Dr. Austin is Theologian-in-Residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
The feast of Saint Michael and All Angels brings much joy to many of us, for all sorts of reasons. May I begin with a personal reason? Susan, my late wife, and I deliberately chose this feast as the date for our marriage, some 41 years ago in Santa Fe. It fell on a Friday that year. Many people asked us, Why don’t you get married on Saturday? We replied, But that wouldn’t be the feast of St Michael! People named Michael, not to mention angels, were important to us.
I suppose we were putting our marriage under the protection of St Michael. Protection is an important role that angels play—Jesus refers to guardian angels—and the protection provided by angels is nothing to sneeze at. Sneeze at the devil if you wish; indeed, the devil has a smell that should bring to all healthy nostrils a violent sneeze. But don’t sneeze at angels. There are spiritual forces for good in this vast universe of God’s creating.
Our first child was named Michael. We often told him that his name, Mi-cha-el, means the question “Who is like God?” The name Michael thus points to the defending role that angels play, in particular, their protection against any who would claim to displace God. Who claims to be like God?—that’s Michael’s challenge, for no one can be like God. My wife and I would often remind our son about that question mark on his name. A “Michael” is not someone who is like God; a “Michael” is rather one who takes up God’s cause against anyone who would claim to be like God!
It is near impossible to understand why anyone would want to go against God, to usurp God’s place, to want to be like God, to be in the place of God, to be God—and yet it is the case, some people—and some angels—have opposed God from the beginning. Opposition to God goes back as far as we can see. The serpent, the snake in the garden, tempted our first parents with the thought that they could be “like God.” Some have suggested that he, the serpent, was upset by God’s infatuation with this bungling human being that he had made. He, the serpent, was the subtlest creature of God, he was the one who ought to be God’s favorite. And so to prove his importance, he insinuated to Eve (and through her, Adam) that they had in themselves the autonomy to declare what’s good and what’s evil. This is the usurpation of God: to take upon oneself to decide the meaning of things, to say: I can declare what’s good and what’s evil, I can define what’s right and wrong. This, of course, remains a live temptation today, for groups as well as for individuals. Many social practices and trends of thought presume to take God’s place, to define for themselves what’s good and evil.
But whenever we would try to push God aside and define for ourselves what’s right and wrong, we end up hurting people, ourselves and others. It is the job of angels to oppose all this; when angels battle God’s enemies they at the same time defend the goodness and dignity of every human being.
So angels protect; we could call that the guardian function, indeed, the “Michael” function. But they do much more. They also reveal things, and this is the “Gabriel” function. Gabriel appears to the virgin Mary and reveals to her that utterly unexpected thing God was prepared to do—to take human flesh in her womb. And more than that: he reveals to her that she can freely participate in that unexpected thing.
This revelatory role for angels, like everything about angels, goes back long before the New Testament. Here’s a case from the year, oh, about 1800 B.C., a story told in the book of Genesis.
A man is escaping from a messy situation; his brother has reason to take his life and the brute force to do so. The man comes to a certain place for the night, and in his sleep he dreams. In his dream the sky opens, and there’s a ladder, propped up from the earth into that opening in the sky. A connection exists, in this place, in his dream, between his life on this earth and the place where God dwells (which is what “heaven” means: heaven is a created “place” that God has made so that he can be close to his creation). In this dream God is up there in his place, heaven, but the communication between God and man is made visible: there is that ladder with the angels of God going up and down upon it. God speaks to this man in his dream, and confirms that he has a future. God will be “with” him and “keep” him into that future; despite the messiness and danger and forthcoming troubles and struggles, his life will never be cut off from the life of God.
It is an angelic revelation, and it shows how God is always close to us. There is that ladder, there are those angels: no matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, we have access to communication with God. We will never be cut off.
This is true for us—it’s not merely an ancient picture that might make us feel a little better—because Jesus is that ladder. This we know from the New Testament, from Saint John’s gospel. There is a man named Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. His friend Philip finds him there, and urges him to come meet Jesus. When Nathaniel arrives, Jesus recognizes him, and calls him a man without guile. Nathaniel is perhaps flattered (who wouldn’t be?), but he doesn’t know how Jesus knows him. Jesus tells him: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” And Nathaniel believes. He calls Jesus the son of God and the king of Israel.
This, however, is not the end of it. Jesus then says, Thou shalt see greater things than these. . . . Ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
Jesus deliberately references Jacob’s dream. And the “you” in what he says—“ye shall see . . . angels . . . ascending and descending”—that “you” is plural. It starts out singular—thou, Nathaniel—then it turns plural. In Texas we say “y’all.” It means all the disciples. It means all those who hear this Gospel read through the centuries. It means you who are sitting here in pews on Beacon Hill in the city of Boston. For you to see: angels ascend and descend upon Jesus, who is Jacob’s ladder but not confined to that place where Jacob had his dream but is wherever the Holy Spirit is. Since Jesus’ gift to all who would receive him is the Holy Spirit, wherever you are there is this ladder, there is this communication; wherever you are, you are not cut off from God.
But don’t forget the preamble: “Thou shalt see greater things than these.”
This is the final role of angels that I will speak about today. Beyond protection (guardian, Michael), beyond revelation and communication with God (Gabriel, ladder), angels are God’s assurance to us our future is in his hands. I’m referring to things like this: We often look to the past with regret and to the present with fear of losing what we have. People we have loved dearly have died, and those we love dearly right now may be slipping away. The leaves here in Boston (and how glad I am to visit your fair city at this fine time!)—the leaves are just on the edge of turning; next month they will become brilliant colors, then they will fall, and after that, the darkness. You may be a baby with your whole life ahead of you: but what will that life be? You may be young and in the fullness of your life, but times are difficult and you wonder if you’ll get opportunities. Or you’re like me, a widower who with good health might still have a productive decade or two or even three. Or your own summer is coming to an end, and winter is closing in.
Friends! All these thoughts, these pictures, these worries—they are deceptions. They are wrong and delusional because they leave angels out of the picture! Remember Jesus’ words: Thou shalt see greater things than these. “Thou”—you individually, you Nathaniel, you, whatever your name is, you individually will see greater things. Each of us shall see—all of us shall see. Of course, cities pass away. We know empires fall. We’ve seen buildings crumble. And while we have time, we do our best to shore them up and perhaps improve them a bit. But when Boston (or Dallas) is as much an ancient memory as the Roman Empire, you, a creature of God made for eternity, you will still be alive; and if you are God’s friend, you will still be a creative, communicative creature, in love with God, in love with all those who love God, in that place of true communications, the angels continually ascending and descending.
Angels: they bring God’s protection to us, they are God’s communication with us, and they assure us that, for each one of us, there are still greater things to come.