THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
Today, as we did last Sunday, we gather to celebrate another ecclesiastical feast day: the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I could see how someone new to Christianity who had visited these past two Sundays might be thinking, “geez, all these people do is feast and celebrate!” And they wouldn’t be too far off base. Much of the Christian life does in fact orbit around celebration which manifests itself in the form of a banquet or a feast.
On the Lord’s Day, we gather around a meal and celebrate the once-offered paschal sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see, each Sunday Eucharistic feast is a participation in the feast of feasts: Easter. Or one could think of Sunday Holy Communion as a ‘mini-Easter’ (which is why many Anglicans fast on Sundays until they receive the bread and the wine, signifying a mini-lenten fast). So, if you’re new to St. Benedict’s or perhaps new to the Christian way, yes, we feast a lot, especially on Sundays!
Having inherited Israel’s liturgical calendar, the earliest Christians retained the pilgrimages and festivals, although doing so through a new paradigm: Jesus Christ who fulfilled and explained the true meaning of the feasts. Jewish festal observances were adopted by the Church from the earliest days, transformed and charged with new meaning. Easter and Pentecost became the two poles of one continuous fifty-day period celebrating God’s ultimate redemptive activity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Oxford American Prayer Book, xlvi). Thus, fulfilling the true meaning of Passover and the Feast of Weeks.
But other than Easter and Pentecost, the only festivals of the early church were the annual commemorations of what they called ‘birthdays in eternity,’ the observance of the martyrs when they would have celebrated Holy Communion on the date and location of martyrdom. The oldest known celebration of a ‘saints day’ is that of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, martyred in AD 156. And in time, churches were erected on these martyr-sites, with their feast day observed year after year.
Now, the fourth century saw the beginnings of setting feast days based upon the life of Christ (Christmas & Epiphany), St. Mary (The Feast of the Annunciation) and the Apostles (such as St. Matthew who we celebrated last Sunday). And if you look in the front of your Prayer Book on page roman numeral L (50), you will find “A Table of Feasts” which are comprised of events from the life of Christ, the Martyrs, Holy Mother Mary, and the Apostles. Which brings us to the appointed feast for this 29th day of September: the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
Of all the festivals that would have been observed in the medieval church, the Feast of St. Michael is the only feast of Angels the English Reformers retained, and, it was extremely popular in Medieval England. The Oxford American Book of Common Prayer tells us the institution of this unusual feast day “goes back to the fifth century when a basilica was dedicated to St. Michael on the Via Salaria, a little north of Rome – the first church in Italy named in honor of the archangel” (Shepherd, TOABC, p. 251). This feast is unlike any other prayer book feast in that it honors an Archangel, calling him a saint. And, also, directs us to commemorate and give thanks for all of the angels.
Now, what is this particular feast day all about? Well, to begin with, it is a celebration. A happy day of remembrance of that day when St. Michael the Archangel made war upon Satan and his host of wicked angels. In the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah, we read how an evil compulsion arose in Lucifer, who was the most beautiful and first among the Angelic hosts. His compulsion was pride and a desire to rule not only over the angels but over the God who had made him. Speaking of Lucifer Isaiah writes, “For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation On the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” (Is 14:13-14)
Lucifer became so impressed with his own beauty, intelligence, power, and position that he desired for himself the honor and glory that belonged to God alone. It was Angelic pride which brought sin into the universe, the pretext from which Adam would fall at a later time. This wicked compulsion fueled a heavenly insurrection and, as we read in today’s Epistle, “war broke out in heaven.” The Archangel Michael would not and could not tolerate this arrogant blasphemer of God and in his impatience, made war upon the wicked angel and his cohort. “Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon,” writes the beloved Apostle, “and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” Hallelujah!
The son of the morning, Lucifer, fell from heaven; “he was cut down to the ground,” says Isaiah (Is 14:12). The righteous Michael prevailed in heaven, a victory witnessed by Christ himself who saw “Satan fall like lightning from heaven!” (Lk 10:18). The Lord grants St. John (and the church with him) this very same vision. John witnessed the triumph of righteousness over evil. He saw Michael and his angels defeat Satan, and, not only beat him but throw him from the heights of heaven to the earth beneath. But not only is he allowed to see but receives the meaning of this significant historical event.
Listen to what John hears next, “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). By his sword, St. Michael wielded the salvation and power of the kingdom of God. With the blessing of Divine Authority, he cast the accuser down, defeated him. In other words, evil has been beaten from the first day it reared its prideful, ugly head. Satan fell to earth as one already judged by God, condemned for his rebellion and wickedness.
Jesus assures us, “the prince of this world is judged” (Jn 12:31). He is already condemned, sentenced, awaiting the final sentencing and incarceration. The day “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” as we read in Job (Job 38:7). And to us is given on this Feast Day, a reminder of Michael’s victory over Lucifer, whom we have overcome by the blood of the Lamb.
On this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we remember that these heavenly servants have and will watch over the affairs of God’s children. They minister to us today, for though the enemy is defeated and judged, he still has some bite left. Therefore, St. Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt 5:8). You see, the angels are given to protect and minister to us in the Christian battle against the Prince of the air, the deceiver, the robber and destroyer of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The Angels are ministers sent for us. Psalm ninety-one says, “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet” (ps 91:12-13). In an age of material and reason, we lose sight of the unseen battle.
Angels have always attended to God’s people as found in the Books of the Kings by the prophet Elisha. When the Syrians came to capture the prophet, his servant and disciple, a young “son of the prophets” was afraid; so Elisha prayed that God would open his eyes to see the hills filled with chariots of fire and horsemen. “There are more that be with us than with them.”
And, centuries later the prophet Daniel, after several days of fasting, saw the angel Gabriel who spoke to him those somewhat mysterious words, to the effect that he would have arrived sooner, but the PrincePrince of Persia withstood him. He then spoke of Michael as the PrincePrince who stands for the people of Israel. The implication is, all of the nations of fallen mankind are under the evil power Saint Paul calls “Principalities and powers,” but that Israel was under the protection of a holy angel, the warrior Michael.
The Church has always lived knowing that all around us are unseen beings of intelligence and power locked in a war, a war that seems to rage for mankind as the real battleground. Friends, in contemplating such heavenly beings, we are reminded that we are not spectators, but rather engaged in this war. Yet, we are not alone, for the angels and archangels protect and fight for us for we are in Christ. In fact, we are his body. As they protected him, so do they protect his body; the church. I ask you, how did the angels attend to our Lord when Lucifer attempted to wage war upon him in the desert?
St. Mark tells us that Jesus was there for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to Him. (1:13) At any moment, the Lord could have called upon the Father, and once, twelve legions of angels would be at his disposal (Mt 26:53). And, in the hour of agony, as he prayed “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done.” St. Luke says, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him.” At the height of temptation, the angels attended to him. In a moment’s notice, they would have appeared by his side. And, in the darkest hours of agony and bloody sweat, they came and strengthened him.
Friends, the writer of Hebrews asks, “Are not the angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14). Yes! We who are made a little lower than the angels are the recipients of angelic protection, strength, and power. Yes, the battle rages, but these are the final manic contortions of a dying and condemned enemy; the battle in heaven was, but the opening salvo of the war waged and won at Golgotha. And beloved, Christ is the victor. And we, through faith in the victory of Christ’s death and resurrection, are overcoming the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Therefore, when we gather in the Lord’s house, we proclaim this divine victory over the dragon and the real finality of this heavenly drama. The triumph which is ours, to be consummated on the day of Christ’s return when he will set all that is wrong to right and cast the serpent into the eternal fire where he is destined to go.
Let us pray,
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succor and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen+