I apologize for the lateness of this – for which the fact that I am still on break is but partial extenuation – but I did not want to let this significant Prayer Book (although of course it far predates The Book of Common Prayer) commemoration pass without recognition, late or no! I shall first post the Prayer Book Propers (Collect and Lessons), and then a few thoughts on St. Michael, and angels in general!
The Propers for Saint Michael and all Angels.
The Book of Common Prayer 1928.
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order; Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels always do thee service in heaven, so, by thy appointment, they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For the Epistle. Rev. xii. 7.
THERE was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
The Gospel. St. Matt. Xviii. 1.
AT the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
The following account is drawn largely from the excellent blog, “For All the Saints,” and from the late James Kiefer’s “Christian Biographies,” with a some elaborations, reflections, and general comments from yours truly:
The scriptural word “angel” (Greek, angelos) means, literally, a messenger. According to the biblical witness, angels, messengers from God, can be visible or invisible, and may assume human or nonhuman forms. In his Church Dogmatics, the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth summarizes the section of the text on angels (“the ambassadors of God”) in this way:
“God’s action in Jesus Christ, and therefore his lordship over his creature, is called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because first and supremely it claims for itself the upper world. From this God selects and sends his messengers, the angels, who precede the revelation and doing of his will on earth as objective and authentic witnesses, who accompany it as faithful servants of God and man, and who victoriously ward off the opposing forms and forces of chaos.”
Of the angels who appear in the biblical narrative, only four are given names: Michael (Hebrew, “Who is like God?”) and Gabriel (“God is my strength”) are named in the canonical Scriptures; Raphael (“God heals”) in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit; and Uriel (“God is my light”) in 2 Esdras and in the apocryphal Book of Enoch and the Testament of Solomon.
Michael appears in the Book of Daniel as “one of the chief princes” of the heavenly host and as the special guardian or protector of Israel (Daniel 10 and 12). In the Book of Revelation he is the principal warrior of the heavenly host against the dragon, who was “thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12). In the Epistle of Jude, Michael disputes with Satan over the body of Moses and declares, “The Lord rebuke you.” (The epistle may be citing a lost passage in the Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal Jewish book.)
While not all Anglicans feel comfortable praying to saints, or even angels, this prayer has a long provenance in the Western Church:
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defence against the snares and wickedness of the evil one. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray. And do thou, O prince of the heavenly host by the power of God cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl the world seeking the ruin of souls.
The second-century Christian text Shepherd of Hermas depicts Michael as an angel of majestic aspect, who has authority over “this people and governs them, for it was he who gave them the law…and superintends those to whom he gave it to see if they have kept it.” In the second-century Testament of Abraham Michael’s intercession is so powerful that souls can be rescued even from hell, a passage that may have inspired the offertory antiphon in the former Roman Liturgy for the Dead: “May Michael the standard-bearer lead them into the holy light, which you promised of old to Abraham and his seed.”
The formal veneration of Michael began in the Christian East, where he was invoked particularly for the care of the sick. A famous appearance of Michael at Mount Garganus (Monte Gargano) in Italy in the late fifth century was important in the spread of his veneration to the West. The feast of Saint Michael on September 29 commemorates the dedication of his basilica on the Salarian Way near Rome.
From early times his veneration was strong in the British Isles, such that by the end of the Middle Ages in England, almost seven hundred churches were dedicated to him. He is the patron of the monastery fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy and of Coventry Cathedral, England’s most famous modern cathedral, which was built out of the ashes of the devastation of that city during the Second World War.
Note: St. Michael and St. George are often portrayed, in iconography, in ways that can make it a bit confusing at times which is being represented: after all, St. Michael cast down Satan, “that old serpent”; while St. George slew a dragon! A couple of things can help you distinguish between the two: St. Michael is usually portrayed as being afoot, while St. George is generally portrayed as being mounted. And perhaps most significant, St. George may have a halo, but of the two, only St. Michael has wings!
Regarding Angels in general:
On this Feast of Michael and all Angels, popularly called Michaelmas, we give thanks for the many ways in which God’s loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God’s creation far exceeds our knowledge of it.
