“Bless the Lord, you His angels, who excel in strength, who do His word, hearing the voice of His word” (Psalm 103:20).
What is the best lie that you have ever told yourself? If you find yourself thinking that you have never told yourself a lie, you can probably stop – you’ve found your best lie. One of the very best lies that we, as a culture, have told ourselves is that we live in alone in a cold and quiet cosmos.
The readings for this festival day of Michael and All Angels are among the most evocative in the lectionary, and the most influential in the history of the art and literature of all Western culture: Jacob’s Ladder and the War in Heaven. This can be appreciated whether you’re a fan of Adrian Lyme’s films or William Blake’s painting. These readings stand in direct contradiction to at least one great lie that we, as a culture, have tried to tell ourselves.
Jacob’s vision of a stairway ascending to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, has been read in the history of the church as a reference to the path of purification, and of the ascent of the believer towards God. John’s Gospel reads the same story, but adds the crucial component that the Fathers of the Church recognised, but many modern interpreters miss: Christ’s incarnation into the world makes possible that path to purification. Christ is both the principle and the possibility. These passages have been read, throughout the history of the church, as an injunction to the path of purification. Not uncommonly, they have been read as an urging to pursue asceticism.
In any case, what is too easily analogised into irrelevance, whether in the year 319 or 2019, is the essential subjects of both these visions: the angels themselves. They are the symbol and reality of the interchange between heaven and earth: In Jacob’s vision they are the manifestation of God’s promise to stand by his people, and in the Gospel they are the fulfilment of the promise of Jacob’s Ladder, and of the principal and foundation of humanity’s ascent to the divine.
These readings should instil in us a sense of the possibilities presented by a world that is not, even in its greatest darkness, abandoned. These visions of the interchange between heaven and earth are again subject to our great lie. Even the Fathers analogised them, passing over the difficult questions posed by the intermediary figures of angels even as they experienced angelic visions and visitations. None of us are, after all, perfect. The enticement to revisit that lie, and to imagine a quiet world, is strong in the simplicity it promises. The reading from Revelation does, however, challenge us to question whether it is entirety our lie at all. Alongside the promises of divine congress and aid that we find in Genesis and the Gospel of John today is the foretelling or the recounting of a war in Heaven, in which Michael will lead the forces of heaven against the rebellious angels and finally cast them from the heavens and into hell.
If you appreciate this sort of thing, the earliest Latin commentary on Revelation, by Victorinus of Pettau, and the earliest Greek commentary, by Oecumenius disagree on whether the war in heaven is eschatological, which is to say, at the end of things, or a vision of the ancient past. These are not irreconcilable in their distinction. The visions of the Apocalypse of John need not cohere to any temporal order, nor speak to only one time. Not a few commentators saw the eschatological war in Heaven as a reflection of another, ancient battle that saw the first fall of angels into the world. We can happily take both accounts as true in their own way, or true as we need them to be in whatever moment we find ourselves.
In any case, these stories are about Michael’s casting down of the devil from heaven into the world. Whether we read these as ancient or eschatological we are being told of the weakness of the devil in the face of the power of God and his angels. It is of course, emphatically also about the reality of the devil in our world. If we want to be a bit cheeky about it we can see this as a good reminder that on the festival of Michael and all angels we are pushed into extremes of remembering all the angels.
Fallen angels, and chief among them Satan, or the devil, or Lucifer, or the Great Red Dragon, or the old serpent, or whichever richly evocative name we might find suits, are a stumbling block in every sense. Even as angels have been co-opted into a bloodless cultural Christianity and New Age movements fallen angels present challenges even to the most ardent traditionalist. Among the Fathers and the great minds of the church there is no consensus as the details of their nature. There is, however, consensus that they are.
The tenor of this unquiet world of demons and dominions, subject to the predations of the devil, is perhaps best captured in the Life of St Anthony the Great, known as the Father of All Monks, and probably the greatest monastic who ever lived. In Anthony’s biography it is recorded that he told a story to his monks, when explaining why they should not fear the devil: One night Anthony was alone in his monastic cell, and someone knocked on his door. He went out, and encountered a figure broad and tall. Anthony asked him who he was, and the figure replied, “I am Satan.” When Anthony asked him why he had come, Satan replied, “Why do the monks and all other Christians blame me undeservedly? Why do they curse me hourly?” Anthony, in turn, asked why the devil troubled these people. Satan answered that it was not he who troubled the monks and the other Christians, but it was they who troubled themselves. Anthony, marvelling at this statement said to the devil: “You who are ever a liar, and have never spoken the truth, this at length, even against your will, you have truly spoken, for the coming of Christ has made you weak…” Hearing the name of Christ Satan disappeared. Anthony continued, saying that when the demons find a mind timid and confused, they beset it like robbers, having found it unguarded: What we think, they do, and magnify. If we are afraid, they increase our terror. If we deceive ourselves, they magnify our deception. But they flee that the name of the Lord, and Anthony continues that the snares of the demon are smoke. Evil flees rather than pursues.
We live in a world that is miraculous. The history of the church attests to countless visitations of angels, of the meeting of humanity of the messengers of God. At every turn we are offered opportunities to step beyond the road as it runs before us and to discover the numinous.
And yet, we nevertheless tell ourselves endless lies. As Anthony is recorded as having said, we create the opportunity for the devil to deceive us. As the readings from Genesis and the Gospel of John illustrate, God sends his messengers into this world, and his own Son, to the end of his promise that he would not abandon us. At the same time, in a vision either of an eschatological future or an ancient past, show that the Devil has no authority or power in this world. No foothold, except us. In the lying to ourselves, and whatever our best lies are there is a cavalcade of deceptions we tell ourselves: that we are strong, that we are weak, that we are good, that we are bad, that open the door for these to be magnified beyond our control, to take over every part of our lives.
If our greatest lie is that the universe is a cold and quiet place, it is no surprise that, in finding it magnified many times over, we seek to extend that silence to everything else: We and the demons imagine a distant God, silence in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, and emptiness in the soul of faith. A world without angels, and without redemption.
In celebrating this festival of Michael and all the angels we should remember that if we should choose to abandon not only this great lie, but all the lies that we tell ourselves, and see the deceptions of Satan dispersed like smoke, as St Anthony put it, then we will find a host of angels ready to magnify the singular truth by which we can choose to live: that God is ready to stand by our side, and will not desert us. If we choose to at least begin by abandoning one great lie and embracing the world of possibility that Scripture offers us, this is what the festival of Michael and all angels offers us: If we face the darkness, we do so with the armies of God at our backs; we can do so unafraid, and not alone.
We pray, with Michael and all the angels:
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness 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 into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”