Feast of St. Michael and All the Angels
[Scripture Readings: Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Jn 1:47-51]
Gustave Courbet, an important 19th century painter distinguished himself by rejecting the Romantic Style of painting, the Classical Style of painting, and all Religious Painting. He had no time for any of that. He was leader of the movement called “The New Realism”. He loved to paint craggy rocks and shaggy trees; people with stubby feet, and dogs scratching themselves. Questioned one day about taking on a religious subject for a painting, he replied, with some irritation: “Show me an angel, and I will paint you a picture of him!” We have no reason to believe that, before he died, Gustave Courbet ever saw a single angel.
Have you ever seen an angel?
Jesus says to Nathanial in today’s gospel: “You will see angels . . . “ These words, it seems to me, are confirmation of Nathanial’s election. Nathanial is one of the chosen; chosen by Christ; personally selected as an Israelite in whom there is no guile; nothing false. Nathanial has been chosen, personally invited to follow Christ; to be a messenger of Christ to the world. But that’s interesting. An angel is a messenger. Nathanial, is, at this moment, being called to be himself a messenger. Maybe Jesus’ words to Nathanial “You will see angels . . .” are a revelation of what Nathanial will himself be. In the vision of angels descending and ascending to heaven, Jesus is showing Nathanael what a disciple is; what Nathanial will be. Angels are messengers; they carry heavenly things down to earth and elevate what is earthbound and weighed down by sin up into the highest heavens. Maybe to see an angel, you have to be something like an angel yourself; a servant and messenger of God. Mary saw an angel. St. Stephen saw the heavens open – and may have seen an angel or two. Gustave Courbet never saw an angel. We have no reason to believe that Jezebel, Herod, or Pontius Pilate ever saw an angel.
Bro. Rafael Arnaz Baron whose life we just finished reading in the refectory is called “The servant of God”. A messenger of heavenly bearing news of heavenly things, he impressed all who knew him with an unforgettable combination of endearing sweetness and simplicity. One can imagine Christ saying of Bro. Rafael: Look! An Israelite in whom there is no guile — nothing false!” Did Rafael ever see an angel? We have no testimony from him that he ever did—which doesn’t mean he didn’t. It just means he didn’t tell us. We know from what he wrote that there was much he didn’t say, because he didn’t know how to say it.
Maybe the question of whether or not Rafael ever saw an angel, is partly answered by today’s gospel. To see an angel, you have to be, like Nathanial, something like an angel; a servant, a messenger of God, one who brings down from heaven gifts to the earth, and elevates what is earthbound carrying it up to heaven.
I like to envision a moment when Rafael’s brothers at St. Isidore may have realized that their humble and sickly little brother really and truly was himself something like an angel; one who stands between heaven and earth and mediates between the two. There is a moment when the humble Raphael appeared, actually appeared, visibly suspended between heaven and earth, and would have appeared to his brothers as having very much the aspect of an angel.
I am thinking of a moment on the day when Rafael was canonized a saint in Rome, with his brothers from St. Isidore as witnesses. There may have been a really old brother or two who remembered Rafael, the sickly oblate who lived in the infirmary who couldn’t work, or come to the office, who was so sick, he couldn’t do anything and whom one only saw occasionally. I picture these old monks standing in St. Peter’s square, and a huge banner portraying Bro. Rafael appearing before their eyes, unfurling, and flapping in the wind across the facade of St. Peter’s basilica. I envision these brothers looking up in astonishment at the face of their little brother Suspended high above their heads and before the world, a canonized saint; a confirmed messenger of God, whose voice on that morning was broadcast to the whole world like an angel sent from God. I like to picture those old faithful monks who will never be canonized but who perhaps, at that moment, staring up in wonderment at the banner of Rafael, heard Christ promise them with a voice full of tenderness: “You will see angels . . . “
Feast of St. Michael and all the Angels
[Scripture Readings: Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Jn 1:47-51 ]
In the summer of 1993 Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers Georgia was offering hospitality to thousands of pilgrims every thirteenth of the month. They were coming to Conyers because of alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary appearing to Nancy Fowler a local housewife. I was guestmaster that summer and I remember one day a woman was confiding to me about her relationship with her guardian angel, when she suddenly asks me: “Would you like to see a picture of her?”; she reaches into her purse and hands me a Kodak Instamatic print. I look at the photo, and there, in an aura of light, hovering two or three feet over a backyard clothes line I see an angel for the first time in my life. “Isn’t she beautiful?” the woman says. And just then, as I’m looking at the picture, the angel speaks to me: “Albericshe’s waiting for a response . . . and if you’re wondering why your face feels so hot right now, it’s because the response she so needs from you at this moment, is not provided in any of your seminary textbooks.”
