How do we speak of things that we sense are true, but which lie beyond our ability to see or touch or know? How can we, with our limited language and concepts, begin to describe the spiritual world which we sense is all around us? What can we say of unseen and mystical realities that do not lend themselves to observation or analysis?Today is the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, or “Michaelmas,” as it is sometimes known. It is a day on which we acknowledge and celebrate this unseen world by recalling the ministry of angels. That may be uncomfortable for some of us. We may feel embarrassed by the language, concept and metaphor of angels and demons, and resist the idea that unseen forces of good and evil are at work in the world. After all, we see ourselves as modern people, not given to superstitious beliefs and practices.
In spite of our discomfort, studies reveal that most of us believe that angels and demons exist. A 2004 Gallup poll, for example, found that 78% of the people in the United States believed in angels and that 70% believed in the devil.[i] That’s a significant majority. “Belief in angels is common to Christianity, Judaism and Islam,” one source tells us. “The concept of angelic beings is very similar in all three faiths: angels are spiritual beings who were created by God before the world was created. Their role is to glorify God, minister to God, and especially, act as Gods’ messengers to humans in matters of great importance (such as the announcement to Mary in Christianity and the revelation of the Qur`an in Islam). They are also helpers and guardians of the faithful.”[ii]
Christian Scriptures contain a surprising number of references to the ministry of angels. According to one count, there are 108 references to angels in the Hebrew Scriptures or “Old Testament,” and 165 references in the New Testament.
- Angels stand guard at the gate of the Garden of Eden; they minister to Hagar and to Elijah in the wilderness; they protect Daniel in the lions’ den.
- An angel informs Mary that the child she will bear is to be the Messiah.
- An angel warns Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt.
- Angels minister to Jesus in the wilderness and in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- An angel appears at the empty tomb, frightening the guards and rolling away the stone.
- Angels meet the women at the tomb and tell them of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Angels witness Jesus’ ascent into heaven and prophesy his return.
- An angel releases Peter from prison.
- An angel directs Philip to speak with the Ethiopian eunuch.
- And in the Book of Revelation, countless angels surround the Throne of God, offering their unceasing praise.
Angels often appear in human form, sometimes clothed in dazzling white, but what they do is more important than what they look like. In the Christian Scriptures, angels are engaged constantly in the praise and worship of God in heaven. When they are sent to interact with human beings, they do so in a variety of ways: sometimes they reveal God’s purposes, they instruct and guide, they provide and protect, they deliver from trouble, they answer prayers, they strengthen and encourage, or they care for people at the moment of death. In essence, they are messengers of God’s revelation and ministers of God’s care, and that gives us reason enough to celebrate their ministry on this solemn feast day.
The Scriptures speak not only of angels who are God’s messengers and ministers, but of angels who resist God and attempt to thwart God’s purposes in the world. The Book of Revelation, for example, speaks of a great battle taking place in heaven between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The Archangel Michael is the leader of the forces of good and the protector of the human race. Throughout the ages he has come to the aid of those who struggles against the spiritual forces of wickedness that corrupt and destroy the people of God. Satan, the Evil One, along with hosts of fallen angels, stands opposed to God and wars constantly against God and against human beings.
This kind of figurative language – of cosmic battles between the forces of good and evil – might seem odd to us, like something out of Star Wars. But we have to acknowledge, don’t we, the reality of the struggle, both in our world and in our own hearts, between forces that would turn us towards God and those that would turn us away from God. All of us know this reality intimately and we struggle with it each and every day. Pause to consider for a moment how you’ve experienced this struggle in your own life this past week:
- In what ways have you been tempted to think or speak or do evil?
- How have you been teased by temptation and seduced by sin?
- Has there been an inner voice urging you to give up your quest for God and focus on obtaining and enjoying the world’s riches and pleasures?
- Has the Enemy planted seeds of doubt or discouragement or despair in your heart?
- And what have you observed of the Spirit of God at work in you?
- Have you experienced an invitation to do good, to be generous, to express thanks, to bless others in some helpful way?
- In what ways have you been enticed by evil or inspired by good?
Discerning the movements of these good and evil “spirits” is an essential skill our life of discipleship. The 16th century Spanish saint, Ignatius of Loyola, warns us that the Evil One can and does masquerade as an angel of light and that, therefore, we ought to be vigilant and watchful. Not everything that “feels’ like consolation is a gift from God, says Ignatius. Take care to examine the beginning, middle and end of every thought or action to see if they lead us towards God and towards goodness, or away from them. David found “consolation” in Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, but it was not a consolation sent by God.
So we ask ourselves, “Is this word I am about to speak or this action I am about to take born out of right thought? Did it derive from righteous motives? Is it likely to lead to a good end? Has it in any way been tainted by evil? Is my purpose in choosing it leading me to God and God’s glory, or is it a manifestation of my own pride or self-centeredness? These are questions we can be asking ourselves as we “discern the spirits” at work in our minds and hearts throughout the day.
The goal in all this is God’s glory, which the angels see and adore in heaven, and which we strive for on earth. Know yourself today to be surrounded by these unseen agents of God, waiting to assist, protect, and deliver you from every evil — and to lead you safely home.
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