"This is none other than the house of God,
and this the gate of heaven."
St. Michael and All Angels
Sept 29, 2006
All Saints Chapel
Note: It is rare for a preacher to admit to pulling a sermon
out of the file, but this one has a story: Nineteen years ago
and a newly-arrived doctoral student (that didn’t last long),
I was asked to preach on this Feast on short notice. Well, it
happened again! Fortunately, neither angels nor the essentials
of the Gospel message have changed much in nineteen years.
Here, slightly revised, is what I said:
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it
all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels
dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let
your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.
That ancient collect, from the Office of Compline, is among my favorite in all the Prayer Book--and so is this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. But it is a curious Feast, dating from the foundation of a church dedicated to St. Michael in the fifth century and expanded to include ALL angels in the 1549 Prayer Book. But what are we really celebrating? After all, we don't think of angels as a part of our every-day experience. Yet we encounter them often in our prayers and our liturgical life, and they come up at regular intervals in our lectionary readings. So we must deal with them... But how?
Most of you are probably familiar with The Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis. You remember, the chronicle of demon Screwtape's replies to his nephew Wormwood who is trying very hard to defeat the new-found Christian life of his human subject. (He fails, thank God!) Well, I have unearthed one of the unpublished letters of nephew Wormwood, who sees this Feast from what might be called a "Via Negativa" point of view. I share it now, with his permission. Only remember that the Devil is a liar, and Uncle Screwtape taught Wormwood very well...
My dearest Uncle Screwtape,
Well, it's THEIR day again! Oh, they call it "St. Michael and ALL Angels, but we deceivers are not deceived. They can't describe them. Even the Sacred Writings are quite vague. But, put simply, angels (as they're called) are messengers--a special order of beings (says the collect for this day) which, when they are not (dare I say it?) singing the praises of God, are intermediaries between God and humankind.
We have tried for so long to confuse the description of these beings: Medieval creations with peaceful (if somber) expressions; chubby cherubs of Baroque art; even human beings (a bishop once asked me, “Are you an angel?”. But alas! those familiar with the Sacred Writings know better. THEY are really such fierce and awesome figures that the recipients of their messages must first be calmed with the words, "Be not afraid".
Though only four of them are named: Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel, their presence has been felt throughout Salvation History: in Jacob's dream of today's lesson, or his wrestling match with an angel a few chapters later; at the vision which accompanied Isaiah's calling; ministering to Elijah in his moment of despair; announcing the Incarnation to Mary and Jesus' birth to the shepherds; with Jesus at His baptism, His temptation in the desert, His agony in the garden, and as the very first witnesses of the resurrection; finally as the victors-in-Christ over our Leader and us his fallen angels as so--er--beautifully depicted in the lesson from Revelation.
We angels here Below want so much to get those humans on earth to dismiss THEM (and us) as figments of their (or some ancient writer's) worst fantasies! Origen said that angels belong to the proclamation of the Church. We had more success with Gregory of Nazianzus who said that "it is difficult to find the right words in which to speak of angels". Yet even Karl Barth could not entirely demythologize angels, pointing out that, whereas WE (fallen angels) exist for ourselves here Below, THEY, in that horribly beautiful place called heaven,
"...are not independent and autonomous subjects...
merging as it were into their function, which is
wholly and exemplary that of SERVICE." (Church Dogmatics)
And C.S. Lewis (by whose hand your letters, Uncle Screwtape, were published) has this to say:
The commonest question is whether I really "believe
in the Devil". The proper question is whether I believe
in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and
I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their
free will, have become enemies to God...and to us.
Satan, the leader...of devils, is not the opposite of
God, but of Michael... (whose name, incidentally,
means "who can compare with God?") (Screwtape Letters)
Or, if these humans who call themselves “Christians” find angels unavoidable, they take them for granted. They confuse them for human messengers--important and even necessary at times, but not angels. I have stumbled upon these Christians' celebrations of this day. In a few moments the familiar words of the Preface will sound again which, in every Eucharist, leads them into the hymn of Isaiah's vision:
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with
Angels and Archangels (no, not “dark angels”!),
and with all the company of heaven, who forever
sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name...
And their hymns! (Sung:) Angels from the Realms of Glory; Angels, we have heard on high; The angel Gabriel from heaven came; Ye holy angels bright; Christ the fair glory of the holy angels...(or if you prefer the chant version...) I could go on and on--but this angelic music hurts my demonic ears!
I cannot stay in church much longer! For (in Jacob's words) "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
Dear Uncle Screwtape, I tried my best to stifle the joy of these Christians and their "St. Michael and THEIR Angels" celebrations. But I'm afraid it's hopeless. You see, the (dare I say it) Good News is that they keep asking God to send angels to “defend them here on earth” and they keep striving, with God’s help, to make the example of the Angels' reflected glory and service their own. Once that's done, nothing here Below can overcome it. But maybe someday, at the Consummation of All Things, we will give in and surrender ourselves to Jesus the Christ. Then it really will be the Feast of St. Michael and ALL angels.
Meanwhile, Uncle Screwtape, I await your learned response.
Your affectionate nephew,
 I owe a great debt to my friend the Rev. Dr. Tina Pippin, who was here on sabbatical at the time and helped me do the research for this sermon.