Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Pope St. Gregory the Great's Homily 34 on today's Gospel gives a nice simple explanation of heavenly spirit-beings. We speak of nine orders of angels because Holy Scripture mentions nine kinds of spirit-beings: Angels and Archangels (in many places); Virtues and Dominations, Powers and Principalities (mentioned by Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians); Thrones (in the Letter to the Colossians); and Cherubim and Seraphim (in the prophetic books).

The word angel is the name of their role or function, not of their nature. It derives from the Greek angelos = messenger or one who brings tidings. Though the holy heavenly Spirits are always spirits, they can't always be called angels. They're angels only when they're announcing a message to someone(s): sometimes one of comfort, sometimes one of warning. Those Spirits who announce less important things are called angels, and those who announce very significant things or events are called Archangels. Thus, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Mary. For this ministry, it was fitting to have the highest angel, since he was to announce the greatest news of all, i.e., Jesus's coming into the world.

In Scripture, it seems that Archangels also have special names describing their particular task or mission. Michael means "Who is like God?" Gabriel means "God's strength", and Raphael means "God's healing or medicine".

Whenever something is to be done needing great power, the Archangel Michael is sent forth so that from his action and his name (Who is like God?) we may understand that no one can do what God can do. Hence the ancient adversary and enemy, who through pride desired to be like God, is shown in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 12, as about to undergo the final punishment in a fight with Michael the Archangel and his angels: "And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world..."

Similarly, Gabriel, who is called Strength of God was sent to Mary to announce the One who deigned to appear in humility in order to overcome the power of Evil. And Raphael is interpreted as Medicine of God, for when he touched the eyes of Tobit to do the work of healing, Raphael dispelled the night of his blindness.

In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of "the better angels of our nature". He was speaking figuratively of angels, rather than literally, as he sought a way to convince fellow citizens to set aside suspicion and to assume the best, rather than the worst, about one another's motives and intentions. Sound familiar?! Oh, yeah! It's an idea which loudly resonates in an American society, and in our own state of California, these days where politicians and people of opposing parties seem to be daily at one another's throats, on every conceivable issue, so that civil discourse becomes impossible, and progress on constructively resolving problems, on either the state or national level, often comes to a standstill.  Similarly with the Episcopal Church in recent years, with challenging issues and divisions which have diverted attention from its true ministry and mission.

The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux said this in one of his sermons: "...Even if the splendor and glory of the holy angels before God is beyond our comprehension, we can at least reflect upon the loving kindness they show us. For there is in these heavenly spirits a generosity that merits our love...if we would enjoy their intimacy, [let us] cultivate those things that would please them...being moderate...praying with sighs and tears and with a heart full of loving ardor. But more than these things the angels of peace desire in us unity and peace, for these are things that characterize their own commonwealth, and when they see such things produced in us, they marvel at the birth of the new Jerusalem on earth."

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