On 29 September we celebrated the feast of Michael and All Angels. As part of the celebration those attending were invited to wear wings. It made for a colourful picture in the Cathedral.
What do angels have to do with us today. Read on to find out. The readings on the day were Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-end.
‘Be an angel.’ ‘You’re an angel.’ ‘Aren’t they being little angels?’
We use phrases like this in general conversation but angels are probably not often really thought about. If people do think about them, they probably often confuse them with fairies. They’ve got wings and seem somewhat magical, hence the confusion. This confusion has angels relegated to the realm of the mythical in most minds, but for some people angels are very real indeed.
Marie Monson was a missionary in China in the 1920s. It was a time of lawlessness which even involved the army at times. One night a group of soldiers was promised by their leader that they could loot a city as they had not been paid. Marie was in the mission compound that night with some Chinese Christians. They could hear shouting and shooting but no soldier came to their door. Instead, many of their neighbours came to take refuge, carrying with them small bundles of valuables. The next day people from nearby came to ask Marie who the protectors of the compound were. There had been tall foreign soldiers on the roof of the mission hall the night before and one on the porch over the main gate. They had remained there all night and were reported to have shone. Interestingly, these angels were only seen by the non-believers, not by the Christians.
Today we celebrate the feast of Michael and All Angels. The writers of the Bible are in no doubt that angels exist. There are over 600 references to them across Old Testament, New Testament and Apocrypha (that bit of the Bible which some denominations accept as scripture and some don’t.) Angels are particularly prevalent around the time of Jesus’ birth and then turn up at times during his life. Jesus’ teaching has references to angels in it fairly often. He was certainly in no doubt about their existence as we can see from the Gospel reading today.
This feast day was first celebrated in the fifth century when a basilica was dedicated to St Michael. In English it was known as Michaelmas, which is Michael’s mass, and was the only feast of angels that survived the Reformation. Michael is one of four named archangels in Scripture, though some sources refer to seven archangels. Michael and Gabriel are in the Hebrew Scriptures while Raphael and Uriel are in the Apocrypha. In recent years Gabriel and Raphael have been honoured on this day along with Michael.
Michael’s name in Hebrew means ‘Who is like God?’ He is the leader of the heavenly armies which defeat Satan and his armies. We read of his battle with the dragon – the Devil or Satan – and his armies in the reading from Revelation. He is also mentioned in the book of Daniel and the letter of Jude. He is often shown wearing armour and slaying a great dragon. He is thought of as the defender of the church and of individual Christians from evil, especially as they draw near to death. This reminds us that we are fighting against spiritual enemies, not flesh and blood.
Gabriel’s name means ‘Strength of God’ or ‘God is my champion’. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger or envoy or representative’. Gabriel is particularly considered to be the archangel who carries messages to people. We are familiar with his work when we read the Christmas story. He announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, when he explained: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news”. He also visited Mary to announce the birth of Jesus. The words of Gabriel to Mary form part of the Rosary: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. He also appears in the book of Daniel to explain Daniel’s visions.
Raphael means ‘God heals’ and he is mentioned in the book of Tobit. He is disguised as a man there and helps Tobias to succeed in a quest and gives him medicine to cure his father’s blindness.
Uriel’s name means ‘God is my light’. He was sent by God to answer the questions of Esdras and tradition identifies him as the angel who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel.
Angels are heavenly beings of a higher order than humans. They are entirely spiritual, unlike us, and immortal. They have personality, intelligence and will. They are messengers of God and serve him. They come in many ranks which have been variously listed eg angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, choirs, dominions, principalities, and powers.
By looking at the various references to angels in the Bible, we can detect five main tasks carried out by angels.
First, they bring God’s commands to humans. It was an angel who told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac.
Second, they announce special events: the births of John the Baptist, Jesus, Isaac and Samson were announced by angels. Daniel and John were given visions of the end times by angels.
Third, angels can help humans to interpret events which God brings about. Daniel’s and John’s visions needed an angel to interpret them. An angel told Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was brought about by God. An angel told the grieving women at the tomb that Jesus had risen from the dead.
The fourth and greatest role angels have is that of protecting people and helping them. This is their role as guardian angels. Jesus makes reference to the guardian angels of children. I remember our school prayer when I was very young which seems to presume this role: Lord, keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears. May angels guard us while we sleep till morning light appears. An angel made sure that Joseph took Jesus to safety in Egypt. Peter was released from prison, and probably death, by an angel on two occasions. Churches also have guardian angels, as with the churches in the book of Revelation, and Michael is named as the guardian of the nation of Israel.
Martin Luther wrote about guardian angels: “We Christians should have the sure knowledge that the princes of heaven are with us, [and] not only one or two, but a large number of them as Luke records (2.13) that a multitude of heavenly host was with the shepherds. And if we were without this custody, and God did not in this way check the fury of Satan, we could not live for one moment.”
The fifth role that angels perform is to bring God’s punishment or displeasure to his people, such as when a plague came after Israel sinned (2 Sam.24.1,15-16) or when Ahaziah had consulted Ekron, another god, instead of the true God.
Angels also avenge those who wrong God’s people, such as when the Egyptians suffered at the hands of the angel of death.
Today we remember angels and their ministry among us as they carry out God’s wishes and we give thanks for that. It might be that we will see an angel ourselves, or maybe you have already seen one. He could be 12 feet tall and with huge wings or he could look like an ordinary person. On the other hand, we may never see one in this life. Whatever is the case, we can be sure from both biblical and contemporary evidence that angels are active in the world, and we can take comfort from that.
Even better than that, we know that Christ has at his command “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angel hosts (Rev.5.11). He could have called upon more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him from death but he chose not to. What he does do is have them watch over us, guiding and protecting, and then one day they will guide us on our journey into heaven and his presence.