On Michaelmas, 2015
Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews, 1:14, NRSV)
The Collect for this Feast celebrates the relationship we share in with the angels, putting something front-and-center we are tempted in the modern world either to ignore or take for granted:
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The “wonderful order” spoken of here is the order of intelligences God has made to love, worship, and adore: the angels and mortals. Though we may have cause to doubt it in humanity from time to time, God has given us, along with the angels, the capacity to know and love Him in spiritual and moral choice. Together with the angelic host, we form a community of loving service as well as pure joy in knowing on God in Trinity of Persons.
That sense of interrelationship is found in the short concluding verse of chapter 1 in the Letter to the Hebrews quoted above. The angels are described not only as spirits (they do not have corporeal bodies, in spite of any number of television programs and movies), but as being in the “divine service” and “sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation,” meaning us. That service takes many forms.
In much ancient Christian literature there is an understanding that the spiritual growth we experience in prayer is actually a product of learning at the hand of angelic teachers. St. Isaac of Syria says:
Whenever the perception of the revelation of a mystery descends into the intellects of the saints, this is also from the angels. When it is permitted by God, a mystery is revealed from a higher [angelic] order to a lower one; and in the same manner, when it is permitted by a divine nod that a mystery should come even to human nature, it is transmitted by those who are wholly worthy of it. (Ascetical Homily #28)
Here the author is affirming the active dimension of that “wonderful order” affirmed in the collect. The angels, at God’s bidding, assist in communicating divine knowledge to us—something we refer to whenever we celebrate the Holy Mysteries, making reference to “angels and archangels” and the whole company of heaven as sharing perpetually in something we all-too-easily lay aside.
When we celebrate the Angels, we are affirming not only that they exist and are part of the vastness of the Creation (which we understand only in small measure, thus also affirming the centrality of mystery to our practice of the faith); we are also affirming that the Creation is an order of relationship, with each part ministering and sharing in the way appropriate to its nature.
It is just this sense of connection, organicity, and mutuality that marks catholic Christian life. Even our learning in prayer is part of a communion not only with God, but with other teachers and mentors from various ages, places, and orders.
The story of Jacob’s ladder read at the Eucharist on St. Michael’s Day is a story of that kind of connection made visible. It makes tangible and clear that ongoing relationship between us as individuals and God, something assumed by those who came before us in faith, but now much harder for us to see. In Christ Jesus—the Word made Flesh—this invisible order is revealed to those who desire to see it by a loving faith. Jesus’ words to Nathanial in the Gospel lesson for the Eucharist on this day make clear that the angelic order is not only a part of the Gospel fact, but a gift we will all share in consciously by faith in Him. It is this “Jesus vision” we gain by receiving the Sacraments and participating in the deifying grace of life in the Church.
When I became an Anglican, I began to understand that this expressions of catholicism was radically more relational that the Christianity I had grown up with. Each Feast Day, commemoration, and season of the Church Year draws us into a dynamic communion whereby we may grow in the knowledge and love of God. The connection of faith is not only between the believer and God; it is always a shared connection with the Creation our God formed at the start and sustains each day, the Church Triumphant, the Angelic Order, and the Holy Trinity itself, revealed in divine grace.
Many centuries ago in Southern England and Cornwall, it was the custom to build small chapels dedicated to St. Michael on the tops of various hills. Up there in the aerial element, the space between heaven and earth, it was thought that the Angels were extra busy defending us from daemonic powers. On the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, pilgrimages would be made to these lofty places for prayer and intercession, intentionalizing the struggle we all are part of between life in its fullness and the choice for isolation and death.
In our secular era we no longer think this way. We tend to be very much more isolated on a regular basis, susceptible one might say, to the notion that we are essentially alone. This existential vulnerability puts us at added risk to behave, think, and self-medicate in ways leading to further isolation. The vacuum of modern cosmology serves very well as a template for our sense of a spiritual cosmology today. From our notions of the cosmos, it is easy to generalize to our social and moral order, constructing societies that are only about competition and individual accomplishments.
The Christian faith rejects such imaginings. From Christ’s teaching about loving our neighbor to our affirmation that the whole pattern of Creation is a great order of wonder and relationship, we are a people of relationality. At this and every Eucharist, this sense of corporate-ness is actualized and affirmed.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Angels, we turn to God and all our companions—seen and unseen—and rejoice that we do not have to do this alone: we are part of a common weal of knowing, loving, and serving. It is time to act on that truth by learning to know more about other people normally hidden from us in our walled-off society, loving others in such a way as to break down barriers of purely human construction, and serving the brother or sister God has put in our life precisely so that we may grow in our own humanity.
Then—and only then—we join the angels in loving and serving by God’s appointment, thus fulfilling our own identity as members of this “wonderful order.”