Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Today we celebrate one of the more mysterious feasts in the calendar of the Church: The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Not only is it a feast, but it is what we monastics call a solemnity: one of the upper echelon feasts, with its title in ALL CAPS in the Ordo, and a lunchtime meal with not only meat and dessert but also ‘festive beverages,’ therefore it must be pretty important. What do you know about angels? Or what do you believe about these mystical beings? You may know a bit more than me. I have to admit that I had to do some research in preparing the homily for this feast because I know very little myself about angels except that most images I have seen of them show human like figures with wings and a glowing countenance.
Perhaps like a few of you here, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the church that did not talk a lot about angels. Even though angels show up at different times in the scriptures, we just didn’t dwell much on them, which is ironic because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word angel: a bearer of good news. Primarily, angels are known as messengers from God. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”)[i] visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after in Luke’s gospel we hear that an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus and telling them where to find him. And before they set out the sky is filled with angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’[ii]
As we read on in scripture, we realize that there are all sorts of angels who have different vocations. We’ve already talked about those who deliver messages, and those who protect. There are also those who minister. We read that after Jesus was tempted in the desert, the devil left him and angels came to serve him.[iii] In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in anguish about what was about to happen to him and the writer of Luke’s gospel says an angel of the Lord appeared to him and gave him strength.[iv] In the book Tobit, it is the Archangel Raphael who restores Tobit’s sight. Raphael’s name means “The Healing of God.”[v] On a personal note, my mother loved angels and she collected angelic figurines in a curio that you would see when you first entered our house. In it was one angelic figure that had a ‘Tolkein, Lord of the Rings’ quality about it. He was standing on the head of a great serpent with the tip of his sword placed in the opening of the its mouth. I would much later in my adult life come to know that this angel was Michael who in Revelation is said to have defeated the dragon, ‘that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.’ Michael, the great Archangel whose name means, “Who is like God?”[vi] All angels have a specific vocation and there are nine orders of angels that we hear mentioned throughout scripture: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian angels.[vii] There are two striking features of angels that intrigue me and that I would like to draw your attention to. First is the worship that angels provide in the heavenly realm.
In a sermon delivered at the University Church in Oxford around 1826, John Henry Newman describes heaven as an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.[viii] He takes as his reference point numerous passages in the Revelation to John. We heard a portion of that descriptive worship at Evensong last night: Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.[ix]
I get chills every time I read or hear that passage from Revelation because it seems to me that what we do here in this monastery everyday is worship God bestowing on Him blessing and honour and glory and might with the very best of our abilities. Perhaps our numbers are few and the quality of our voices are sometimes nowhere near angelic, however we, like the angels, were created for the love and pleasure of God and He delights in our love just as much as we delight in His. We have an inherent instinct to adore our creator because it is an aspect of God Himself, who gazes in reverence on His creation and who yearns for us to know Him as He knows us. Our love and praise are mutual and in tandem with the worship of the heavenly hosts. In his book The Angels and the Liturgy, Eric Peterson writes “When the church gathers in worship on earth, it is conjoined to the worship which is offered in the heavenly city by the angels. Through all the pain of this world there remains, eternal and unmoved, that worship which the angels offer to the Eternal, and in which the Church on earth takes part.”[x] With the angels we sing, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people of earth,” and “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!”
Worship is important because it is a sanctifying act. The word ‘sanctify’ shares the same root as the Latin word ‘Sanctus’ which means: Holy. In the experience of worship, we offer all we are, all we have, all of our blessings, and all of our sufferings and we give it to God in sacrifice asking nothing but to be sanctified and become more like God, that is: holy and fully His. Newman goes on to say that: “To be holy is to have the true circumcision of the Spirit: that is to be separate from sin, to take pleasure in God’s commandments; to live habitually in sight of the world to come as if we were already dead to this life.”[xi] In other words, now is our time to prepare and practice, joining the angels in the eternal praise of God here on earth as it is in heaven.
The second thing I find striking about angels is that their presence among us is always synonymous with the presence of God. Angels do nothing on their own accord. There mission is always and extension of one that God has already set in motion. In our lesson from Genesis this morning, we hear the story of Jacob who falls asleep using a stone as a pillow. While asleep he dreams of a ladder stretched to heaven and angels ascending and descending back and forth between earth and heaven. We read: Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” If we continue a little further, we read that Jacob poured oil on the stone which he had used as a pillow and built an altar there, consecrating that place and giving it a new name: Bethel. In our gospel lesson from John, we hear Jesus refer to this story from Genesis. Nathaniel has just had an experience that made him believe that this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth was indeed the messiah. Jesus then says that Nathaniel will see greater things like angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Jesus seems to be referring to himself as the altar and therefore the icon into the Eternal Godhead.
In our chapel we see this angelic ladder represented here in the altar and baldachinno. The four pillars make a cube which represents earth and, in a sense, the temporal world. Above it, a rounded canopy representing the eternal realm of heaven. Beneath it lies a stone altar representing figuratively the stone pillow of Jacob, and that Jesus identifies himself with, the altar that becomes the foundation of grace.[xii] Upon this altar heaven and earth are conjoined and we get a glimpse of God. Upon this altar we offer up praise, thanksgiving, and all that we are to God, perhaps taken up with the angels to God. In return Jesus becomes truly present to us in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, becoming to us flesh and blood, descending with the angels and re-membering incarnationally the sacrifice of grace which gives us access to heaven on earth. We consume this bread and wine which has become for us the body and blood of Jesus and savor it and each time we ascend one more rung on the ladder with the angels, moving toward the holiness that we have been called to and become one with our Father in heaven. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson once wrote: “Our acts of worship, as the expression and exercise of this faith, are consequently to be considered as steppings forth into the abyss of Godhead, efforts by which the soul embraces the privileges of our Divine adoption.”[xiii]
So, as we contemplate the wonderful order of angels and mortals established by our creator, let us join in the eternal praise of God not only in this chapel, but as we go forth from this place, taking with us the glimpse of eternity, enshrined in the altars of our hearts into the temporal world, becoming like the angels (evangelists is you will) saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael, St. Uriel, and all the angels of God whom we remember today!
[i] Atwell, Robert. Celebrating the Saints. Canterbury Press, 1998.
[ii] Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-14
[iii] Matthew 4:1-11
[iv] Luke 22:39-43
[v] Atwell, Robert. Celebrating the Saints. Canterbury Press, 1998.
[vii] Chase, Steven. Angelic Spirituality: Medieval Perspectives on the Way of Angels. Paulist Press, 2002.
[viii] Newman, John Henry. The Parochial Sermons. Vol. 1, D. Appleton and Co., 1843.
[ix] Revelation 5:11-14
[x] Peterson, Eric. The Angels and the Liturgy. Translated by Ronald Walls, Herder and Herder, 1964.
[xi] Newman, John Henry. The Parochial Sermons. Vol. 1, D. Appleton and Co., 1843.
[xii] Hani, Jean. The Symbolism of the Christian Temple. Translated by Robert Proctor, Angelico Press Sophia Perennis, 2007.
[xiii] Benson, Richard Meux. Redemption: Some of the Aspects of the Work of Christ. J. T. Hayes, 1861.
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