On September 29 we celebrate the festival of St. Michael and All Angels, whose mediaeval name Michaelmas survives to denote the autumn term in many schools and universities. It is a festival that tends to be overlooked, perhaps because of its proximity to the season of Harvest Festivals, perhaps also because sometimes it is overshadowed by the Michaelmas ordinations. A deeper reason for its neglect may lurk in assimilation to the outlook of our modern secular age, which finds it hard enough to believe in God, and difficult to see the point in believing in other invisible creatures. A more sinister motive for doubt may be humanity’s presumption that it is itself the highest order of created beings, and its resentment at being ranked by the psalmist as “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5, Hebrews 2:7,9). Such an outlook, however, appears presumptuous as well as illogical. What grounds have we to assume that incorporeal beings do not exist as well as animals and human beings? The Scriptures certainly present angels as a regular feature of the supernatural world, and the Gospels portray Jesus as both speaking about angels and himself accepting their ministrations.
Such objective knowledge of the angels as we have in this world derives from Scripture and the tradition of the Church. We learn of different kinds or “orders” of angels (archangels, principalities, powers). We learn of a few named individuals such as Michael, the champion of Israel (Daniel 10:21) and the conqueror of the Devil ( Revelation 12 : 7-9), and Gabriel who brought messages to Daniel (Daniel 8:16,9:21), Zechariah (Luke 1:19), and Mary (Luke 1:26). Others such as Raphael the healer (Tobit 3:17) appear in apocryphal books.
What is more important, however, is the kind of activity in which they are engaged. Gabriel describes himself as being in attendance on God, and one major aspect of the biblical portrayal of angels from the vision of Isaiah to the Revelation of St. John is that they are absorbed in the worship and praise of God, joining continually in the Sanctus (Revelation 4:8). The direct vision of God, which they enjoy as spiritual and sinless beings, evokes from them a response of adoration. yet this is no selfish absorption in the beatific vision. The angels are in attendance on God, ready to serve as his messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the great cosmic battle against evil. Herein they serve as an example to us humans. We do not yet enjoy their immediate vision of and access to God. Yet we do enjoy God’s revelation of himself to us through Christ, and that revelation should evoke from us a response of continual worship, together with a readiness to present ourselves in attendance on God, ready to serve in any and every mission which he may entrust to us.
Tony Gelston, author of this meditation is Reader in Theology in the University of Durham.