Homily: “Religion and Angels”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels, 2016.

We come in the liturgical year to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. This feast day enjoyed great popularity in medieval England, and the wider British lands of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well. So much so that it came to be known as “Michaelmas,”—“Michael’s Mass”—with the same shortened treatment that Christmas, or “Christ’s Mass,” received in popular piety. It was also important because it was a turning point in the English economy each Autumn, for it was seen as the official end of the harvest season, and hence new servants were hired, debts paid. Also, the universities began their terms after this day. One of my seminaries, Nashotah House, still calls its fall semester, “Michaelmas Term.”

Michaelmas showed up, as Church festivals often did (and still do), on the dinner table. It was customary to eat goose on Michaelmas Day; there was a kind of bread called “St Michael’s Bannock” that is a relative of the scone; and Michaelmas, according to English folklore, was “last day that blackberries should be picked. It is said that on this day, when Lucifer was expelled from Heaven, he fell from the skies, straight onto a blackberry bush. He then cursed the fruit, scorched them with his fiery breath, spat and stamped on them and made them unfit for consumption! And so the Irish proverb goes: ‘On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries.’” There is even a “Michaelmas Daisy,” a kind of Aster whose color ranges from deep pink to light purple. With the Weiner Roast last evening outside the vicarage at All Saints’ as part of our Michaelmas revelry, we participated in an age-old festival and added—with hot dogs and s’mores and the rest—a particularly American spin.

Three years ago, as a lowly seminarian, I was invited to preach on Michaelmas. In conversations with the Rector of the Parish in the week leading up to the Feast, I indicated to him that I had become surprisingly enthralled with the subject of Angels. Hearing my enthusiasm, he invited me to do a Sermon Series, which I gladly accepted. One of the bits of research was to ask my then eight-year-old daughter Twyla, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

As I said then, and I say again now, I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God.

Angels are all about God in two ways. The first way Angels are about God is because they are around God, who is sitting on His throne. Angels are serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve Him night and day, beholding the glory of his presence— “day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev 4:8). Lest that sound like a fanciful sentiment, do understand that the Church has long understood the purpose of what we call Morning and Evening Prayer—traditionally called the “Divine Office” and a central pillar of our religion—to be pure praise of the type that the Holy Angels sing unceasingly in their ministry; so that in Morning and Evening Prayer, even three people in a chapel on a quiet weekday evening, we join the Angels in their unending chorus of praise. Because our prayer joins with the chorus sung by the angels, we are around the Throne of God in Morning and Evening Prayer.

The second way angels are about God is in their identity. The meaning of angels is not found in who they are, for all we can say is that they are spiritual beings; the meaning of angels is found rather in what they do. Angels are messengers that announce—that is what “angel” means. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God?” because he confronted prideful, puffed-up Satan with that very question. Satan, another angel, means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Saint Michael is ever a reminder that when we are puffed with pride, like Satan and his unholy angels, we will fall, and continue to fall until we become humble, at which point we are able again to praise God and receive his blessings. When we have humility, another pillar of our religion, we have angels to thank.

It is through humility that we can receive and respond to the message brought to us by angels. The good or holy angels, being messengers like the Angel Gabriel, who brought to Blessed Mary the message that she was to become the Mother of God, pending her free consent—they disclose God’s good news of salvation and vocation in ways that we can perceive and respond to. God’s will for us, who He wants us to be, becomes available to us through the ministry of angels. Whenever we understand anything about God—that is, about reality, because faith’s name for reality is God—we have an angel to thank. Angels translate God’s message to us. God’s message, which is His love, resides in its fullest sense in “light inaccessible,” so the angels render that light accessible to our minds. All revelation we receive—whether in life’s peak moments, life’s valley moments, or life’s mundane moments—come from angels.

This led perhaps the most celebrated Christian theologian of the Western Church, Saint Augustine (who died in the early 5th century) to remark that “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” Is that not a staggering thought? Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. With the contemplation of this truth, all of reality lights up, and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God. How appropriate, then, are Jacob’s words from our first reading, when he awoke from his sleep: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is truly the gate of heaven.”

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.