St. Michael, the Archangel…a Boy’s Obsession

+JMJ+

St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

I actually didn’t learn this prayer by heart until graduate school, when the chaplain at my husband’s school would recite the prayer as he processed out of the chapel after weekday Mass. There’s been a lot of talk recently among friends (and the Catholic blogosphere) about bringing back the St. Michael prayer as a regular devotion after Mass: something I was also completely unaware of before approximately eight years ago. The popular story goes that Pope Leo XIII was inspired by a terrible vision of demonic spirits to compose the St. Michael Prayer, which was added to the so-called “Leonine” prayers after Low Masses in about 1886. This practice was almost completely abandoned after the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council. Obviously some priests still clung to this devotion, but they are few and far between.

I give you this brief history because even though this prayer wasn’t a part of my regular repertoire growing up, it has become a frequent utterance because… I have a boy. And little boys love St. Michael, or so I’ve observed. There’s something about the triumphant angel-with-sword stomping on the head of a writhing devil that just gets my little 3-year-old’s heart beating with excitement. I remember the first time he was old enough to really look around a Catholic shop with me: he saw all the various St. Michael statues and just stood, completely transfixed. He didn’t want to leave. He still looks for them any time we go into the shop. Two of his most precious possessions are a St. Michael holy card and a statuette, and he loves to talk about that ugly devil getting beat with the sword. I’ve decided to just go with it.

But this morning, my little guy surprised me by demonstrating that he’s been doing some deep thinking on the topic of “St. Michael killing the devil.” On our ride back from dropping his sisters off at school, he came up with this gem out of the blue:

“Mommy? I have a question.”
“Sure, honey, what is it?”
“Is Lucifer a bad name?”
…”Umm, that’s a good question. We think of it as a bad name now because it’s what we say the devil’s name was. But it’s actually a very nice name. The word ‘Lucifer’ means bringer of light. But because we associate it with the devil, we don’t use it as a good name, no.”
“Hmm. Well then we should use Lucifer for Jesus instead.”
“Why is that?”
“Because He’s the Light of the World. It’s a better name for Him because He brings all the Good Light.”

….

“Yes, I like that thought, sweetheart. You can also think about what a nice name bringer of light would be for an angel, because remember that the devil was created as an angel, to love and serve God.”
“Yes, that’s a nice angel name, too. Speaking of angels, I have another question.”
“Yes?”
“Why does St. Michael fight the devil?”
“I bet you can answer that. Who is St. Michael.”
“He’s God’s warrior angel.”
“Yep. So why would he want to fight the devil?”
“Because the devil was supposed to be a good angel, but now he’s the enemy of God. And St. Michael serves God and will fight His enemies.”

Growing up, I have to admit that in addition to my ignorance of the St. Michael prayer, I had the overwhelming impression that angels were kind of… impotent, cutesy kitsch created to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Guardian angels were sentimentalized nannies to help your parents get over their anxiety about letting you go places without them. At some point, I’m pretty sure I also believed that good people who died went to heaven and “became” angels by getting some wings and a halo. In short: my perception of angels was completely driven by modern popular sentiment and completely void of any substance provided from sacred scripture or tradition.

bokeh shot of white and gold ceramic angel
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Over the years, as I’ve read more scripture and delved into what the Church actually teaches about angels, I’ve realized that everything I thought I knew about angels as I was growing up was completely wrong. Instead of being cutesy, comforting things, angels can be downright terrifying. Daniel’s account is that upon seeing the angel, “No strength remained in me; I turned the color of death and was powerless. When I heard the sound of his voice, I fell face forward unconscious.” (Dn 10:8b-9, NABRE). Luke reports that the shepherds were “struck with great fear” at the appearance of the angel (Lk 2:9b, NABRE). In short: there’s a reason the first thing angels always say is “BE NOT AFRAID.” 

I appreciate now the power and the complete otherness of these spiritual beings whom God created as “personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness.” (CCC, #330) I am so glad that I can truly learn to appreciate angels through the eyes of my son, because through conversations like the one that happened in the car this morning, I am slowly learning to open myself to the presence of these strange and mighty beings. If guardian angels serve to reduce parental anxiety, it is not because we succumb to some fanciful notion that a spiritual Mary Poppins watches over our little darlings: it is because we have confidence that we’re sending our kids to school with the spiritual equivalent of Bruce Lee at their side. If we sing with the angels at Mass, it’s not because they are the heavenly equivalent of the Vienna Boys Choir. It’s because their trumpet-blasting is the triumphant herald of God’s victory and we should sing with the exuberance of a stadium full of drunken college kids storming the field as they belt the Notre Dame Victory March.*

I will probably never get to the level of familiarity with angels as someone like Padre Pio, but I am glad that I am learning to take these creatures seriously, rather than thinking of them as God’s spiritual kittens. Perhaps learning to be child-like can mean that we spend more time thinking seriously about the devil and his combatants.  My son certainly does: enough to devote his spare time to thinking equally about Lucifer’s demise and the demise of the dinosaurs. Which, by the way, are also terrifying.

Schleich_Therizinosaurus_2018_2
Therizinosaurus: aka Cretaceous Nope-Nope

*totally hypothetical, imaginary situation that I would have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of.

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Who are the Archangels?

+JMJ+

A friend recently asked:

How many Archangels are there? My patron is St. Michael the Archangel …he is God’s Warrior ..I try to live my life as a Warrior for Our Lord also.

First of all, AMEN, SISTER! We should all have the confidence to call on the warriors of God to fight with us. (Onward, Christian Soldiers!) Thank you for all that you do.

