My favorite medieval historian, the Parisian scholar Remi Brague, says that one could define the modern age, our age, as “the age without angels.” And I think there is something right about this. We don’t think or talk about angels much these days, and philosophers and theologians haven’t done so deeply for a long time.
But in the ancient world and in the long medieval period that followed it all thinkers—Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike—all thinkers were obsessed with angels. So if we are to think about angels—as the Church asks us to do today—we have to turn to older traditions of wisdom.
Tonight I will use St. Augustine as my example of this tradition. St. Augustine taught that the angels are privileged with two ways of understanding reality: The angels see and understand things as they appear to us, from our earthly perspective, which is what Augustine rather poetically calls “evening knowledge,” and the angels see and understand things as God sees them from a heavenly perspective, which is what Augustine calls “morning knowledge.”
What this suggests is that there are two ways to look at the stuff of our lives: We can look at them as they appear to us on earth—in the half-light of evening knowledge; or we can look at them as they appear to the angels in heaven—in the bright dawn of morning knowledge.
Augustine’s beautifully expressed view of the evening knowledge that belongs to us human beings and the morning knowledge that belongs to the angels can be applied to our readings tonight.
Let’s start with Genesis. In tonight’s reading the patriarch Jacob experiences a revelation: He sees an ordinary earthly place from the viewpoint of heaven. Jacob beholds a ladder planted on the earth but reaching up to heaven, and it is angels who travel up and down that path, making it plain that God is present in a sacred place. The angels introduce Jacob into the presence of the Lord, and at a special place on earth heaven is opened.
As Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And why would he have known it? He has been sleeping on an ordinary rock in the desert. But once he sees this ordinary place in the light of morning knowledge, like everyone in the Bible who meets an angel, “he was afraid” and declared the place where heaven opened onto earth awesome indeed.
Turning to the Gospel, Our Lord seems to refer directly to this crucial incident from the life of Jacob when he encounters Nathanael. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel Nathanael has been told by Philip that he has met the Messiah, and that the Messiah is from Nazareth. Nathanael sarcastically asks how anything good can come from Nazareth; he is shocked and takes offense at the lowliness of the very idea of the Messiah coming from a backwater like Nazareth. And perhaps he can’t help it, for it is scandalous that God should be incarnated as a human being born into low circumstances. With our limited earthly perspective, with our evening knowledge, we can’t help but be scandalized at the Word becoming flesh. Why would God come among us in this way? Who could have known it? But rather than be offended in turn, Our Lord somewhat playfully makes fun of Nathanael’s candor. “Behold,” he says, “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.”
Jesus says Nathanael is a straight shooter, but there is a deeper meaning to his joke. We must remember that Israel is the new name of Jacob, in whom there was a great deal of guile. Jacob was a trickster, who cheated his brother out of his inheritance not once but twice. To be a true Israelite in whom there is no guile is to be without cunning and ready to trust.
Because Nathanael is without guile, because he is not a cheat, he seems quite prepared to believe in Jesus, who says he knew Nathanael before Philip ever came to him; Jesus knew him when he was sitting under the fig tree. This somewhat minor and still rather playful display of divine power is enough to convince Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus is still playful in his reply: You believe because of the fig tree thing? That’s nothing. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” You, Nathanael, the one who is the true Israelite with none of the conniving of Jacob, you will see what Jacob saw.
But two crucial changes have taken place between the Old Testament and New.
We miss the first one because of our translation: In the Greek it is clear that Jesus has switched here from the second-person singular to the second-person plural. So when he says “You will see heaven opened,” he is not actually speaking only to one person but to “you all,” that is to the handful of disciples he has gathered unto himself. We can even imagine him speaking to us. You all, all of you who believe in me, will see heaven opened.
As for the second change: This will not happen in a special place, this will happen to a special person. Jesus himself is the ladder between heaven and earth, upon whom angels ascend and descend.
