The Feast of St Michael and All Angels
May I speak in the name of the Holy & Blessed Trinity, One God in three persons.
Today we are celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels, otherwise known as Michaelmas. Angels in the form of fluffy, white, harp playing fairies are ubiquitous in our culture so I thought today that I would reflect a bit on angels and their meaning in our faith tradition, and specifically what the readings set for this feast might tell us about the nature of angels and their role in our lives.
There are many angels in the Bible.
- After Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, God sends cherubim with flaming swords to guard its gates.
- Angels visit Abraham under the oaks at Mamre to tell him that, despite his old age, he will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
- When Moses leads God’s people out of slavery, God promises that an angel will go before him.
- The prophet Zechariah tells the people that some angels walk to and fro on the earth.
- In a vision, the prophet Isaiah heard angels singing, ‘Holy, holy, holy the whole world is full of God’s glory’.
- Isaiah also speaks about six winged seraphim, literally, snakes of fire, who hover around God’s throne. They cover their faces with two wings, their feet with two wings, and with the other two wings, they fly.
- In the psalms we read that angels are messengers of God who do God’s work, ‘Bless the Lord, all you his angels, you mighty in strength, who do his bidding, obeying his spoken word’.
- The psalms also tell us that, ‘The Lord shall preserve your going out and coming in. He will give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways’, which sounds like a description of guardian angels.
- The book of Deuteronomy describes angels who are each given the care of a particular nation, guardian angels on a bigger scale.
- Matthew’s Gospel speaks about the angels who are assigned to watch over God’s little ones.
- And of course, we have the stories of the angels sent with particular messages for individual people, like the encounter between Gabriel and Mary at the Annunciation, and the angels in the empty tomb at the resurrection.
Both the Greek word for angel (ang-elos) and its Hebrew equivalent (mal’ak) mean messenger, a being that conveys a message. The words were used to describe ordinary human beings who brought a message from one human to another as well as the heavenly beings who brought messages direct from God to humanity. The Bible describes many different kinds of angels with many different characteristics and roles but one of the primary roles that angels fulfill in the Bible is to be messengers of God.
In the Gospel reading set for today, we hear Jesus say that his disciples will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending upon him. In order to make sense of Jesus’ words, we need to remember the story that lies behind them.
It is the story of Jacob, running away from the mess he has made by tricking and deceiving his brother and father. On the way to stay with relatives in Haran until things cool down a bit, Jacob camps for the night in a place called Bethel. He lays his head on a rock for a pillow and he dreams of a ladder set upon the earth, with the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
Despite Jacob’s bad behaviour and the hurt he has caused to others, Jacob hears God telling him that God is with him. He sees the angels going up and down and he knows that the gate of heaven is open, and the Lord is with him in that place. It is an extraordinary gift of grace.
This is the story that Jesus is referencing when he tells his disciples that they will see angels ascending and descending upon him. Angels provide connections and communication between humanity and God. Jesus is the one in whom humanity and divinity are joined. It is through Jesus that we communicate directly with God, heaven and earth are brought together and we are given the ultimate connection with God. Jesus is the ladder between humanity and God.
It is interesting to consider that Jesus doesn’t say that now that he is here, there is no further need of angels. Instead, he speaks of the angels that ascend and descend on him, communicating the Good News of the love of God to all creation. As we give thanks for angels today and remember that even though Jesus is the open gate of heaven for us they still have a role as God’s messengers, it is important to remember that not all angels are heavenly beings.
A favourite hymn of mine is, “There’s a light upon the mountains”. One of the verses says;
He is breaking down the barriers, he is casting up the way,
he is calling for his angels to build up the gates of day:
but his angels here are human, not the shining hosts above;
for the drum-beats of his army are the heart-beats of our love.
These words remind us that we are called to be messengers of God’s love. We are called to work with God to establish God’s rule of justice and peace on the earth. We are called to raise our voices to share God’s good news with the whole world, and we are called to speak in many and diverse voices so that everyone can hear the good news in language they can understand. As we do this, we act as God’s messengers, sharing the gifts of heaven with a tired world.
Angels ascend and descend in our midst. Each time we meet, Christ is present among us and the lines between earth and heaven are blurred. We meet together in prayer and fellowship, we lift up our hearts and our voices to heaven. We know that in Christ we have found the gate of heaven, always open to us, and as we call out, holy, holy, holy, we show others the way into God’s presence.
The Lord be with you.