Who are the Archangels?

The word “archangel” simply comes from the Greek word meaning “Chief Angel,” but even that definition is a little bit of a cheat: the Greek word “Angel” (angelos) literally means- messenger. Thus, the archangels are the chief messengers of God to mankind– sometimes quite literally as ones who come bearing a message from God, but other times in a more figurative sense when they act as agents of God’s will on earth.

The Catholic Church recognizes three archangels whose names are given in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. In history, this number has varied quite a bit– many Church Fathers (including Pope Saint Gregory the Great) accepted a total of seven archangel names, which were taken from both canonical (accepted) and apocryphal (deemed unauthentic) Biblical sources. Today, many of the Eastern Churches still recognize Uriel as a fourth archangel, because his name appears 2 Esdras (historically referred to as 4 Esdras), a book they accept as part of the canon of scripture but which the Catholic Church does not.

It is important to note that angels can only be referred to by proper names when that name appears in scripture. We cannot make up names for angels and as pious as it may seem, we are not permitted to ‘give’ a name to our guardian angel. This is because we don’t have any sort of dominion over the angels, but also because angelic names must be revealed to us according to their activity given by God, and presumably this contains some aspect of their nature. Thus, the given name of an angel tells you not only what we can call it, but what it does.  Compare this with a human name given by human parents, who have dominion over their children. My name happens to be Christina and by the grace of God I am (or strive to be) what my name says: a follower of Christ. Yet a person can just as easily be named Christina and choose to be an atheist without altering their name. Not so for the angels.

So let’s take a look at the three Archangels and what they do.

Michael- “Who is like God?”

The name of Michael is given in the Old Testament book of the prophet Daniel, where he is named as the chief of Princes and the protector of Israel (10:13 and 10:21). When speaking of the end times, we read:

At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. — Daniel, 12:1

It is not until the New Testament that we hear of Michael as an “archangel” (Jude 1:9) and that he is the defeater of Satan (Revelation 12:7-9). Michael’s name not only challenges his adversaries (“Who is like God? Certainly not YOU! Let me show you His might…”) but also shows us that his role is to act as God’s warrior and agent of justice and protection. Michael, who is like God, will defend us against evil. Archangel_MichaelThus he is also the patron saint of those who protect us here on earth: military, police and other public servants. We rightly cry to him for aid and should commend our care to him as we recite the prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII (a great friend of the Dominican Order):

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do  Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.

Gabriel- “Strength of God” or “Man of God”

Gabriel is also mentioned in the Book of Daniel as the one who interprets prophetic visions (Daniel 8:15-26, 9:21-27). He appears with the voice and the form of  man, but he certainly presents an imposing figure, for Daniel immediately is terrified by the appearance. As the deliverer of prophetic messages, it is Gabriel who announces the birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), and John the Baptist to Zacharias (Luke 1:11). Though he is not mentioned by name, there are other angelic appearances in the New Testament traditionally attributed to him, including the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:9) and he is also seen as one of the angelic beings at the empty tomb (Luke 24:4– note that like exactly Daniel, the women are terrified and immediately prostrate themselves). You can see that Luke’s Gospel is especially rich in describing the activity of Gabriel, yet there is another reference more powerful than the rest.

In Luke 22:39-46, we read the most vivid description of Jesus’ Agony in the Garden. “He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” (Lk 22:44). In the verse immediately proceeding this one, God the Father sends an agent of His will (an angel) to strengthen Christ. “And to strengthen him and angel of heaven appeared to him.” (Lk 22:43)

Gethsemane_Carl_Bloch
painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Here we see Gabriel as the one who fortifies even Jesus in his time of need– how much more, then, should we call upon Gabriel to give us the strength of God in our times of struggle? How much did Mary need the Strength of God to carry out her divine mission as the Mother of God? How much did Zacharias need the Strength of God to trust that his barren wife would conceive, and to be patient for the coming of the Messiah? It is not a weakness to admit we need God’s strength– indeed, it is a necessity to admit this if we are to follow Christ, to take up our own cross so that we can one day rejoice in the glory of His resurrection. So if we call on Michael to assist us with divine strength in the sense of “might” or “force,” Gabriel should also be one to assist us in divine strength in the sense of “Fortitude.”

Raphael- “God Heals”

Raphael’s name is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, a book which belongs to the “deuterocanonical” (second canon) texts and is not included in most Protestant Bibles. In this book, we read of the story of Tobit, who is blinded and sends his son Tobiah to retrieve his fortune from Media before he dies. God provides an alternative plan.

374px-Anonimo_lombardo_(sec__XVII),_L'arcangelo_e_Tobia
Raphael leads Tobiah to the cure

He sends Raphael to accompany the boy to Media in the guise of a fellow (human) traveling companion. During this journey, Raphael not only gives Tobiah a fish-derived cure for Tobit’s blindness, but he plays match-maker and sets Tobiah up with Sarah, a woman whose seven previous husbands had all tragically died on their wedding night. Thus, through Raphael’s care, Tobit receives a medicinal cure and Sarah receives a “cure” for her seven-fold widowhood (which Raphael attributes to the workings of the devil)–  a spouse with whom she can worship the One True God.

Raphael’s accompaniment of Tobiah should be seen as a testament to how God “walks” with us throughout our own lives, seeking to heal our woundedness in all its different forms. As the one who manifests God’s healing power, Raphael is seen as the patron of physicians, pharmacists, those who are ill (especially the blind) and yes… he’s the patron of lovers.

So there you have them: the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael! Which is your favorite?

Thanks for the question, friend! Keep up the good fight.