t seem to be too far a leap to assume that if sainthood ascends the Great Chain of Being to include the likes of Seraphim and Cherubim, that it might as well descend it also and encompass creatures other than ourselves. Few of us, I imagine, would protest too greatly to a Saint Kanra, or perhaps, one day, Saints Henry, Mouse, and Moonbeam. [For those of you who don’t know these names, they're the former dog and current cats of Holy Cross Monastery.]
I confess to blessed Moonbeam. Saint Michael and all Angels. Pope St. Gregory reminds us: “You should be aware that the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message.” Angel is a function, not a nature.
And so this begs the question, must this function be confined, limited, to any specific nature? Does it belong only to those “spirits of heaven”? Perhaps, as the Saints scale up and down the Chain of Being, so too the messengers, the angels. “You will see the angels of God ascending and descending.” Well, if all creation bears a word, a message of God, then ultimately nothing in the worlds is without angelic function. Perhaps it should not be so difficult to believe in angels after all. Cats and dogs, plants and trees, snow and fire—all divine message-bearers.
But this does becomes dangerous territory, because when anything can be an angel, I no longer have to really believe in angels. I no longer have to celebrate the Unseen. And as happy as I am to believe that Robert Sevensky is, or at least sometimes is, an angel, it’s not the same as “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.” It’s not the same as “…he shall give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways.” I, we, still need the Unseen, as much as we may struggle to believe in it. And so, St. Michael, pray for us.
A final thought on that second word. St. Michael and all angels. Not St. Michael and all righteous angels. Just, simply, all of them: “The 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.”
St. Michael and All Angels. All of ‘em. Today. Well, that’s interesting. It’s rather like celebrating St. Augustine and All Human Beings. Perhaps a reminder that none of us, saint or sinner, righteous or fallen angel, exist apart from each other. And when you truly begin to see—and again, the quantum physicists would agree—how interconnected everything is, you begin to think, “Well, maybe we really can’t be saved alone…” Maybe it’s hand in hand, all together, up and down the whole Great Chain of Being, seen and unseen realms alike—or not at all.
Some of you will remember that Origen of Alexandria, all the way back in the second century, proposed a theory of apocatastasis, or universal reconciliation—that, in the fullness of time, all beings, the fallen angels, and even the great Satan himself, would be reconciled to God’s love. It’s a profoundly, well, Christian vision.
And so I’m happy that today we commemorate, celebrate, St. Michael and all of the angels: Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, and Lucifer. I’ll give the last word here to James Stephens, an Irish poet and novelist who died back in 1950. He writes in his poem The Fullness of Time:
On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.
And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.
Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.
In the fullness of time, may we be gathered with St. Michael and all the angels and saints—with Kanra and Moonbeam, Gabriel and Satan—into that glorious company that surrounds the throne. And until then, St. Michael, pray for us.