The Holy Scriptures often speak of created intelligences other than humans who worship God in heaven and act as His messengers and agents on earth. We are not told much about them, and it is not clear how much of what we are told is figurative. Jesus speaks of them as rejoicing over penitent sinners (Luke 15:10). Elsewhere, in a statement that has been variously understood (Matthew 18:10), He warns against misleading a child, because their angels behold the face of God. (Acts 12:15 may refer to a related idea.)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is occasionally reported that someone saw a man who spoke to him with authority, and who he then realized was no mere man, but a messenger of God. Thus we have a belief in super-human rational created beings, either resembling men in appearance or taking human appearance when they are to communicate with us. They are referred to as “messengers of God,” or simply as “messengers.” The word for a messenger in Hebrew is MALACH, in Greek, ANGELOS, from which we get our word “angel.”
[Side Note: ANGELION means “message, news” and EUANGELION (the “u” is pronounced like a “v”) means “good news = gódspell (Old English) = gospel,” from which we get our word “evangelist” used to mean a preacher of the Good News of salvation, and, more narrowly, one of the four Gospel-writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.]
What is the value to us of remembering the Holy Angels? Well, since they appear to excel us in both knowledge and power, they remind us that, even among created things, we humans are not the top of the heap. And since it is the common belief that demons are angels who have chosen to disobey God and to be His enemies rather than His willing servants, they also serve to remind us that the higher we may climb, the lower we can fall.
The greater our natural gifts and talents, the greater the damage if we turn them to bad ends. The more we have been given, the more will be expected of us. And, in the picture of God sending His angels to help and defend us, we are reminded that apparently God, instead of doing good things directly, often prefers to do them through His willing servants, enabling those who have accepted His love to show their love for one another.
So, Archangels are the most powerful angels, right…?
Nope. Based on the writings of St. Paul – who spoke of such beings, in addition to angels, as thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers – and a later writer called Dionysios the Areopagite (originally thought to be the convert of the Apostle Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34, but now believed to be a 5th-century Syrian monk, generally referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysios”), it is generally considered that there are nine orders, or “choirs,” of angelic beings.
The lowest order, called simply angels, are God’s messengers and envoys to (and guardians of) the human race. The highest order, the seraphim, devote themselves to contemplating God, beholding Him face to face, and loving and praising Him. Those in between are sometimes differently ordered, depending on who’s making the list, but they include cherubim, dominions, thrones, principalities, powers, and archangels… the last-named being the one right above angels, proper.
If these names sound familiar, and you’re not already a scholar of such things, it is probably from the well-known hymn, often played on this day, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”:
Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Note that the term “angels” can refer either to all nine orders, or only to the lowest order, just as the term “soldier” can refer to anyone in the army, or only to the enlisted men (as opposed to the officers). Each order helps to reveal and declare God’s glory to the order below. So archangels are actually only the second-ranked order, or choir, of angels, right about those so-named!
Nonetheless, certain archangels, those specifically named, have been given special tasks by God, in the economy of salvation, and one of those is St. Michael, the Captain of the Heavenly Host, whose feast we celebrate – or perhaps by now, I should say “celebrated,” today.
There is much more that could be said, but this has already gone on long enough… and probably then some! At any rate, please remember that, except for what is specifically attested in the Scriptures, this is all rather speculative; we should not expect to know and understand these matters in detail until we are in God’s nearer presence (and assuming that He chooses to share them with us, even then).
But it is fascinating speculation, and does tend to show us – as noted above – the many ways in which God cares for us, as well as complexity and wonder of His Creation, even above and beyond the physical cosmos! As well as His willingness to delegate certain tasks to certain of His creature, both physical and spiritual. May God send His holy angels to watch over us, and protect us from harm, particularly as we wait upon the re-landfall of Hurricane Ian. And may He bless and preserve us, and those we love, and in the words of another hymn, “save us from all ills, in this world and the next!”
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Fr. Tom Harbold