The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels: September 28, 2014
Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Good morning! Today is a great day! It’s so fun to celebrate our church family today on our name day – St. Michael’s Day. I’m glad you’re here.
Yesterday was a great day, too. Our own Jennie Talley was ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, only 12 blocks north of here. I was proud of Jennie for completing the long journey to priesthood; and I was also proud of St. Michael’s Church, which made a great showing at the ordination!
St. Michael’s folks helped out as ushers, as vergers and acolytes, as choir members and cantors, and as faithful worshippers! It was wonderful to see you all, being the church! Jennie celebrates her first Eucharist today as priest-in-charge at St. John’s, Wilmot in New Rochelle. We wish her well.
It was a joy to be back in our Cathedral. It is such a beautiful place—I looked around in awe, as I always do. But you know, when it comes to angels, that place doesn’t have anything on St. Michael’s!
We have the market cornered on angels here! This magnificent window over the main altar, as well as the beautiful reredos, the glass mosaic behind the altar in the chapel, are so filled with angels – they all stand in witness to the faith of those who went before us, who built this magnificent church for us—dreaming that we would revel in these riches as we indeed do, now more than 100 years after this building was erected. We are watched over by these stunning angels.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a story of introductions, both the Nathanael’s introduction to Jesus and our introduction to John’s story of the Messiah. As Jesus responds to Nathanael’s confession of faith, he immediately points to the mystery of God. What a fantastic image he paints in these few words: It is an image of nothing less than the opening of heaven and God reaching out to the earth.
The image that Jesus conjures up reflects the Hebrew scriptures, an image that those who originally heard John’s gospel would have known well—of course, it is the text we also heard this morning, from Genesis, Jacob’s dream of angels going back and forth between heaven and earth.
Jesus connects Nathanael to Jacob and his offspring, the tribes of Israel, and then invites him into the mystery of God’s connection to us here on earth, as seen in the covenant with Israel. In short, Jesus highlights the mystery of our connection to God, symbolized by these ascending and descending angels.
I think that most of us in today’s world shun mystery. We live under the curse of too much information, our post-enlightenment mindset telling us that everything can be explained. But the realm of angels, for one, defies such scientific thought; angels cannot be explained in clear, rational terms.
Theologian Steven Chase makes the following observation about our desire to explain everything: “The effect of [this trend] in the lives of modern men and women has been to shut [us] off not simply from angels but from transcendence in any form, from mystery, and often from [our] very souls as well.”
What, exactly are angels? Can we rescue them from their superficial existence only in stained glass, or on Precious Moments greeting cards and Metropolitan Museum Christmas trees?
In the scriptures angels are often described in terms of light or fire; They are depicted wearing shining metals, precious stones, and white linen gowns with gold sashes. Though they are pictured in these tangible terms, in fact they belong to the invisible part of God’s creation.
Throughout scriptures angels serve as all-purpose spiritual beings, often as God’s messengers. In fact, the literal meaning of the Greek word for angel (angelos) is “messenger.” You might see angels as somewhat akin to PR wonks—carrying forward the message of their chosen one.
But angels play many roles: as intermediaries, as praise choristers, as comforters, and more. In today’s reading from Genesis angels appear to Jacob in a dream, climbing up and down a ladder between heaven and earth.
Jacob sees them literally bridging this gap. Perhaps this image most adequately incarnates the Judeo-Christian understanding of angels as the link between God and humanity.
Angels can also play the role of warrior. In the Book of Revelation we read a fantastic description of the archangel Michael, our patron saint, fighting along with his legions of angels against Satan. This story of angels recalls the victory of Christ over death. In this allegorical battle, angels represent God the Son—in essence, they stand in for Christ. Of course, it is the inspiration for the magnificent windows looking over us here.
In fact, angels have inspired a lot of art. Images of angels have been painted and carved by generations of the faithful, trying to capture the essence of these invisible beings. I recall especially a powerful experience I had in Florence, coming up the stairs of the Convent of St. Mark to see Fra Angelico’s remarkable fresco of the Annunciation. It depicts a beautiful angel, robed in red with rainbow-striped wings, bowing before the virgin as she proclaims the mysterious word of Mary’s calling to be the Christ-bearer. I was struck by the sheer beauty of this angel, and imagined the generations of monks who also were inspired by her.
But do any of these images of angels really work for us today? Can we embrace the idea of beings sent by God to be agents of the divine in the mortal world?
One answer to that question comes in the form of an opinion poll. In 2008 Time Magazine reported that, according to a poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, “More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives.” What is most surprising about this finding is that this majority held up regardless of denomination, region, or education.
Perhaps, despite our quest to understand everything about the world, we have not forgotten that some things are beyond explanation. Even as we learn more and more each day about the wonders of the human body and its workings, we know that there is mystery inside each and every one of us—that spark which we call our soul.
And if we can acknowledge that relationship between the visible—our own bodies—and the invisible—our souls—perhaps that connection provides a clue to the relationship between ourselves and the invisible realm of angels.
As Christians we believe that God did not just create the world; God is still active in the world today. We believe that God cares for us, and chooses to be in relationship with us. Perhaps angels are one avenue for that mystery of interaction with the divine.
Angels serve as instruments of that interaction—the bridge, or ladder, between God and us.
And if this is so, then we must accept that we are like angels too—after all, at our baptisms we are called to be witnesses of God’s love for the world. All of us, in whatever capacity we serve God, represent God to humanity, even as we experience God through the work of others. Like angels, we are called to be God’s messengers, to praise God, to comfort and soothe in the name of God, and even to be God’s warriors. We can be like angels as we minister to a hurt, broken, and confused world.
And I believe that we play this role both in our time on earth and after. I am a strong believer in the great cloud of witnesses.
Now, I am a reader of blogs—those modern-day diaries of ordinary men and women that fill the Web. In one of the blogs I read regularly, primarily because of the author’s keen sense of humor as well as his dedication to musical theater, I found this entry, written to his late father:
Dear Dad: I talk to you everyday but I don’t know how often it gets through to you. I don’t know where you are—you know that I am not a big believer in God or heaven. But I am pretty sure that you are always around me; that your life force and energy surround me and light the way when times are tough. And when times are great I feel you here as if you are smiling over my shoulder.
Perhaps you have had this same experience—feeling the presence of those who have left this earth in visible, human form—those who are now part of the invisible. I feel keenly the presence of my grandmother Marguerite, one of the kindest, gentlest women I have ever known, and I hear her calling me toward the deep well of love that she embodied.
I am aware of the spirit of my friend Paul, whose sparkling, mischievous eyes and warm heart, dedicated to helping others, were taken by the ravages of AIDS. He prods me to serve my fellow men and women. And there are many others whose spirits guide and shape me.
Even as we are like angels now—God’s messengers on earth ministering to one another—I think we can look forward to an eternity of service as God’s angels. That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? We are the angels of God. It’s us. We are part of the mystery.
Steven Chase describes this mystery, this essence of angelic presence in our lives, in this way:
The song of the angels is the incense of the cosmos, tuned by light and burning with love. The community of the angels is the perfume of friendship. The vision of the angels is of the hem of the gown of God. The ministry of the angels is the work of the Spirit. The fellowship of angels is like a simple meal with Jesus.
In a few minutes, as we come to this altar to receive that simple meal with Jesus, the mysterious elements of bread and wine made into flesh and blood, let us take that gift of grace into our hearts, and then go forth from this place to be God’s messengers in the world. Let us aspire to be like the angels here on earth, even as we await our own crowns of glory in the life to come. Amen.