And this brings me to Revelation and the archangel Michael, whom we celebrate tonight.
Our strange reading from Revelation is the book’s only reference to Michael the archangel, who traditionally was regarded as the defender of Israel, the heavenly warrior who fights for the people of God.
Michael appears in Revelation in a surprising interruption. According to this chapter of John’s Revelation, war arose in heaven as a result of a conflict between Satan the dragon and a celestial woman who is about to give birth. The dragon Satan intends to swallow the child when he is born, but the child is saved and taken to his throne in heaven. At this point, Michael suddenly appears to fight against the dragon and when Michael defeats the dragon a voice in heaven declares, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come.”
So it seems that the dramatic conflict between the celestial mother and the dragon is in fact the war of Satan against the promised child Jesus and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is indeed the queen of heaven. When Jesus is taken up into heaven, his victory over Satan is secured.
In the Revelation of John, Christ is constantly presented as conqueror or victor. And Michael’s victory too is dependent upon Christ’s victory accomplished by the cross.
Why do we need an angel at all then? Why does Michael interrupt this story?
When Christ is crucified he achieves victory on earth and opens heaven to all believers. But because Jesus is on his earthly mission, he is not present in the same way in heaven. Because Jesus is active on earth, he cannot be a player in what happens in heaven. But Michael can.
I think what is happening here is that Christ’s victory on earth, accomplished by his crucifixion, is being seen by John as how it looked from heaven. The whole book of Revelation is a disclosure of things seen from the side of heaven. It is a book full of morning knowledge, written from the perspective not of a man on earth but an angel in heaven.
According to St. Augustine, the angels are given morning knowledge, the gift of seeing how things really are from the perspective of heaven. And this too is a great example of that: From our perspective, from the human view, we see a pitiful man abandoned by his friends tortured to death and hanging on a cross.
But the angels see things differently. On earth, Jesus accomplishes the final victory over the forces of evil. So Michael’s victory in heaven is a counterpart to what Christ accomplished on earth. The war in heaven is not what happens after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. It is the same thing—seen from the other side.
Because Jesus has cast Satan down from heaven, he is himself the ladder between heaven and earth, and that means that anywhere he is, so too are the angels come down from heaven, and so too we are raised up from earth to heaven.
The same St. Augustine laments that one of the great grievances of this life is that we cannot mingle with angels as familiarly as we can with our fellow human beings. I see what he means—none of us expects to see an angel any time soon—but in a way we do mingle with angels, because in the sacrament Christ is present to us, and where Christ is the angels are too.
When we come through the doors of this church, we are in the company of angels, and we say as much in the preface to the Eucharistic prayer: “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name.”
When we are engaged in the worship of God, we are not alone in this enterprise. We are in the company of angels, just like Jacob was briefly and just like Jesus made it possible for us to be anywhere and anytime he is present in the sacrament of his body and blood. It is here in the presence of Christ that we see heaven opened. And that is why Jacob’s words are written in gold letters above that door, right behind you: “This is none other but the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”
For so it is. Just as there is an earthly way to view the crucifixion of our Lord, so there is an earthly way to view this building. To an earthly way of seeing, Jacob goes to sleep in the desert with his head on an ordinary rock. To an earthly way of seeing, this building where we are gathered is nothing but a pile of rocks, a lovely one certainly, but a pile of rocks nonetheless. To an earthly way of seeing, the crucifixion is the humiliating defeat of a pitiable peasant tortured to death.
But what about the way the angels see things? How do they appear in the eyes of heaven, in the light of morning knowledge? From the view of the angels, the crucifixion is the moment when Michael the archangel flings the devil out of heaven. It is the triumph of the goodness of God over the great enemy Satan. From the viewpoint of the angels, where Jacob laid his head down on the rock in the desert was no ordinary stone in the dirt but the house of God. And from the view of the angels, this place is no ordinary building, no mere pile of rocks; it is heaven on earth, the very dwelling place of Almighty God.