[In the Byzantine tradition, November 8 is the feast of St Michael and all the Holy Angels. Here is a homily I gave on the feast in 2003.]
Jesus rejoiced that what God has hidden from the learned and the clever He has revealed to the children, the child-like. One of these mysteries that is revealed to the child-like is that of the holy angels. For the most part, the learned and the clever of this world don’t believe in the angels. They look at them as some sort of relic of a superstitious or magical unscientific worldview. But the Scriptures—both Old and New Testament—are full of angels. And, of course, our liturgy is as well. We know that the faithful not only believe in angels but many have had quite unmistakable experiences of the presence of the holy angels.
Now, these days, there is a kind of a renaissance of interest in angels. Unfortunately, this is generally spearheaded by the “new age” movement. The reason I say “renaissance” is that the Renaissance was a kind of “new age” movement in its own time, in some ways at least, a kind of degeneration of the tradition. That is no more clearly seen than in the art of the Renaissance, where you have angels depicted as fat little baby-heads with wings coming out of from behind their ears, floating all around God or Our Lady. Today, what you have in “new age” angel art is something more like sequined super-models or perhaps ethereal nymph-like beings. In both of those cases, they are drained of their power and their truth, because the way angels are looked upon today is as a collection of sweet, friendly, sparkling beings that are there to bless us or help us somehow, or make us feel good about ourselves, or give us spiritual “warm fuzzies.” But that’s not the image of angels that we find in divine revelation.
Angels are described in the Scriptures, and also are depicted in Byzantine art, as messengers or as warriors. That is more true to what God has shown us about angels. In many ways in the Scriptures we see how the angels are sent to give messages—especially the Archangel Gabriel, the messenger par excellence. He shows up in several places announcing very important events concerning the salvation of the world. And Michael is shown more as a warrior: that’s how he appeared to Joshua, in the reading we heard at Vespers. As I said before, the angels are really no-nonsense kind of beings—they’re not here to chit-chat with us, or to just be sweet and playful; they’re always on a mission. So when Joshua looked at St. Michael who appeared to him, he said, “Are you one of us, or are you one of our enemies?” The warrior-angel had a sword drawn already, and he said, “No! I am the Commander of the Armies of Heaven!” And Joshua immediately was on his face, on the ground.
We see that today’s Gospel (Lk. 10:16-21) was chosen, probably, because of what Jesus said about Satan falling from the sky like lightning. Perhaps the Church chose this to refer to the original fall of Satan from heaven. We hear of that fall in the Book of Revelation.
There’s also a poetical, metaphorical description from Isaiah, interpreted as a taunt or satire against the King of Babylon, and the way he’s spoken of sounds very much like what the theology and Christian understanding of the fall of Satan is about. The King of Babylon is saying that he is the greatest, and no one can defeat him, and he will put his throne in heaven, and he will rival the Most High, and the denizens of the netherworld then say, “Ah! Now look how you have fallen!” Well, this is applied to the fall of Satan.
We get a clearer picture of that from the Book of Revelation, where St. Michael and the holy angels fight the “dragon” and his fellow demons and throw them out of heaven. Now, we don’t find out in that passage how he became the “dragon”—how Lucifer, the “Light Bearer,” became the “Prince of Darkness.” That’s something that is not revealed in the Bible, but we do know in fact that it did happen, and therefore it says in Scripture, “There was no place for them any more in heaven.” Thus St. Michael fought them, and threw them out.
Unfortunately for us, he threw them out onto the earth. It says in the Scripture, “So rejoice, heaven, and all you that dwell therein, for Satan has been cast from you!” Then it says, “Woe to you, who live on earth, because Satan has come to you! And his fury knows no limits, because he knows his time is short.” So we have to deal with the “rejects from heaven” down here!
But Jesus, when rejoicing with his disciples upon their return, wasn’t at that moment referring to the original fall of Satan. The disciples came back, and they were all excited about everything that they were doing, and it’s highly unlikely that Jesus would just, out of nowhere, start reminiscing about something that had happened before the creation of man. What He was saying is: “While you guys were out there, doing what I told you to do, I saw Satan fall from heaven.” The Greek verb is in the imperfect, so it should be translated, “I was watching Satan fall…” This means that while the apostles were casting out the devil, Jesus was watching him fall.
