Saint Michael and All Angels


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(September 29) 

O everlasting God, who has ordained and constituted the services of angels…
For the Epistle
Revelation 12:7-12
Matthew 18:1-10

Angels occupy contested theological ground but we might think of them in three ways: first, there are angels like Michael who attend on God and never leave the ethereal realm; secondly, there are classic angels in the true sense of the word, messengers from God to man (cf to Abraham Genesis 18; to Gideon Judges 6; to Tobit and to Mary Luke 1; 2 inter alia); and, thirdly, there are ‘guardian angels’ personal to each of us. The second kind are most frequently cited and most obviously useful; the third kind are somewhat contentious and the reality of the first kind relies primarily upon the highly wrought second half of Daniel transposed into the high poetry of Revelation where the battle scene almost certainly owes its origins to Persian iconography, partially absorbed by the Jews in exile (Daniel 10:13; 10:21; 12:1), reinforced in the Book of Enoch and elaborated in Mediaeval iconography. Michael is regarded as the chief heavenly warrior who became associated with St. George in the late Middle Ages as a patron of chivalry (they jointly grace a UK order of chivalry).

The passage from Revelation has had a massive influence on Christian self-understanding. Without it there would have been a far weaker sense of the battle between good and evil waged outside earthly bounds; in turn this would have made the devil a much less powerful phenomenon. (The passage, incidentally, also conflates the serpent of wisdom in Genesis 3 with Persian iconography which depicts the serpent as the symbol of evil. Read without the later gloss, Genesis 3 is transformed.) In spite of the immense influence of Dante on Western Christendom and the more specifically English influence of Milton, the main forces for promoting angels and demons were sculpture and painting. If we think of our own ‘view’ of angels and demons we will almost certainly settle on a mental picture from the fine arts. In this realm it is the symbolism, not the theology, that has the greater force. It is also readings such as these which have formed a mind set which makes heaven in some way concrete, quasi Olympian, redolent not of the mystery of God but of earthly delights infinitely multiplied, with hell as the precise reverse. They have also strongly influenced the tendency to think of The Creator in monarchical terms, a trope particularly favoured by 16th and 17th Century monarchs claiming “Divine Right” of leadership. So entrenched are these images in popular culture that concepts of haven and hell have outlived basic knowledge of Christianity.

In spite of tentative ideas of life after death during the time of Jesus, there was clearly a notion of heaven; and the disciples wanted to take what they thought was their rightful place (cf Saint James The Apostle). Jesus, somewhat severely, points out that those who will be most important in heaven are those who are least important on earth; in his time the infant mortality rate of approaching 80% was such that there was no sentimentality about children, they were only significant when they became economically productive. Jesus goes on to point out the penalties for subverting these innocent, unimportant creatures. Reaching heaven, he says in one of his sharpest teachings, is so important that any obstacle in ourselves must be destroyed. One reason for this, apart from the intrinsic value of behaving well, is that such children are being guarded and represented in heaven by angles; this is a key passage in the theology of guardian angels.

contains one of the most interesting discussion of angels where it is argued that Jesus is ‘above’ them in the divine hierarchy; but are they, in turn, ‘above’ humans? On the one hand, we might argue that there can be nothing better than an existence totally devoted to God, rendering pure obedience. On the other hand, we could argue that because of their status, angels are simply glamorous servants who do as they are told; and that, in spite of the literary pyrotechnics, there is no way in which they could be defeated by evil forces. Looked at from these perspectives, they either have simply glorious or rather bland existences. Humans, on the other hand, have been specifically created by God in love to be able to choose to love God. Whether to be a choosing being is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than being a transparent servant of God is a fascinating question which turns to some extent on our reading of Genesis 3. There is a strong tradition in Jewish theology which affirms the necessity of choice as the signifier of human dignity and worth. This has always been highly contested territory in Christianity because the exercise of choice is expressed through actions. This was a critical issue at the Reformation because of Luther’s reading of the role of faith as opposed to “works”. Some Protestants went further than Luther and denied that we have genuine operational choice because, regardless of what we do, we are either of the elect or not, depending on the strength of our faith in the saving death of Jesus.

It is difficult to trace the decline of angelic belief in the non Catholic tradition but it would be surprising if it did not relate in some way to a suspicion of almost all aspects of late mediaeval veneration and the rejection of all kinds of intermediary devices including, at the extremes, the church itself. In this sense Protestantism, not the ‘enlightenment’ was the source of contemporary theories of individualism; and it is therefore not insignificant that children are usually identified as ‘angels’ when they are unquestioningly obedient!

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Trace the theology of angels
  2. What is the significance of the “war in heaven” and has it been misunderstood?
  3. Explore Jewish and Christian interpretations of Genesis 3
  4. Is humanity ‘above’ or ‘below’ angels?
  5. Make a prize collection of jokes about heaven.

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