Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Feast of Ss. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels

This is an important feast to me, as I took Michael for my confirmation name. The angels and archangels are our protectors and defenders, as well as the messengers of God to us. Indeed, it was the Archangel Gabriel who announced to Mary the greatest news ever told to man, who cried unto Zion "that her warfare was accomplished". I'll focus here on the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, as they are the best known and most widely revered archangels.

Angelology is an interesting, if somewhat obscure branch of Christian (and Jewish) tradition and thought, with some particularly important figures contributing to it. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is said to have been the author of De Coelesti Hierarcheia, which divided the angels into 3 choirs, of spheres, the First corresponding to the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, the Second to the Authorities, Lordships, and Powers, and the Third to Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. St. Thomas Aquinas preserves this system, but replaces Authorities with Dominions, and Lordships with Virtues. St. Gregory the Great and St. Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae also maintain such an organization, with a few of the members being switched.

St. Gabriel, as has been mentioned, was the Herald of God. He announced the birth of Christ to Mary, and is also held in traditional piety to be the unnamed angel in Revelation who sounds the final trumpet, ushering in the Last Judgment. The Annunciation is a favorite subject in iconography, and particularly Marian iconography.

St. Michael is almost always depicted in martial regalia, and is the Protector of Israel, and so the Defender of the Church. Because of this, he was revered greatly by military orders during the Middle Ages, and is always associated with knights, chivalry, feats of arms, and deeds of honor. He is held by tradition, drawing mainly from Talmudic sources, to have been the angel who cast Satan out of Heaven, in some tellings even wounding him in single combat. While I'm usually not one for modern art or architecture, the representation of this story on the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral isn't half bad:

This is the story Milton relates in Paradise Lost, as Michael hurls Satan into the abyss, with a sword frequently depicted as being made of fire. A good example of this is found in Kiev:
Pretty cool, huh? The Russians are particularly fond of Michael as regards iconography. There was a fascinating piece I saw in an exhibit about the Hermitage Museum, I think it was, in which St. Michael was genuflecting before Christ crucified, with one hand raised up towards Him. Really spectacular. The Muscovite princes after Daniel were particularly devoted to St. Michael, and so there was a royal aspect to his patronage as well.

Evidently, one of the debates surrounding St. Michael is where he falls in the celestial hierarchy. This is sort of an unimportant point, and tends towards speculation, but I'm always happy to go off on an antiquarian and obscure-knowledge bent, and perhaps a little eager that the Defender of the Church (and my patron, :D) be pretty high up in the pecking order. We, the Church, perhaps, and I, assuredly, need all the help we can get. St. Thomas in the Summa Theologica places him as the prince of the choir of angels, the ones closest to man. This works out well, as St. Michael's actions with respect to man are pretty direct, second only perhaps to St. Gabriel's. St. Bonaventure places him as the Prince of the Seraphim, the highest choir of angels, who attend and guard God's sacred throne. This also has a case, as Satan is said to have been the brightest in the sky before his fall (hence, Lucifer), and this would seem to indicate that he was a seraph. His supreme enemy, St. Michael, would likely have come from the same choir. The Greek Fathers were fond of placing him over all the angels, taking the title of "the Archangel" to be just that: The Archangel, the one placed over all. That works, too. It's something we won't ever know on this side of the veil, and it wouldn't make much of a difference if we did, but it's an interesting thing to think about. And his name is, in a sense, the battle cry of Heaven- Quis ut Deus? Who is like God? Both adoration and challenge.

But why, then, this fuss about angels? It all seems kinda sci-fi, doesn't it? I mean, it's almost like a Star Wars-ish sort of story that's being told here. Well, that's quite true, and to many degrees a story like Star Wars can succeed because it feeds into common cultural motifs, elements, what-have-you that such legends and stories regarding the angels and their deeds have both maintained and expanded. I think that as we've developed, our capacity for stories is gradually circumscribed. Maybe we've started to feel a little embarrassed by that sort of thing. If I were to recount such a tale as the above to a cynical friend, I'm sure they'd guffaw and snort "You actually believe that??!" And I might sniffle a little bit and cry myself to sleep. But as far as the story goes, I doubt the cynic could come up with so good a tale. That should be observed first: if, indeed, the whole Bible was a series of tall tales, it must be said that they're awfully good ones. Second, it should be pointed out that we do, in fact, believe some of it, like Gabriel's role in the Annunciation or Michael's protectorship of Israel and the Church. Much of the rest has been piously believed, but not formally sanctioned. Much of what has arisen is in large part, explicative: it represents an attempt to understand something via a creative process.
And what's so wrong with that? This is an example of one of the ways in which we differ from other creatures: in our capacity for art. It's also an acknowledgment of the ways in which people approach salvation history. Sound theology and accurate disputation are critical to the faith; but what we seem to have gotten away from is seeing theology and theological questions as being based in Holy Scripture. At the time of Ss. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, the study of Holy Writ and theology meant one and the same thing. The 'story' of mankind's creation, temptation, fall, and redemption was already a painted canvas, whose details they were keen to resolve. And as I always do, I feel it wise to bring up something Chesterton observed: such stories are rarely understood well by one who claims to be on the outside of them, or somehow "beyond" them. We have to have some anchor in all that we discuss, or we're just spinning our wheels using a rational methodology ad infinitum. There must be grist for the natural wheel. And at the same time, there must be art, which lifts the human soul, the will and the intellect, up to a different level.

Sancte Michæle Archangele, defende nos in prœlio
Contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto præsidium.
Imperat illi Deus; supplices deprecamur:
Tuque, Princeps Militiæ Cœlestis,
Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
Qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
Divina virtute in infernum detrude.

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