Also, here it’s better to interpret ouranos, the word for heaven, as sky; it can mean both. He really said, “I was watching Satan fall from the sky.” The devil already fell from heaven, but we know that St. Paul calls Satan “the ruler of the power of the air,” and in another place he writes of “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” that is, in the sky. So when the disciples were casting out demons, Jesus said, “I know you have reason to rejoice, because while you were out there, I was watching Satan fall from the sky. You guys were victorious!” He goes on to elaborate that point, saying, “See what I did for you. See what I did to enable you to topple the throne of Satan! I gave you power to trample on all the power of the enemy—and so nothing will harm you.”
This is something that goes beyond the original casting out of Satan from heaven by St. Michael and the Angels, and this is something that applies to us, because we are among those who have to fight Satan on earth. It says in that passage in the Book of Revelation, after he was thrown out of heaven, and after he pursued the Woman through the desert: “he went to make war on the offspring of the Woman.” We are offspring of Mary, the Woman clothed with the sun; we are the children of the Church. So, we’re in this battle with Satan now.
We should be aware that Christ has given us, like the disciples, the power to tread upon all the wiles of the enemy. Satan has been cast out of heaven—that’s one thing; already, in that sense, he has been defeated. But there’s another defeat, because Christ, by his Cross and resurrection, has dealt the definitive defeat to Satan, the disarmament of the powers of evil.
But the problem is, Jesus has disarmed Satan and robbed him of his power, and then we give it back to him! It’s like we were kidnapped by the devil and chained up and held at gun-point, enslaved and tortured by the devil, and then Christ comes to us and says, “I’m here to set you free!” He takes off our chains, and binds up the devil with them, and takes away the weapons of the devil, and puts them in our hands, and says, “OK, now you watch him while I’m gone,” and He goes back to heaven. Then we get a little curious about things, and we start fiddling with the chains on the devil, and pretty soon we just pull them right off him, and give him his guns back, and say, “OK: enslave us again, and rule over us again, and torment us again.”
Well, that’s what we have done, because the only thing that gives the devil power, the only thing that restores him, at least to some extent, to his former power or dominion, is us: he feeds on us. He’s a parasite; he feeds on the attention that we give. He feeds on our fear; he feeds on our weakness; he feeds on our inclination to sin. And the more that we give in to that, the more that we fear the devil or the more that we let our weaknesses and sinful inclinations get the best of us, the more we say “OK; here’s your power back, take over my life.” But Christ says, “You don’t have to do that. I took his power away; I defeated him. I put the weapons back in your hands.” We can do it, but we have to choose.
The angels are meant to help us in this whole drama of living our life in accordance with the victory of Christ, and living our life in such a way that we can recognize the devil’s tactics, keep him chained up, and not allow him to take over again in our lives or in the world.
We can see what has happened in the world: many people have surrendered to the devil, have not accepted what Christ has done, have thus let everything fall to pieces, and so the devil is making himself “king” (or president) again, in many places. We know that it’s not going to last forever, but in the meantime a lot of damage is being done.
We need to be strong, so that we can stand against the evil and for the good. This is why we have these powerful, heavenly messengers and warriors at our side: to protect us, to speak the will of God to us, enlighten our consciences and our minds to help us perceive the reality of the spiritual world, of the spiritual warfare, of the fact that the things that we say and do really have an effect, not only on our own souls but on people around us and on the world in general, because we’re all connected. We’re all connected in the Body of Christ.
It’s important for us, then, to side with Christ, to listen to and cooperate with the counsel of the angels who lead us according to God’s will, who enlighten us and protect us. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, please protect me,” and then go about doing precisely that which makes ourselves vulnerable to attack from the evil one. Well, that’s not going to work! We have to choose to cooperate, choose to stand on the side of righteousness, choose to be with the angels, those warriors and messengers of God.
In whatever way God wants to use us, we have to be ready and standing at attention, standing ready to serve God, like the various choirs of angels. They surround the throne of God, they stand ready, praising Him, worshipping Him, ready for the least command that comes from the mouth of God. They don’t waste a second, because they know that serving God is truth, righteousness, goodness, and holiness: that brings about the will of God the Lover of Mankind, who has designed this whole universe for our delight and eternal happiness.
So, let us be aware that we have help in this struggle—that we don’t have to give in to our weaknesses, we don’t have to follow the evil counsel of the devil, who’s always trying to convince us to come over and unlock his chains. We have to stand with Christ, with the Victor, with the Stronger One who bound the devil in the first place and who can keep him at bay, as long as our free will is moving in the same direction. Then we will not only be messengers of God and warriors against evil, but starting now and continuing for all eternity, we will sing the thrice-holy hymn, worshipping the thrice-holy God forever with all of the Holy, Heavenly and Incorporeal Powers—commonly known as Angels!