Homily for the Feast of the Archangels
Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
Readings: Rev 12:7-12ab; Ps 138:1-5; John 1:47-51
Why are angels part of Christian revelation at all? While we cannot come to understand completely all of God's purposes, we may be able to get some hints by a little reflection. In this case, I believe that a consideration of our belief about God will shed some light on this question.
The people of Israel came increasingly to believe in God's complete superiority over all else, and in God's uniqueness. It took time in salvation history before the Israelites firmly believed that non-Israelite gods were all fully subordinate to the LORD (“The God of gods” Ps 50:1, 136:2, etc.).
In the understanding of the people, this elevation of the Lord God made him more transcendent in himself, but also further elevated relative to us. This leaves a kind of conceptual or theological distance between God and us. And indeed, as God's transcendence came increasingly into focus for the chosen people, so too the existence of creatures between God and humans – namely, angels – came increasingly into their view. They came to believe that angels, these creatures between God and humanity, have a status that far exceeds that of humanity, while remaining absolutely subordinate to the one God of all.
So there is this “chasm” between God and man that seems to call for the existence of creatures to fill that chasm; but there it also seems fitting for those creatures to perform a function: to bridge that chasm. With God so far above us, it is fitting that some creature should keep us in touch with him, with the God who is beyond the highest heavens. Thus, the angels are revealed as mediators between God and humanity. This is what we see in the Old Testament. The “Angel of the Lord” delivers the messages of the Lord – as the name “angel” means “messenger”. The Law came by the ministry of the Angels to Moses (LXX translation of Dt 33:2; Ps 67:17; but esp. Acts 7:53). Angels ascend and descend between Jacob and heaven (Gen 28:12). They also guide and protect: Raphael protects Tobias (Tob 3:17), Michael protects Israel (Dan 12:1); Gabriel instructs Daniel (Dan 9:21-22; see also Ezek 40:3, Dan 8:16, 10:5-21; Zech 2:2-3, 3:6-10, 4:1ff passim). But there is also an “ascending” mediation: Raphael delivers the prayers of Tobias and Sarah to God (Tob 12:12; see also Zech 1:12).
Yet all of this mediation would seem to be no longer needed once Christ has come. Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God, the Mediator of the New and Everlasting Covenant. Surely his mediation cannot leave something to be desired. What, then, is left for angels to do?
We might therefore expect that the role of angels would diminish in the New Testament. However, the opposite occurs. Angels remain present in the New Testament, arguably becoming even more prominent than in the Old Testament. Why? What purpose do they serve?
The angels bear witness to Christ. “You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (Jn 1:51) The angels bear witness by becoming Christ's servants. In serving him, whether after the temptation in the desert (Mk 1:13; Mt 4:11) or at Gethsemane (Lk 22:43) they show that Christ's role now supercedes their own. As the Letter to the Hebrews states, Christ's mediation is better than the angels' mediation (Heb 2:2-5).
The angels also bear witness by announcing Christ's presence and his saving power. The angel Gabriel announces the conception of John the Baptist, Christ's precursor, and then that of Christ himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Matthew's infancy narrative, they announce and assure the Messiah's protection (Mt 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19). In Luke, they proclaim God's glory at his birth (Lk 2:13-14). In all the Gospels, they announce Christ's resurrection (Mk 16:5-7; Mt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7, 23; Jn 20:12-13). They are present at his Ascension (Acts 1:10). Furthermore, they will accompany Jesus at the eschaton when he comes in glory (Mt 13:41, 16:27, 24:31, 25:31; Lk 9:26; 2 Thess 1:7). So, angels make an appearance in order to proclaim Christ in those moments especially in which there is a special opening between heaven and earth in Christ: namely, at his coming, his resurrection and ascension, and, it is believed, at his coming in glory.
Angels also bear witness by serving the church that Christ established. The angels of the “little ones” are always gazing on the face of Jesus' heavenly Father. Angels lead people to the Church (Heb 1:14; Acts 10:3-7, 22; Lk 15:10); they help the Apostles (Acts 5:19, 12:7-11, 27:23). They will assemble the dead from the four winds (Mt 24:31), being witnesses to the judgment (Lk 12:8). Michael and his angels battled against the dragon (Rev 12:7), the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, and his angels – who are ultimately conquered by the blood of the Lamb. In this, the angels proclaim to us that they serve the dominion of Christ, a dominion that is truly cosmic and universal.
Every time we hear pray the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer with the Priest-Celebrant, we are reminded that we are to be at prayer with the angels. Let us give praise and thanks to God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, for these angels who serve Christ and his Church, in archetypal ways by the archangels: St. Michael the protector and all angelic protectors, St. Gabriel the messenger and all angelic messengers, and St. Raphael the healer and all angelic healers. May their service, their witness, and their protection remind us of the greatness, the unspeakable power, the infinite wisdom, and the all-goodness of the One God, Who is brought to us in Christ, in this Eucharist. Amen.