Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Michaelmas (observed), 2020.
Before we say anything more about angels, let the simplest and most fundamental thing about the angels be said and understood by us all. And the simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth. This is what our Collect affirms. It is also affirmed in the Doxology we sing at the Offertory of the Eucharist: “praise Him above, ye heavenly Host”—affirms the first part, that angels serve God in heaven. An affirmation of the angels in our life is found affirmed in the Sanctus prayer we say as the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins: “therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name; evermore praising Thee, and saying, “Holy, holy, holy”—angels join us in praise at the Altar in the Eucharist to defend us, that is, support us, as we face the heavenly Light of lights Who is transfigured before our faces on the Altar.
Likewise, their role of defender is affirmed in the Burial liturgy at a funeral, even in the last words said over the body of the deceased in the Commendation as the body leaves the Church for the cemetery or final resting place: “Into paradise may the angels lead you.” Angels defend the soul of the faithful departed against the temptations of the devil. The simplest and most fundamental thing about angels to understand is this: angels serve God in heaven and defend us on earth.
There are two more specific aspects of angels described in Scripture for our reflection on this our observance of the Feast of Michaelmas, itself on our Kalendar for this Tuesday. The first is the war in heaven described in the Revelation to S. John, chap. 12; and the second is the ascending and descending of angels upon the Son of Man described by Jesus according to S. John in his Gospel account. So let us reflect on both of these.
John describes a war that arose in heaven. Michael, one of the archangels and whose name means “Who is like God?” fought with his angels against the dragon and his angels; that is, against the Devil who is also called Satan, who accuses God and deceives the world. The battle happened, and the holy Angels of light defeated the unholy angels of darkness. It is important to see this as light verses dark, day verses night. And the reason it is important because to the Church is was revealed early that John’s description expounds upon the mystery of the first day of creation described in the opening verses of Genesis, chapter 1. These verses: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw the light: it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day; the darkness He called Night; and there was evening and morning, one day.” This is all about the angelic war in heaven described by John in the Revelation; this is not about the creation of perceivable light and darkness as we might think, because light perceivable by the eyes was not created until the fourth day: “Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven for illumination to divine day and from night.” Greater light (the sun), lesser light (the moon), the stars—all this is the fourth day, and not the first.
What is described in Genesis as created on the first day is invisible light, not perceivable to the eyes, but only available to us as revelation. Hence John’s description of the war in heaven is one of the keys pieces of scripture that in fact point us to when angels were created. They were created at the very beginning of God’s creation—indeed, the angels are the Light. And the war in heaven was a battle between humility and pride: the holy angels in their humility overpowered the unholy angels burdened by the weight of their pride. Indeed, when we are humble before God, God shines through us as well; and when we are full of pride, we are heavy and weighed down with the darkness of death.
What, then, is meant by Jesus revealing at angels will be seen to be ascending and descending upon the Son of Man? To speak of angels as “ascending then descending” is rather curious, is it not? Usually we might think of it the other way round: that angels first descend to us and then ascend to heaven. But in speaking of angels being seen by the disciples as ascending and then descending upon the Son of Man echoes firstly the vision of Jacob in Genesis chapter 28. For Jacob “dreamed that were was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” And so angels reveal to us Christ lifted up, reveal to us Jesus ascending, and themselves ascend to send to us the good news of His ascension on the Cross, which is the ascension into the heavenly reality.
Jacob goes on to say: “And behold, the Lord stood above the ladder and said, “I am the Lord.” And so Jesus is directly us straightforwardly to regard Him as the ladder: Jesus is the ladder to heaven; and the top of the ladder which is Him is Him, for the voice speaks to Jacob and says, “I am the Lord.” All throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses that phrase: “I am”— in John 6, He says, “I am the bread of life.” In John 8, He says, “I am the light of the world.” In John 10, He says, “I am the door.” In John 11, He tells us that He is “the resurrection and the life.” In John 14, He says He is the “the way and the truth and the life,” and in John 15, He says He is “the true vine.” Even in John 8, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Each of these I Am statements in John echoes the I am statement of the Lord to Jacob. And so, angels reveal to us the “I Am-ness” of Jesus: reveal to us His living presence, as Peter proclaimed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Angels ascend to reveal to us Christ ascended and lifted up upon the heavenly cross, and angels descend to reveal to us the real living presence of Christ, His I Am-ness, even to reveal to us the Word made flesh of the Eucharist, dwelling among us—revealing His glory for us to behold, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Thanks be to God.