A Sermon for St Michael and All Angels
This sermon was originally delivered by Robert Crouse at the King’s Chapel on September 28th (the eve of Michaelmas), 1978.
“He will give his angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”
It seems that nowadays angels have very little pace in the intellectual and devotional life of Christians. Modern theologians are tongue-tied on the subject; empirical scientists cannot locate them among the revolutions of the heavens; astronauts have heard no rumour of seraphic wingbeats; and even the most pious believers are often inclinded to consign the anges rather unthinkingly to the never-never land of fairy-tales. To the modern mind, they seem to be figments of the imagination, having a certain appeal, perhaps, to romantic fantasy, but no genuine substantial reality.
What then are we to make of this Feast of St Michael and All Angels? It is, no doubt, a glorious festival: but what, really, is the cause of our celebration, and the object of our prayers? The Collect for the Feast speaks of that wonderful order in which God has constituted the services of angels and men, and has us pray that the holy angels who always do God service in heaven may succour and defend us on earth. But who, or what, are these angels, and what is their divine service? What succour and defence can they bear us? What can we really know of angels and their doings?
The Scriptures, certainly, have much to say about them, they are there from the beginning to the end of the sacred history. They are there among the first works of creation, “when all the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy;” and they are there at the end, as the reapers, when “the harvest of the earth is ripe.” They are there at the very heart and centre of it all, in the Annunciation to Mary, and at the Lord’s Nativity. It is an angel clad in white who announces Jesus’ Resurrection, and white-robed angels attend his Ascension. They are there in countless episodes throughout scripture, as God’s messengers and ministers, in dress and appearance, to warn, to guard, to nourish and deliver.
Not only in our Sacred Scriptures, but throughout many centuries of the history of philosophical, theological and scientific thought, pagan, Jewish, and Islamic, as well as Christian, the angels were the subject of the profoundest commentary and speculation. They are the transcendent ideas of Platonic thought, they are the movers of the spheres in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and so on. The on-going efforts to discern the nature and order of the angelic hierarchy are works of the greatest interest and importance for an understanding of the history of philosophy, and science generally, as well as of the practice of religion.
If we may presume to put all this in a nutshell, one may say, with Dorothy Sayers, that “the angels represent the operations of divine providence: that varied and coordinated power, imaging the whole spiritual order of the universe, quickened and sustained by the love of God.” They are pure praise; and it is precisely that service of praise which sustains, succours and defends, the spiritual order of the universe.
This point is beautifully made by that great theologian of the English Reformation, the “learned and judicious” Richard Hooker, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
God, which moveth mere natural agents as an efficient (cause) only, doth likewise move intellectual creatures, and especially his holy angels; for beholding the face of God, in admiration of so great excellency they all adore him; and being rapt with the love of his beauty, they cleave inseparably for ever unto him. Desire to resemble him in goodness maketh them unweariable and even unsatisfiable in their longing to do by all means all manner of good unto the creatures of God, but especially unto the children of men; in the countenance of whose nature, looking downward, they behold themselves beneath themselves; even as upward, in God … they see that character which is nowhere but in themselves and us resembled.
When we keep this festival of the holy angels, then, we celebrate those spiritual powers, those intellectual causes, on which the divine order of the universe and human life depends; we celebrate the agents of divine providence, according to which each creatures in particular is the subject of God’s care: that providence in which “not a sparrow falleth without your heavenly Father”; that providence in which “every hair of the head is numbered.” Each and every one of us is upheld and guarded by spiritual powers – we have our guardian angels. That is, of course, the point in the Gospel for this festival, when Jesus warns against offending the innocent. “Take heed”, he says, “that ye despise not one of these little ones, for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my father which is in heaven.”
In this festival, we are not concerned with fairy-tales or figments of imagination, we are concerned to celebrate the providence of God in the spiritual order of the universe. We are recalled to associate ourselves with that mighty host and its chieftain, Michael, in the war against spiritual wickedness.
Not in flights of romantic fantasy, not in abstract curiosity, nor in occult bemusement; but in the immediate concerns of our relations to one another in a dispirited world, we are called upon to ally ourselves with the spiritual powers of God’s providential care. “Holy Michael, archangel, defend us in the day of battle.”
Not where the wheeling systems darken
And our benumbed conceiving soars!
The drift of pinions, would we harken
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The Angels keep their ancient places –
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces
That miss the many splendoured thing.
May your eyes be open to see God’s glory in his angels; and Blessed be God who gives them charge to keep us in all our ways.
Francis Thompson, ‘In no strange land’.