St Michael and All Angels

If angels are part and parcel of pop spirituality, they go strangely unremarked in the modern(ist) Church. Yet angels appear throughout Scripture – not just in the splendid visions and world-changing announcements we could name with ease, but constantly, as a natural, if not ‘ordinary’, part of the created order. They are believed to be non-corporeal beings though appearing in various difficult-to-describe likenesses, of an order different and perhaps superior to that of men.

The word angel comes from the Greek angelos, meaning ‘messenger’ (this is the same angel- as in evangelist, a preacher of ‘good news’), translating the Hebrew word malach. And it is indeed as messengers of God that angels most frequently appear in Scripture – giving directions, announcing vocations, delivering promises, ministering even to Our Lord, and both protecting those in favor with God and not infrequently destroying those who are not.

Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?
     Hb 1.14

However, the ministry of angels in Scripture includes more than that of messenger, and for these meanings ‘genius’ in its older senses might be a better word, for what is translated ‘angel’ in a number of cases seems to mean either ‘a guardian spirit’ or ‘the prevalent character or spirit of something’ (the ‘angel of Peter’ in the Acts of the Apostles; the ‘angels of the seven churches in Asia’ in the Apocalypse; the ‘angel of the Lord’ in many places where it seems a fairly direct theophany is meant).

Besides the angels and archangels, two other sorts of beings usually classified under the general heading ‘angel’ appear repeatedly in Scripture:

The cherubim make their first appearance in Scripture when they are posted at the gates of Eden after the expulsion from Paradise. They also figure in the Psalms [18.10, 80.1, 99.1], where it is clear that they are winged creatures flanking the throne of God – a common theme in ancient Near Eastern religio-monarchical art (including that of Israel: figures of cherubim adorned the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps with the idea of supporting an invisible throne of God). The griffin or gryphon may be a related word, and in any case its traditional form has much more to do with what the ancient Semites would have meant by a cherub than does the putto of Italian Renaissance art and its successors.

In Ezekiel’s visions, too, the Lord appears enthroned above four four-faced creatures (the four faces being those of a man, lion, bull, and eagle), while in the Revelation to St John [4.6–8] there are ‘four living creatures’, each with one of the corresponding faces. These four creatures or faces have been paired with the four Gospels or their Evangelists in much Christian art (though there are apparently two different pairing systems), and with four attributes of God such as power, love, justice, wisdom.

The seraphim are mentioned in Isaiah’s vision [chapter 6]: the Lord is seated between two of these fiery, six-winged creatures. The ‘flames of fire’ said to be God’s ministers in Ps 104 are also traditionally understood to be seraphim.

The ophanim are another type of heavenly being seen in Ezekiel’s visions: these are the wheels within wheels, covered in eyes.

Beyond the angels and archangels, cherubim, seraphim, and ophanim clearly set forth in Scripture, other terms have been understood by tradition to refer to ranks of angels, and various schemas of these orders have been set forth. In particular, the Apostle Paul’s terms ‘principalities, powers, dominions, thrones’ have been proposed as types of angels. A typical list runs

seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, angels.

The canonical scriptures name only two angels (indeed, the angel in Jg 13 says, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful’; and the mysterious man with whom Jacob wrestles also refuses to give his name):

Michael (‘Who is like God?’), called the Archangel [Jd 9], the slayer of the dragon [Rv 12.7], and the ‘prince of the people of Israel’ [Dn 10.13,31; 12.1]. Michael, as a leader of the heavenly armies, is usually pictured in armor, with his foot on the head of the dragon.

Gabriel (‘God is my champion’), who explains some of Daniel’s visions [Dn 8.16, 9.21] and announces the births of John the Baptist to Zechariah and of Our Lord to the Virgin Mary.

Three other angels are mentioned by name in the Apocrypha:

Raphael (‘God heals’) aids the young Tobias in accomplishing a quest, and gives a remedy to heal the blindness of his father. Jeremiel the archangel appears in II Esdras, and Uriel (‘God is my light’), is mentioned in IV Esdras.

Various prayers in the Prayer Book ask God for angels to watch over those who sleep and to conduct the departed to heaven, and above all the texts acknowledge over and over that the angels surround the throne of God, singing unceasing praise. 

Angels are perhaps even more prevalent in the Hymnal (where so much traditional doctrine never touched upon in the modern Church is found), to a degree too extensive to enumerate here – most obviously in many Christmas hymns, but also in many other hymns of praise and Communion hymns inspired by the Psalms and visionary passages of Scripture. One of the best known is ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ (G.B. Moultrie’s translation of the Offertory hymn from the Liturgy of St Basil), which contains these stanzas:

Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged Seraph; Cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya Lord Most High.

‘Ye holy angels bright’ and ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ are two well-known hymns calling upon the whole Church in heaven and earth to praise the Lord; the latter contains a catalog of the traditional nine orders of angels.

The most thoroughly angel-oriented hymn in the Hymnal is, naturally, a traditional Lauds hymn for the Feast of St Michael & All Angels, ‘Christe sanctorum decus angelorum’. As the text appearing in the Hymnal 1982 has been altered from the original translation (not least to avoid offending any who do not believe that the Blessed Virgin and the Saints ‘ever assist us’) and is under copyright, I reproduce here the original translation, made by Athelstan Riley (the author of ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’) and Percy Dearmer for the 1906 English Hymnal:

Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels,
Thou who hast made us, Thou who o’er us rulest,
Grant of Thy mercy unto us Thy servants
Steps up to Heaven.

Send Thy archangel, Michael, to our succor;
Peacemaker blessèd, may he banish from us
Striving and hatred, so that for the peaceful
All things may prosper.

Send Thy archangel, Gabriel, the mighty;
Herald of Heaven, may he from us mortals
Spurn the old serpent, watching o’er the temples
Where Thou art worshipped.

Send thy archangel, Raphael, the restorer
Of the misguided ways of men who wander,
Who at Thy bidding strengthens soul and body
With Thine anointing.

May the blest mother of our God and Savior,
may the assembly of the saints in glory,
may the celestial companies of angels
ever assist us.

Father almighty, Son and Holy Spirit,
God ever blessèd, be Thou our Preserver;
Thine is the glory which the angels worship,
Veiling their faces.

As with several other Christian feasts, the date of Michaelmas commemorates the dedication of a church: in this case, a basilica near Rome dedicated on 30 September, with festivities beginning on the Eve (in fact in the post-Tridentine Roman Missals the day is titled firstly the ‘Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St Michael’). The date 29 September is furthermore associated with the autumnal equinox and as such historically had an important role in the civil calendar of the Isles, the quarter- and cross-quarter days being dates when accounts were settled, rents reckoned, and other business transacted. It is also traditionally the beginning of the autumn term of both the courts and universities in the UK and Ireland.

The Prayer Book Collect for Michaelmas and the Votive Mass of the Holy Angels is the classic Roman Collect:

O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth...