Thursday, September 29, 2016

Saint Michael and All Angels- Thursday, September 29 , 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC 
Saint Michael and All Angels - Thursday, September 29, 2016

Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust down to hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who roam the world  seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

This prayer might be familiar to Roman Catholics of a certain age and also to Anglo-Catholics. It appears in all past and present editions of St. Augustine's Prayer Book.

It turns out, however, not to be a very old prayer.  Pope Leo XIII--he who famously declared Anglican ordinations “absolutely null  and utterly void”--wrote it and ordered it said beginning in 1884 after low masses along with a number of Hail Mary's and other prayers with the explicit intention for the restoration of the Papal States and later (1929), for the Catholic Church in Russia. Its use was suppressed in 1965. So it's just a blip in the history of church liturgical practice or devotional piety.  And only liturgy wonks like myself tend to know it.  Yet I find the prayer strangely comforting and reassuring and say it fairly often. 

I think part of the reason is that it offers a somewhat more sturdy picture of angels than what we find in recent popular culture. I'm not sure we want to be touched by this particular angel. This is not an angel with a chubby face or soft, downy wings. This angel is a warrior, the leader of the heavenly armies: 

“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”  (Rev. 12:7-8)

In the Biblical and spiritual traditions beginning with late Judaism, but also in Persian and other contemporary religions and continuing into Christian piety, angels have played an important role.
    As the very word angel suggests, angels announce. They serve as messengers of the Most High, bringing warnings or news—hopefully good news—or consolations, often in dreams or visions. 
   They serve, they minister, as we hear in the letter to the Hebrews.They cooperate with God in the work of creation to bring God's will to pass and serve as cosmic witnesses to the mighty acts of God.
   They worship God ceaselessly, and in our worship we do indeed join our voices with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven. 
   They connect heaven and earth, as we hear in today's Gospel, climbing up and down that stairway or ladder which is Christ, guiding us into right relationship with God and with God's creation, including with our own selves. 
   They guard and protect, as we hear in various Gospel passages, especially regarding the safety of “the little ones”...hence the idea of guardian angels, perhaps each of us having one appointed by God to accompany us and keep us on our ways.
   They heal, as we hear in the story of Tobit or in the Jesus' reference to the troubling of the waters by an angel at the pool.

They DO all this, they ARE all this. 

And this very talk of angels challenges our pedestrian and limited ideas of reality, suggesting that there is more—much more—than either our eyes can see or our minds can fathom.  Even if there were no angels, then, we might need to invent them just so that we could protect this opening toward the great metaphysical unknown that intersects our lives from time to time, or perhaps always.  I know people who have had experiences of angels.  Some of you are here right now, people who know of those uncanny times when we have been saved from disaster or plucked from danger or delivered from our own foolishness and brought, against all odds, to a place of calm and safety.  We can't quite explain such experiences, except to say that God was there and acting through some power or person or force, visible or invisible, that saved or changed our lives.  I know this for a fact.
But there is more. Because, as our Leonine prayer reminds us, the angels fight, they do battle, they strive against evil, they work for good.

Of course the imagery may be primitive and even dangerous.  But it may be all the more cogent for that.

We live in an age that shrinks away from religious imagery or language having to do with struggle, with spiritual combat, with invisible warfare, though it's an integral part of ascetical theology.  Maybe it's because we have become more sensitive to the real costs of war and the carnage it brings that we resist using such language.  Maybe it's because we are aware of how easily military imagery is transformed into militarism and narrow nationalism or religiously inspired terrorism.  I think of Jimmy Carter's speech in 2002 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and concluded by saying:  
“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.” 
Yet we are in a spiritual struggle, a cosmic battle, engaged in spiritual warfare. My own small battles fought against my recurring vices and quotidian sins is part of a larger conflict, the dimensions of which exceed my grasp, my understanding. The systemic sins that mark our society and our world—poverty, racism, sexism, disposable people, disposable nations...we know the litany, and that only scratches the surface. And yet we are called to engage in this battle, using as weapons those outlined by St. Paul: truth, justice, righteousness, humility, love.  But we must not deceive ourselves; it is a battle, a struggle. And though the outcome may be assured, the way is long and the burden is heavy (especially for some) and the cost is high.   

And here's where St. Michael and the angels come in.  Because whatever else these angelic beings may be, they are fighters, they are warriors.  And they are fighting with us and maybe even within us in our struggles.  And they are fighting for us, for all God's creation, against forces and patterns and yes, even against that one we call Satan, “the enemy of our human nature” as Ignatius of Loyola describes him, who is not less than personal.  And we are not fighting alone.  God has given us “co-conspirators” in the fellowship of the church and in the wider human community and, beyond our wildest imaginings, in the mighty army of angelic spirits. No, we do not fight alone.

Is this mythology?  Of course it is.  
Is it true? I sure hope so.

Jesus Christ, of course, is the Lord of the battle.  It is in his army that we serve, as St. Benedict teaches.  And “he must win the battle,” as Martin Luther would have us sing.  But he has other helpers as well. You and me.  And right there, in the front ranks, are the angels.  Let us not be afraid to invoke today their fellowship and aid and protection. 

Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust down to hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who roam the world  seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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