Today is the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel and all Angels, or Michaelmas.
The feast is popular again, probably due to the rise of angelology in New Age circles over the past twenty years or so. An entire industry has sprung up over for a while around the subject of angels, producing music and books odd websites. Some people's interest and devotion to angels has replaced any interest and devotion to God, which is, of course, idolatrous, but this is not the first time in history that angel worship has been popular. It was also common during the first two centuries of Christianity, especially in Phrygia, Greece, and Palestine, and St. Paul mentions angel worship in his letter to the Christians in Colossus. The introductory lecture by the Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman in New Testament when I was at C.D.S.P. left an impression on my entire class. Professor Countryman shocked us all with the idea that the Epistle to Jude was about sex with angels! So, let’s talk about angels.
Angels are God's messengers, and that is the purpose they serve throughout most of the Old Testament. However, Zoroastrian influence during the time of the Babylonian exile changed the concept of angels from messengers of God to powerful supernatural beings who were either on the side of God or on the side of Satan; it introduced a dualistic element to the understanding of angels. By the year 160 B.C., the Essenes, who lived in the desert of Qumran, had created an entire Host or Army of angels who served God, wile the Demons, or Angels of Darkness served Satan. With this idea of an angelic army came the idea of different choirs of angels, different divisions who served different purposes. These groups originally were divided as Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim, Watchers, and Angels. By the sixth century of the Christian Era, the mystical theologian Psuedo-Dionysius developed an hierarchy of "Heavenly Beings" which he received from his “sacred-initiator.” According to Psuedo-Dionysius, there are three three-fold hierarchies of Heavenly Beings: the first hierarchy, which are the beings which surround God the Father, are the "Holy Thrones and Orders said to possess many eyes and wings, also called Seraphim and Cherubim." The word "Seraphim" means "Fire-makers" in Hebrew, and Psuedo-Dionysius says that this means they are "Carriers of Warmth." The word "Cherubim" means "Out-pourers of Wisdom" in Hebrew, and Psuedo-Dionysius writes that the Seraphim and Cherubim are most like God in these ways. The second hierarchy consists of Authorities, Dominions, and Powers. This group works between the first hierarchy and the third hierarchy. The third and final hierarchy, according to Psuedo-Dionysius, consists of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, with only Archangels and Angles dealing with human beings.
Human interaction with angels is described throughout the Old Testament, beginning with a Cherub with a flaming sword guarding the gate to Paradise. Abraham's angel visitations, and Jacob's vision of angels ascending and descending from a ladder between heaven and earth is another example. Moses dealt with angels such as Michael in the Wilderness, and the Day of Atonement liturgy described in the book of Leviticus describes the action of the High Priest placing the sins of the community on a goat and releasing the goat to Azazel, a fallen angel of the desert. By the time of the Book of Daniel and the prophet Isaiah's vision of heaven, angels were no longer simply God's messengers, they became supernatural beings with much power, who praised God in front of the throne or fought in God's army. Angels were also terrifying creatures; their presence was so frightening that the first words they usually say to humans are "Fear not!" This also may be because they tend to simply appear out of nowhere; I don’t know of any stories where one was watching angels wing their way towards them with a message; they just appear and say “Fear not!” Artists over the centuries, especially during the Renaissance, tended to portray angels as androgynous blonds with wings, and they tend to portray Cherubim as fat little baby angels. But Cherubim are not fat baby angels, they are terrifying creatures; they are described as having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and wings! And Seraphim are huge, fiery, snake-like creatures, not blond guys with wings. Isaiah's description of heaven tells of Seraphim flying above God's throne, and the Seraphim are described as having six wings: two to cover their face, two to cover their feet, (which is a euphemism for genitals), and two with which to fly. They fly above God's throne chanting "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts." A Seraph picked up a hot coal from the altar of incense and put it on Isaiah's lips to purify them. In the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel gave Mary the message that she would become Theotokos, the God bearer. An angel also brought a message to Zechariah and silenced him. In fact, angels tend to appear throughout Luke's gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Angels appear in Mark's gospel, but only to minister to Jesus while he iwas in the wilderness, after his encounter with Satan, and they appear in Matthew's gospel in dreams to warn of trouble to the baby Jesus.
As mentioned earlier, during the first and second centuries and during the time of Jesus, angels were very popular, as popular as they are in our day, and there were those who worshipped them and wanted to enlist them in giving them power over others. these beliefs were poplar among some Gnostic groups, and they developed amazing cosmologies in which angels were featured. The Essenes' teachings also added to these ideas. Remember the fourth verse of Genesis, Chapter 6, about the Nephilim, (which means 'fallen ones' in Hebrew) who were the children of human women and angel fathers and were "the giants and heroes of old?" Well, some Gnostic groups took that passage and decided that it meant that they could attain certain mystic knowledge through sexual relations with angels! St. Paul seems to think that angels are attracted to a woman's long hair, and suggested that they keep their heads covered in church. But St. Paul also believed that humans were more important to God than were the angels and he said that humans would judge angels. Some people believe that Satan is a Fallen Angel, and they tell the story of Lucifer, the Morning Star, trying to put his throne higher than God's and starting a war in heaven. Have you read that story in the Bible? No, you haven't because it is not in the Bible.
When John Milton wrote the book Paradise Lost, he used some verses from Isaiah chapter 14:
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, Son of Dawn! How you are cut
down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart,
"I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God . . .
I will make myself like the Most High.
Bu these verses are about a Babylonian king who was called the Day Star. It is interesting how something written by Milton became theological truth to many. When we read the book of Job, Satan is a part of God's Court,so perhaps he is some kind of angel.
Today's feast is named after St. Michael the Archangel. Michael is the head of the Heavenly Host, the Five-star General of God's Angelic Army. Michael is also the protector of Israel, Protector of the Chosen People. Psuedo-Dionysius claimed that every nation is actually directed and protected by one of the archangels, and that Michael is the leader of the Jewish nation; he did not name the other Archangels and their respective nations. According to tradition, Michael is supposed to protect Christians from the devil at the time of death. This probably comes from the mention of Michael arguing with Satan for the soul of Moses, which is mentioned in the Epistle of Jude and comes from the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, an apocalyptic book written in 160 B.C. There was a cult which venerated Michael the Archangel in Phrygia (a regular hot-bed of heresey!), and they believed he had the power to heal, so many hot springs in Greece and Turkey are dedicated to him. Michael's place in the heavenly court is next to the altar of incense, and when incense is blessed for use in our liturgy, the priest usually says the following prayer:
By the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, who stands
at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all the Saints, may
the Lord bless this incense, and accept it as a pure oblation, through
Jesus Christ our Lord.
The name Mikael, or Michael in English, means "who is like God?" in Hebrew, and this has led to some weird ideas about Michael the Archangel. Charles Taze Russel, the man who started the Jehovah's Witnesses taught that Jesus was actual Michael come to earth, and there are New Agers who "channel" Michael. These beliefs and teachings, as well as much of the angelology going on nowadays is actually idolatrous. Angels are God's messengers, and they are God's servants. Their only purpose, the only reason they were created, is to do God's will. They have no say in the matter, and they just do what they are told. Humans, however, are created in God's image, and we have been given free will, and that puts us in a different place than the angels. When you die, you won't get some wings and a harp and sit on a cloud as a new angel, no matter what image popular movies leave you. Angels probably don't spend their time fighting demons and keeping you out of trouble. Angels are God's messengers and they deliver God's messages. We are not to worship angels, we are not to try to control angels, and we are not to try to 'channel' angels or anything else. Since we have free will, it’s best if we choose to do God's will, it’s best if we choose to help bring about God's reign, it’s best if we choose to love one another as Christ loves us, and it’s best if we choose to serve God. We don't need to worry about Guardian Angels, or whether angels are real or not; what we need to worry about is how we treat each other, about how we treat those who are the least among us. We need to worry about helping others learn of the Good News of forgiveness of sins and that God loves everyone and want relationship with everyone. We need to tend to the sick, to pray for each other, and to love each other. Then we can join with the angels in heaven and sing God's praises, because we will be doing God's will, just as the angels do.
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.