The Rev. Irina Dubinski

St Michael and All Angels 2020

Today we celebrate St Michael and all angels. There are, in fact, seven Princes of Heaven specifically recognized by name in scripture and tradition: from the canonical texts, Michael the Archangel, as well as Gabriel; and additionally, the apocryphal Raphael, Uriel, Sealtiel, Jehudiel, and Barachiel. Michael’s other title “saint”, confusing in application to an angel rather than a human, comes from a mistranslation of the Latin word “sanctus”, which means “holy”. All heavenly dwellers are holy: the Cherubim and Seraphim, the Living Creatures and innumerable heavenly hosts, and yes, even us humans once we “cross the valley” -- some, to be sure, a little holier in this earthly life, but all destined to spend the eternity with God.

What is the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the word angel? We have a variety of images right here in our sanctuary today, as per our annual tradition. Artistic representation of angels has evolved over the centuries, drawing on myths and traditions. There were times when Christian angels looked like the winged Victories and chubby toddlers of the Greco-Roman world, and there were also times when they borrowed from the Persian art. But more often than not, they were inspired by the human models: the eunuchs in the imperial courts, the warriors of Antiquity, and the female muses of the pre-Raphaelite artists, to name a few. The first angels in art appeared in the 3rd century, looked like young men dressed in tunics and breastplates, and lacked wings, which they acquired a century later. As time went on, they also became more androgynous or feminine, their clothing changed from tunics to linen robes girt with gold, and even diaconal church vestements, and they stopped brandishing swords and began to enterntain the holy infant with music. So... in which form does your “guardian angel” appear to you in your imagination? Does he or she look like a mighty warrior, a female musician, or a playful child? In other words, does it look rather… human?

In fact, as I was writing this reflection, it occurred to me that angels and humans aren't all that different. To begin with, we are all created beings; neither are omnipresent, and as I said earlier, all are destined for heaven. Angels were the first of God’s creatures to possess intellects and wills, and we have these too, albeit bound by our material bodies. Together with the angels, we worship God on earth and in heaven, and engage in the perpetual, cosmic conflict between good and evil. The angels fought in the first such conflict to take place, and we will stand alongside each other at the apocalyptic battle.

Of course, the resistance also goes on in the time in between -- for the mighty dragon of old has been cast down from heaven specifically onto earth, not into some abstract hell -- and each of us has a pre-ordained role to play in it. Our jobs, again, are quite similar to the tasks that the angels have performed in the scriptures. First, we are called to deliver the good news to each other, and in that respect, we are all “angeliafóros” -- that is, messengers. Do you recall which people in the bible were recipients of angels’ news in the bible (e.g., Abraham, Mary...)? Second, we are called to serve as companions on the road, both comforting others through the rough patches and celebrating milestones, just as the angels appeared to biblical characters at significant events (e.g., with Daniel amidst the furnace flames, driving Elija up to heaven in the fiery chariot, etc.). And third, we are simply called to lend a helping hand, just as the angels saved Lot, enabled Peter’s escape from prison, ministered to Jesus in the wilderness, and as some of us might attest, “bear us up lest we dash our feet against the stone” (Ps. 91).

Together with the angels, we fulfil our God-given purposes on earth and in heaven. Such interconnectedness, even inseparability, of heaven and earth is beautifully illustrated and summarized in today’s OT passage. You might recall Jacob’s tumultuous journey from the place of deceit, manipulation, and violence, towards establishing the nation into which the Saviour of the world would be born. Today’s reading refers to its beginning: Jacob runs away from his brother Esau, whom he supplanted twice, while also looking for a suitable wife. One night, he receives this vision -- a ladder, upon which the multitudes of angels travel up to and down from the sky. (Jesus’ words as recorded in the gospel, of course, echo this story). What is this conduit between heaven and earth, if it is not the very human soul, as it rises in holiness over its lifetime, striving to overcome evil with good, fulfilling God’s purpose, working alongside and assisted by angels?

But even though angels mostly help and protect us, they can be ruthless in pursuit of their God-given tasks. They show no mercy to people attempting to re-enter the garden of Eden, and you might recall that one night, Jacob’s dream turned into a nightmare. He wrestled with a mighty presence, and was injured and outmatched. Do you know what kind of a tremendous force is required to dislocate a hip, and can you imagine how arduous his recovery would have been? With whom or with what do we find ourselves wrestling on the way to becoming our true selves? What are some of the life’s lessons from which we will never fully recover? What thoughts and memories, and presences still keep us up at nights? In the 7th century, St John Climacus described in his book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” our spiritual development using the analogy of a steep, 30-step ladder. An orthodox icon inspired by this book literally shows a ladder that the monks are seen trying to climb, as well as the winged demons that are trying to pull them off. Such images point us to the times of our lives when we wrestled with the darkness of the unknown, were pushed and pulled us in various directions, were left limping and hurting, yet enlightened by the dawn, and one step higher upon our climb.

Having said all this, I know very well that even amongst our group gathered here, our attitudes to angels range quite widely. Some of us put them in the same category of fantasy creatures as fairies and unicorns, while others may draw significant strength from the sense of a protective presence. But in the Anglican world, we do place importance on our statement of faith which we say in the form of the Nicene Creed, whereby we confess that God has created “all that is, seen and unseen.” To consider the possibility of angels may be one way of acknowledging the mystery and sheer diversity of life, visible and invisible. From the scriptural examples of the angelic activity, we learn quite a lot about our own mission, on earth and beyond. We also learn that even what we think is plainly visible in this life may not always be what it seems. The strangers we entertain might in fact be angels, and the ordinary works of human hands performed out of kindness and generosity may at times appear miraculous. Most importantly, we continue to build and sustain that connection between heaven and earth -- whether we envision it as Jacob’s ladder of the OT, or the mustard seed, valuable pearl, or lush vineyard of Jesus' parables. We do so as worshippers and messengers, warriors and ministers, humbly and faithfully performing our assigned tasks, great or small, now and forever. Thanks be to God.