Thursday, October 6, 2011

Feast of St. Michael

Genesis 28:10-17
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51

When I was four years old, I remember waking up in the night, the bedroom lit only by a bit of moonlight through the window. I woke up because I was falling out of bed. But I wasn’t nervous at all, and I still remember the fall being gentle. I got up and climbed back into bed, knowing that I had been alright because my guardian angel was there and had lowered me gently to the ground. When thinking of the event now, I recall Psalm 91, “And he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep the in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone. Memories are not always reliable, but this one has been with me for a long time.

Today we celebrate St. Michael the Archangel, one of the Patrons of our Jurisdiction. Traditionally, This was one of a few feasts dedicated exclusively to Michael. In more recently devised calendars, the other Archangels are included. And although the Orthodox Christians don’t celebrate Michael until November, when they do, the feast is even broader: The Synaxis (or Common celebration) of Michael and All the Bodiless Powers. And finally, in the traditional calendar, today would be the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So today, I’d like to talk about angels in general.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of angels, and - based on my conversations with various people recently, these images are pretty common - is a large, beautiful, and probably sort of androgynous looking human, with large bird wings wearing a robe. Michael however, doesn’t wear a robe, but rather a roman breastplate and kilt, and carries a sword. They can be invisible, and when they’re not on earth, they sit around heaven playing harp.

Looking at some more learned people’s opinions, I found quite a bit more information than the common knowledge. St. Denis the Aereopagite says that angels are portrayed with animal parts, such as bird wings, or, in the case of Cherubim, with hooves, specifically because animal parts on a celestial being should strike us as unbelievably ridiculous, and we can then ask what the symbols *mean*, rather than accept them as the actual appearance.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, wrote in his 12th c. “Guide to the Perplexed”, that angels were what we would presently call “Natural laws.” He writes,
“Say to a person who is believed to belong to the wise men of Israel that the Almighty sends His angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form there the fœtus, he will be satisfied with the account; he will believe it, and even find in it a description of the greatness of God's might and wisdom; although he believes that the angel consists of burning fire, and is as big as a third part of the Universe, yet he considers it possible as a divine miracle. But tell him that God gave the seed a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," .. and he will turn away; because he cannot comprehend the true greatness and power of creating forces that act in a body without being perceived by our senses.”

How different were his times than our own!

The authorities agree that the word “angel” is properly a description of the office, and not the creature per se, because angels are “Messengers” of God’s will. Angels have no bodies, being spiritual creatures - made of intellect and will. St. Thomas Aquinas states that angels can put on bodies, like a set of clothes, if necessary to appear before the waking eyes of multiple persons, as when the three angels were entertained by Abraham and Sarah. These bodies are, however, merely drawn out of the air, and dispersed when the angel is through. More often, angels are perceived, (when perceived at all), through the spiritual sight - what we call the imagination, as when Jacob beheld them ascending and descending on the ladder. Thomas further states that, being made of intellect and not matter, angels are not bound to a particular space in the *same fashion* that we are. Rather, when we say that an angel is “in a place”, that means something similar to us “thinking about something.” That is simply the location where the angel’s understanding is occupied.

St. Thomas says that the higher orders of angels are concerned with broader fields of operation - the universe, the world, certain countries, etc. The lowest order of angels may be concerned with individuals. Among these are what we call Guardian Angels. Although some angels are guardians over entire peoples - as God said to the Israelites going out of Egypt, "Behold, I send mine angel before you," yet every individual also has an Angel guardian. And unlike the grace of baptism, which comes only to some, God gives to every individual a guardian angel at their birth. And just as the devil and his angels are able to provide us with evil or despairing thoughts, worries and temptations; so our guardian Angel is able to provide us with hope, strength, and possibilities. In "The Bishop's Wife", the angel Dudley is telling the bishop's daughter about the boy David driving the Lions away from his sheep, and composing the psalms, and he says that an Angel put the idea in his head, although David didn't realize that it was an angel.

What does knowing something about the Angels do for us? Why not simply know that God cares for us, and leave his method unexamined? God does nothing without a purpose, and anything we come to know about God brings us closer to him, and allows us to live more fully in him. Just as he has revealed to us his Unity in Trinity to teach us, among other things, the primacy of Love, so by operating through the ministry of Angels are we reminded that our Love for God cannot strictly play out privately between God and Us, but is mediated through his creation. As Jesus says, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and comforted the sorrowful are those who have done so to him. Angels remind us that we cannot operate alone, and indeed, we need not: we never are alone. Not only does God attend us each individually, but furthermore he sends angels to help and guide us.

In the reading from the Apocalypse of St. John, we heard that Michael overcame the devil and his angels, and threw them out of heaven. Commentators disagree on whether this happened at some time in the distant past, if it happened at the birth of Christ, or if it will happen at the end of the world. Regardless, we may know that in the last days, when we approach the judgement, the accuser will not be there, having lost his power. And although, for the time being, his evil angels are allowed to operate on earth, and are, within the bounds set by God for reasons that we cannot fully understand right now, allowed to try to harm us, we always have helpers near at hand to support us. And as the angels themselves, being creatures of spirit, abide with us through the simple direction of their thoughts, so we too need never turn further than to think on or imagine the angels and saints in order to be truly present with them.
And as we grow in faith, and attend to the action of God in our lives, may we ever more often be able to say with Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!" And as we realize more truly God's dwelling within us, may we ever more securely realize that our own hearts are "none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven."