John Gayford reflects on Archangels as God’s Chief Messengers of Love  


Archangels are angels of the highest rank or chief angels. The Ancient Jews before they were taken into Babylonian captivity had the concept of angels. This was enhanced and extended by contact with Zoroastrianism where Amesha Spentias were spirits of ‘immortal holiness’, their equivalent of archangels. On the Jewish return from Babylonian captivity the Book of Daniel was written and angels were referred to by name, and this continued into the New Testament. So we met Michael and Gabriel who were not yet elevated to archangels. The Book of Tobit introduces us to Raphael, who does not appear in Hebrew scripture (Masoretic text) but appears in the Greek Septuagint text. Protestants follow the Masoretic text; thus strictly speaking there is no angel Raphael in fundamentalist Protestant theology but he exists in Catholic and all Eastern Orthodox angelology. It has to be remembered that the Pharisees believed in angels, spirits and life after death while the Sadducees did not. While angels are referred to over 100 times in the New Testament there are only two mentions of archangels (I Thessalonians 4.16 and Jude 9) both relating to the archangel Michael, who is the patron of Israel (Daniel 10.13). Among the ‘ten thousand times ten thousand angels’ (Daniel 7.10) are distinguished seven holy angels which has led to the belief of there being seven archangels.

There was considerable speculation about the heavenly world in the sixth century BC which was reflected in the prophets after the return from exile in Babylon, and flourished in the second Temple period. Here angels were seen as teachers and messengers of God’s commands. In the Old Testament angels are organised in a hierarchy possibly with a single superior (Michael) or four or seven archangels. The New Testament continues from the Old Testament and angels are seen as heavenly beings created by God with free will: this includes Satan who rebels against God. Only two archangels are named (Michael and Gabriel). A hierarchy of angels is implied but the superiority of Christ is stressed. He can be worshiped but this does not apply to any of the choirs of angels. 

About the turn of the 6th century AD, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite ( who identified himself as Dionysius the Areopagite the Athenian convert of St Paul the Apostle mentioned in Acts 17:34) wrote a work called De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). He thought by posing as a convert of the apostle St. Paul it would give him more authority – which it did through the middle-ages both in the East and West. He divided the Celestial Hierarchy into three spheres or choirs of angels. The first (lowest) sphere consisted of the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; the second sphere consisted of Dominations, Virtues and Powers with the third sphere as Principalities, Archangels, Angels and Guardian Angels. 

Michael is an archangel in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (where he is depicted as the archangel of mercy). The Dead Sea Scrolls had a tradition that Michael defended the people of God to the end of time. In the Jewish apocalyptic literature he is listed as one of the seven archangels that appear before the throne of God. From the New Testament we can turn to Jude 5.9 and Revelation 12.7-12 where we hear of him doing battle with the Devil and becoming a warrior saint. In the fourth century St. Basil the Great, in a homily on the angels sees St. Michael as superior to all angels. By the sixth century he became known as a healer in Rome with feasts dedicated to him. Another role attributed to Michael was to be the angel of death, depicted as weighing souls to see if they are fit for redemption. The Dedication of the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel (Michael Mass Day) has been kept with great solemnity in the Western Church at the end of September since the sixth century. This was to celebrate the dedication of a basilica in honour of St. Michael, outside Rome. In the East at that time St Michael was regarded as having care for the sick. Constantine the Great built a church in honour of St Michael called the Michaelion where people would be cured of wounds and sickness. The Byzantine church has this feast on November 8th. In 492 there was said to be an apparition of St Michael on Mount Gargano in southern Italy followed by a cult. There was a stream from which the water was claimed to have healing properties. A number of other similar appearances occurred but it took until the pontificate of Pius V in the 16th century for 8th May to be declared his feast day in the Roman calendar, later included in the English Missal. Now it is no longer a feast in the new Roman calendar.

In the middle-ages, Michaelmas became a great feast with distinctive dishes prepared. One way of measuring the greatness of a feast was by the number of fast days that preceded the event which in the case of Michaelmas was three days. By tradition the feast of St. Michael in the Roman, Anglican and Lutheran calendar is kept on 29th September. In Anglican and Lutheran traditions this is the feast of St. Michael and all Angels but in the Roman calendar this was once the feast of St Michael but it is now of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. In the Eastern Orthodox calendar it is either 8th November or 21st November. The Copts celebrate St. Michael liturgically on the 12th day of each Coptic month. A church dedicated to St Michael has existed from the 13th century in the Armenian part of Jerusalem. Some Anglo-Catholics in Truro keep a feast of St. Michael Protector of Cornwell on 8th May. There are many organisations who claim him as their patron, and some religious orders are dedicated to him.

There are references to the angel Gabriel in both the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Book of Daniel it is Gabriel who explains Daniel’s visions (Daniel 8.15-26 and 9.21-27). There is Jewish Rabbinical literature and Kabbalah mysticism with accounts of the Archangel Gabriel’s works. In the Gospel of St. Luke Gabriel appears to Zechariah to predict the birth and role of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1.5-24) and to the Virgin Mary (Luke 26-38) to predict the birth of Jesus. In Islam Gabriel is the archangel sent to various prophets including Muhammad. 

Raphael is the angel sent by God to restore the sight of Tobit and free Sarah from an evil spirit (Tobit 3.17). The name means “God heals”. In 1Enoch (20.3) he is classified as second in the hierarchy of angels and in Tobit 12:12 and 15 as one of the seven archangels who stand in the presence of God. The feast of St Raphael was celebrated in some churches as early as the eleventh century. In 1915 the Guild of St Raphael was founded as part of the Anglican Church’s restored ministry of healing.

In 1921 Pope Benedict XV made feast days for St. Gabriel on 24th April and St. Raphael on 24th October but these feast days were short lived as, with the reform of the calendar, the 29th September became the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.

Uriel or Auriel means the light of God and gave rise to the University of Oxford’s motto Dominus illuminatio mea. It could be said that Uriel is recognised as the fourth archangel to allow there to be archangels for all points of the compass, with Uriel representing the North. Uriel appears in the Second Book of Esdras (IV Esdras in the Vulgate). He disappears into a number of legends and may be depicted as carrying the book of Wisdom, he is claimed as the patron of the arts. The Council of Rome in 745 declared Uriel as being eligible for veneration. The Orthodox Churches accept him as one of the seven archangels and as such he shares a feast day on 8th November. The Anglican Church is remarkably tolerant of him in contrast with the Roman Catholic Church. He is recognised as the patron saint of the sacrament of Confirmation. There are stained glass windows of him including one in the cloister of Chester Cathedral. An intercessory prayer links him with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the grace of confirmation and the sword of truth

The Orthodox fully endorse the belief that there are seven archangels and they are named; but apart from the first four there is no consistency of names for the last three. In the 12th century AD some Jews wanted a more spiritual religion and developed Kabbalah mysticism with twelve named archangels each assigned a special sphere of activity. 

St Michael was the first archangel to have liturgy composed for his feast with appropriate textural and musical settings. With the inclusion of St. Gabriel and St. Raphael some subtle changes had to be made to the text both in Latin and English. It is interesting to note that the feast of St. Michael and All Angels survived into the Book of Common Prayer with Cranmer using a translation of the Sarum text for the Collect.

In art, archangels may have a halo to show they have been in the presence of God and a pastoral staff to show their authority. Revelation 8.2 tells us there were seven angels before the throne of God: these have been promoted to archangels. Gabriel is depicted at the annunciation bearing a lily. Michael is often depicted defeating Lucifer (evil) or with scales weighing souls. Raphael often appears with Tobit and is carrying a fish. There are some beautiful stained-glass windows of the seven archangels and murals of the four archangels.

There is much written about angels and archangels that needs to be treated with caution as some are speculative and the product of human imagination, including astrological associations. In modern times angelic apparitions are easier to analyse in psychological terms. We have a few scanty biblical texts on archangels but more legend. These traditional stories based on historical and biblical text are often popular but add facts that are not always authenticated. When human imagination is let loose on the subject, archangels appear in various forms in art through history. Churches can be dedicated, principally to St. Michael. Church authorities can declare doctrine for its believers about archangels in terms of the numbers and functions. Feast days can be declared and celebrated. The subject is beyond our understanding now, only in the kingdom of heaven will we see the full details and the glory of their revelation.