(The following homily preached for the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan, September 29, 2016 [Extraordinary Form] and appeared on CWR on September 30, 2016.)
Laudetur Iesus Christus!
My family was distinctively unimaginative in picking names for the boys: My maternal grandmother’s baby brother was Michael; three weeks after priestly ordination, he was martyred by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine in 1917; my mother’s younger brother was Michael; my father was Peter Michael, as am I. Interestingly, “Michael” was the fourth most popular name for boys from 1915 to 2015. Names are important, a point to which we shall return in a minute.
Oddly, the Epistle for this feast in the Extraordinary Form does not refer to Michael at all (although the First Reading in the Ordinary Form does – the passage from Revelation recounting the grand battle in Heaven between the good and evil angels). The Epistle and Gospel alike, however, focus our gaze on the ministry of angels, leading us to review the meaning and place of the angels in Christian life.
Those familiar with the Low Mass of the Extraordinary Form, of course, know that the Leonine Prayers include the petition to St. Michael the Archangel to “defend us in battle” and to “to be our safeguard against the wiles and snares of the Devil.” However, when was the last time you prayed that lovely prayer the Sisters taught us in kindergarten: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.”?
Let us give some specific consideration to St. Michael as the great defender of the honor of God and the protector of the Church’s faithful, who find themselves under the assault of the Evil One in so many ways.
There are the assaults that come from without, done by the hands of those who hate God and/or His holy Church. Here we think of what our co-religionists suffer in places like Communist China, in so many countries of the Middle East, but also through the militant secularists of Western Europe and North America, yes, even in our own country, thanks to the aggression of the Obama Administration and its possible continuation and escalation in a future Administration.
Then there are the assaults that come from within the Church, done by those hell-bent (literally) on creating a new Church and a new religion. These would-be reformers preach and teach overt heresy; they destroy the sense of the sacred by their liturgical machinations. And all of this so often is done with the complicity of priests and bishops who are weak and ineffectual. Yes, Satan uses our weakness to pursue his plan with strength.
To ward off the assaults of Satan – both internal and external – we need to have recourse to the powerful intercession of St. Michael the Archangel. The one who faced down Lucifer and his minions at the dawn of creation has not lost any of his power; indeed, the Book of Revelation informs us that it is precisely he who will lead the faithful to final victory.
And now for a bit of refresher course in “angelology” – to which the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes no less than twenty-five paragraphs.
Angels are pure spirits who assume bodily form when sent on a mission by the Almighty. In fact, their very name in Greek means “messenger.” So it is that we relate to them not in terms of their own identity but for the One Whom they represent. Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with references to the interventions of angels, which are always seen as signs of God’s desire to be present to us, as well as His wish to reveal His will and providence to us.
In one of the more intelligent calendar revisions of the post-conciliar period, Michael is joined to the only other two archangels named in the Bible. Like all Hebrew names, theirs give a clue as to their special mission. Michael’s name translates as: “Who is like God?” – a reminder that it was he who was sent to do battle with the personification of pride in Lucifer, who indeed saw himself as like unto God. “Gabriel” means “God is strong” – an important point to ponder when, like the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, we ask how something apparently impossible can happen. Raphael’s name tells us that “God heals” – a fact so obvious to a person of faith that we often fail to be impressed continually by the love it represents. Thus, the names of those three angels point to the ineffable omnipotence and benevolence of the very Godhead.
What is the work of the angels? To watch over the lives of us here below; to present our prayers and petitions to God; to serve as the Lord’s special messengers; to lead the just into Paradise, as we sing in the beautiful In Paradisum of the Mass of Christian Burial. All of this bespeaks the Lord’s love and concern for His children. However, the first and most important task of the angels gives us a hint of what God expects of us humans, too – the angels’ unceasing adoration of Almighty God.
And so, the most important thing the angels do is linked to the most important thing the Church on earth can do as the liturgy of earth is united to the liturgy of Heaven. In a few moments, as we enter into the Canon, we shall recall this fact when we say: Et ideo, cum Angelis et Archangelis, cum Thronis et Dominationibus, cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus, hymnum gloriae tuae canimus, sine fine dicentes: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth (“And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts”). That everlasting hymn of praise to God is the angels’ highest calling, and it is ours as well. Further into the Canon, we shall ask the Father: Iube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae maiestatis tuae (“Command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty”). The Incarnation announced by Gabriel reaches its fulfillment in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist as God’s messenger becomes the deacon, as it were, who presents the Eucharistic Christ once more to His heavenly Father.
On this feast when the Church invites us to reflect on the ministry of angels, we thank Almighty God for giving us His messengers, and we ask for the wisdom and the humility of children to appreciate anew their significance for our lives because, after all is said and done, if one has outgrown the angels, that same person may also have outgrown God – a point made by Our Lord in the Gospel of the day.
As we move forward in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice, let us take as our own the beautiful words of the Byzantine Liturgy used at this same point: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, set aside all earthly cares, that we may welcome the King of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
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