It is easy in our day to and age to dismiss belief in angels, who are one part of the invisible order of creation that we pass over so quickly in our recitation of the Creed, as superstitious. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church continues to insist on the reality of this invisible order of creation. As Hamlet says to Horatio: "There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy" (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5). Like belief that there is something, or someone beyond our existential experience, belief in angels and spirits is a very human belief. This belief certainly predates Christianity and even Judaism, which began with Abraham, our father in the faith. Among modern Catholic theologians, even some in whose writings we may find it surprising, the consensus remains that angels, in their varied orders exist.
According to our understanding, angels are spiritual beings in that they do not have bodies, are not material, and, hence, do not occupy space. Nonetheless they are very much like us in that they possess memory, will, and understanding. In our first reading today we read about angels exercising their free will and rebelling against God. It is important to consider for a moment the importance and necessity of free will. Such a consideration takes us back to creation. We are created out of love and for love. So fundamental is this that our Lord teaches us that all that is required of us is to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as our self. Just in case there is any doubt about who is our neighbor, he tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan. Love requires freedom.
We have probably all had the experience, perhaps as young people, of having a "crush" No doubt, this was heart-breaking. In this we learn that we cannot force somebody to love us, it has to be a free choice on their part to love in return. While feelings certainly constitute part of the reality of our human experience of love, they are only one dimension of this multi-dimensional reality. At root, love is a choice, an act of the will. It is our refusal to love as we should that links humanity with the rebellion in heaven. After all, original sin, the disruption of communion, was also brought about by a serpent.
That is why, as many of us moved through life and found a person who we love and who loves us, love is the joy that it is, the joy of our life. It is no different with God. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, creates out of love in order that we might return this love, as well as love one another. God leaves us, and the angels, free because the choice to love must always be made in freedom. That is why we go through so much effort in preparing men and women for the sacrament of matrimony to ensure that when they give their consent before the Church it is clearly understood and freely given. Unlike people, we can trust that God's love for us is always already assured and is the very cause of our reciprocation. That is why faith is a theological virtue, or, stated more simply, a gift from God. Faith as a gift from God, however, does not accurately describe it because it is the gift of God's very self in the person of His beloved Son who we receive in Eucharist and for whom we render a loving thanks to God.
So, the angels who rebelled were cast out of heaven by Michael and the heavenly host in this battle that occurred before the foundation of world. This is why we still look to St. Michael the Archangel as our defender in battle. The other two archangels are also powerful heavenly intercessors. First there is Raphael, the least known among the three archangels who we commemorate and celebrate today. We encounter him in the Book of Tobit. In this story which, like Job, is a morality tale, albeit with oriental trappings, Raphael comes to the aid of both Tobit and Tobiah, by removing the cataracts from Tobit’s eye, allowing him to “see God’s sunlight,” and facilitating the marriage of Tobiah to Sarah, and then driving “the wicked demon Asmodeus” from Sarah (Tob. 3,17). Gabriel, as we all know, is important in the economy of salvation as he is the one who announces the births of both St. John the Baptist and of our Lord himself, thus fulfilling the role of angel as a messenger from God (Lk 1,19.26).
While there is another day on the liturgical calendar dedicated to them, let us not fail to call to mind our Guardian Angels. This is another belief and practice that we hold dear as Catholics. What a wonderful outpouring of the love of God that each one of us has a heavenly guardian. It is such a joy for me, when putting my seven year-old daughter to bed, to recite with her the prayer to our guardian angels. Indeed, this was the first prayer, along with the Glory Be, that we learned as children and that we prayed with such great trust. This is one way that we are called upon now to become child-like for the Kingdom of God.
In today's Gospel Jesus tells Nathanael (sounds a lot like Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael) that he will see "the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (Jn 1,51). Angels do a play a role in Jesus' life and ministry, angels support him in during his forty days in the desert, angels attest to his divinity in his Transfiguration, and angels ask his disciples why they are standing there looking up into heaven at his Ascension. Indeed, Nathanael, in Hebrew means "God has given". Michael, also Hebrew, means "who is like God?" So, all you Michaels out there, your name is question and one we should all ask ourselves often. Raphael is the Hebrew word for "God heals", which is appropriate given Raphael's role in the story of Tobit. Gabriel means "strong man of God". The three together point us to Christ, the One who is not only like God, but is true God from true God, the God who heals us, especially the ultimate healing from physical death, and the One who is stronger than sin and death because He loves us.
On this their feast day and all days let us call upon the archangels, our heavenly defenders and helpers. May St. Michael the Archangel, Prince of the Heavenly Host, continue defending us and the Church in the battles of life as we seek to make present God’s kingdom on earth and as we make our pilgrim way to the heavenly Jerusalem.
(Homily preached this morning at Holy Family Catholic Church with some ex post facto additions)
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