It is interesting that my encounter with an angel actually follows the pattern of angelic appearances narrated in the scriptures: an angel comes to you in glorious resplendence, your eyes adjust to the light, and then, gazing into the light . . .you see the truth about yourself. And so it was squinting at the brightness of an angel, Abraham realized he was the man whose descendants would be as countless as the stars over the sea. An angel appeared to Jacob and he learned that his name would no longer be Jacob but “Israel”, because he was a man who contended with those human and divine and prevailed. Mary’s humble dwelling was flooded with the light of The Archangel Gabriel, and having peered into that light she said at length:
“I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
This power of the light of angels to reveal to us the truth about ourselves, has particular significance for us, because angels are appearing a lot these daysmostly in stores: in popular books, statues, pendants, earrings, and T-shirts. And it might be wise for us to stopand to look a moment at these angels; really look at them and see what they might be revealing to us about ourselves. These angels produced for mass consumption may not radiate blinding light, but they’re very pleasant to look atin fact, their appearance is so perfectly suited to giving comfort and assurance, they might be suspected of just being figments of our imagination. But we really wouldn’t mind if these angels were only imaginary; they are so pretty; their expressions so full of tenderness and joy, we would still value their presence. We like to look at these angels. Interestingly, they usually appear as feminine, and are often accompanied by an anxious child.
On this feast of the great Archangels, Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel we are invited to look at angels in a rather different guise. Here is a vision provided for us not by entrepreneurs, or dreamers, but by the church of Christ.We celebrate today a belief in angels fostered by a common faith and consistent tradition more than two thousand years old. Listen to the way our Catholic Catechism talks about angels: The existence of angels is a truth of faith. On this point, the witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of tradition. The angels always behold the face of the Father in heaven; they are the mighty ones who do the Father’s word, hearkening to the voice of his word. Angels are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness. Christ is the center of the angelic worldthey are His angels; messengers of His saving plan. Angels have been present since creation and throughout history; announcing salvation and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan. They will be present at Christ’s return, which they will announce, and will serve at his judgment.
Today as the church celebrates the great Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, I invite you to gaze at the awe-inspiring image of these angels; treasures of the church’s historic faith; gaze into the light of these magnificent ambassadors of God’s goodness; fidelity, and power and see what that light may reveal to youabout yourself.
Feast of St. Michael and all the Angels
[Scripture Readings: Dan. 7: 9-10, 13-14; Jn. 1: 47-51]
One of my theology professors made the observation that we tend to react to one extreme position by going to the other extreme. A perennial challenge that we face, especially in the area of religion, is to achieve a balance in our thinking and behavior. I think those times when we are faced with a clear either/or situation are the exception rather than the rule. Much more frequently our questions are: How much of this? How much of that? What is too little? What is too much? An area where I am particularly conscious of this tension is the emphasis we are to place on life here and now and our hope for a transcendent reality beyond the here and now. Concentrating on a better situation somewhere else can become an escape from our current responsibilities. Conversely, we can become so bogged down in the situation that we are in that we lose sight of why we are putting forth our efforts in the first place.
Today’s feast of St. Michael and the angels helps me put things into perspective. From a pragmatic viewpoint the whole world of angels can be and has been called into question. Hasn’t Jesus Christ reconciled us to God so that we no longer need intermediaries? If I have a need, I can pray directly to God. If I am seeking God’s guidance, I can look within myself for inspiration. While that is true, it is also true that God is not limited by our ideas of what a logical and practical way to order reality might be. God is not to be held accountable to our way of thinking. By definition transcendence points to a reality beyond anything we can imagine or deduce. God is free and his freedom is not bound by necessity. I know of no compelling reason why God had to create the angels. But then I know of no compelling reason why God had to create us either. God has created out of love, not out of any external necessity. Creation reveals God’s generosity not his limits.
A theme in the earlier monastic tradition, which has fallen into neglect, is that of the angelic life. I suspect that one of the reasons for its neglect is that it can be seen as denying the value of our present life. Unfortunately there are too many examples that give that argument plausibility. Yet, the two most prominent characteristics of the life of the angels are praise of God and service to human beings. It is belief in a God who is worthy of our praise and adoration that puts our life here and now into perspective and gives it meaning and value. It is a life of service that points us toward Jesus Christ, who became one of us not to be served, but to serve. Imitating the angels does not replace the imitation of Christ. On the contrary, it supports us in following Christ. Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth and he is the way and the entrance to heaven. How we go about our day to day activities here and now should be a witness to the transcendent reality beyond the here and now. If we are open to it, the angels will be our companions along the way.