Sunday September 29, 2002
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead
Michael, Gabriel, Raphael
[Jesus] said to [Nathanael], “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today’s Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels is also called the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels. It is a star spangled festival, not least for its awesome Scripture readings and stirring hymns.
Last April our beloved daughter and son-in-law presented my wife Nancy and me with our first grandchild. We did not know if it was a boy or girl until the moment he was born, and what the name was to be was a mystery till the last minute.
Restraining myself from bursting into Beth Israel Hospital in order for the parents to have a couple of hours on their own with their baby, I finally got to see the Madonna and child. “So what’s his name,” I asked, trying not to seem too eager and invested.
“Raphael,” said his mother, whose own newborn image was still riveted in my mind’s eye as I gazed at her. “His name is Raphael.”¹
This sermon is not about being a new grandfather, nor is it exactly about my grandson. It is about the angels of God whom, as Jesus promised to Nathanael, we shall one day see when heaven is opened to us, ascending and descending upon the Son of man. But that little baby is going to help me get to that point.
“Now you must read the Book of Tobit,” I told Emma. Tobit is in the Old Testament Apocrypha and is about an Israelite family in Assyrian captivity. The father is healed of blindness and his family is guarded by the great Archangel Raphael, whose name, as you know from singing today’s hymns, means “The Cure of God.” That is why Christians sometimes name hospitals after Saint Raphael. In the Book of Tobit, Raphael, who has been operating in human disguise, at last reveals himself to Tobit’s family before leaving them. It is quite a moment: “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy One. Now therefore give God thanks: for I go up to him that sent me.” (Tobit 12:15, 20)
Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?” and Gabriel, whose name means “The Strength of God,” join Raphael as the only three archangels named in Holy Scripture. Michael is the protector of Israel and the Church; as we heard in the second lesson, Michael drove out proud Lucifer from heaven. You can see Michael killing the dragon over the World War I Memorial, with the words Quis ut Deus, “Who is like God?” Gabriel was the messenger of the birth of John the Baptist to his elderly father Zechariah, and, most famously, of the Annunciation of Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There are other ranks of angelic spirits, according to ancient Church tradition; one is lower than archangels (namely guardian angels), and the others are higher (Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers and Virtues). Some of these were created to worship, some to govern aspects of the cosmos, some to exercise influence in the microcosmic spheres, from stars and galaxies and planets to the elements and realms of Mother Nature. Others have their activity among the nations and communities of men.
In considering this astounding order of free spirits under God, we do well to know that, according to Holy Scripture, one third of them are fallen. One third are demons in rebellion against God, beginning with their leader Lucifer, who is now called Satan or the Devil.² These are by no means equal to God nor do they defeat God’s good providence, but appreciating the existence of the demonic kingdom may help us to begin to grasp the scope of the mystery of evil in a world created by a good God.
But even more, the angels help us to appreciate the scope of the mystery of God’s goodness. He has created a world crowned by the exercise of freedom, not just by men and animals, but by higher orders of spiritual beings. This means the risk and possibility of evil. Yet without that risk there could be no love, for love requires freedom, and as Jesus has taught us, God is love. To quote Queen Elizabeth, whose words are carved in the stone beneath this memorial figure of Christ Crucified, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Almighty God has known this from all eternity, which is why Scripture calls Jesus the Lamb of God destined from the foundation of the world, the Lamb by whose blood God’s people overcome the malice of the devil.³ In other words, God has always known the cost of his creative and redemptive love.
God delivered that very love once for all upon the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he applied that love to us sacramentally when we were baptized.
My little grandson is an ecumenical Christian baby. He is living testimony to the good hard work of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. He was baptized at Saint Vincent Ferrer Church on Lexington Avenue, but he often appears on Sundays here at Saint Thomas Church, where his mother and father were married two years ago.
Jesus said that the guardian angels of his children behold the face of his Father in heaven. Ancient church tradition deduces from this that at Holy Baptism we are each assigned our guardian angel. (The devil designates his own opposition agents too, but we should not bother about that.) I don’t know if Archangel Raphael himself is my grandson’s guardian angel, but I had the distinct feeling, that August Saturday afternoon when little Raphael was baptized, that old Raphael was somewhere around that font. I sensed a high amount of angelic grace in the air.
I will pray, as I did for my own children, that Jesus will show his face and reveal himself to my grandson, and that the day will come when young Raphael will willingly seek and believe God, choose to follow Christ, and grow to his full stature as a Christian. There it is, that wondrous and frequently maddening gift of free will, with all its terrors and risks. That is where our guardian angels are involved, the agents of God’s love.
Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. This means that the angels serve God and humanity, and especially Christ, who is God incarnate, God-made-man, the Savior and Mediator of us all. The angels labor ceaselessly and invisibly, throughout the entire universe, to further the final unity of all things in Christ, so that God will be all in all.
We can sense the angels sometimes, even feel their presence. Sometimes we entertain them unawares. But in the end, on the other side of death, we shall see them in all their unimaginable glory, a glory which is itself only part of the glory of Almighty God.
And now unto that one and only living and true God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity, the Father, + the Son and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed, by angels and mortals, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.
¹This sermon is dedicated to my grandson, Raphael Antonio Melo, born April 9, 2002.
²See Revelation 12:3-4 for the “one third” demonic fall from heaven, and 8:7-12; 9:15, 18 for the “one third” demonic destruction on the earth.
³See I Peter 1:20 and today’s lesson Revelation 12:7-12, which is one of many “Lamb” references in the Book of Revelation.