The existence and work of angels is not something that is often discussed these days, and yet they are of huge significance both within scripture and the tradition of the Church. September could be called the ‘Month of Angels’, as it is the month in which the feast of Michaelmas occurs; perhaps this is a good time to ponder the very real nature and work of the angels.
We live in a part of the world where there are several hilltop churches dedicated to St Michael the Archangel (including St Michael de Rupe, Brent Tor), and on Dartmoor we have two other special places of worship dedicated in the name of fellow archangels: St Raphael’s Chapel at Huccaby (which is the only Anglican chapel in the country to be dedicated in the name of Raphael) and St Gabriel’s Church, Postbridge.
I recently came across a reference to the neglected feast day of ‘St Michael in the Mountain Tomb’, which used to be celebrated in England on 16th October. The history behind this feast offers an interesting explanation as to why hilltop churches are often dedicated in the name of St Michael.
The Feast of St Michael in the Mountain Tomb commemorated the occasion when the Bishop of Sipontum witnessed a series of apparitions of St Michael in a cave on Mount Tumba in Apulia, Italy, in about 490. The Archangel promised that, if the bishop built a place for Christian worship near the cave, he would protect the nearby town of Siponto from attack.
The bishop obliged, and built what is now the oldest shrine to St Michael in Western Europe, called Monte Gargano (or Monte Sant Angelo). The feast of Michael in the Mountain Tomb is still celebrated in some places on 8th May, marking an occasion when, through the intercession of St Michael, Siponto was saved from pagan invaders. Interestingly, St Michael is also celebrated on 8th May in the Diocese of Truro, as he is one of the county’s patron saints.
Why in England we used to keep the Feast of Michael in the Mountain Tomb on 16th October is an interesting question. It could signify another miracle attributed to the intercession of St Michael in the Mountain Tomb, when a sailor, caught in rough October seas, was saved from being wrecked. This perhaps sheds light on the (later) legend which surrounds the building of St Michael de Rupe, Brent Tor by the grateful sailor who had survived a similar ordeal.
All this is very interesting, but still leaves us wondering, what exactly is an angel? They are God’s messengers (the word ‘angel’ is derived from angelos, the Greek word for ‘messenger’). Angels are purely spiritual beings, without their own physical bodies, but possessed of intelligence and their own will—which is why there are both good and evil ones. St Michael fights the evil ones in Revelation 12, for instance, and Jesus himself resists the fallen-angel-in-chief, Satan, when he is in the Wilderness for forty days and nights.
Angels haven’t the power to know the secrets of our hearts, or govern our wills, but can assist us in ordering our lives towards God. The idea that they are surpassing in perfection amongst all creatures and that they guard us comes from a number of sources, such as Psalm 91:11: ‘For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways’. Christ is at the centre of the angelic world, as they were all created through him and for him (see Matthew 25:31).
Angels are grouped into three orders: the seraphim, cherubim and thrones (who carry out the work of adoration), the dominions, principalities and powers (who engage in fighting evil) and the virtues, angel-guardians and archangels (who see to the custody of creation). All of these various types and orders of angels are meant to be working together, God working through all of them. We find angels in charge of the elements (Revelation 12:1, 14:18, 16: 1–10), guarding nations (Daniel 10), fighting Satan (Rev. 12:7) guarding us from peril (Daniel 6:22, etc); they protected Lot, saved Hagar and her child, stayed Abraham’s hand, led poor Lazarus to paradise…. and, to top it all, they can sing for ages without pausing for breath! ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6: 3).
The angel Gabriel announced the birth of both Jesus and his precursor, John the Baptist, and visited Jesus (again, singing…) whilst he lay in the manger (see Luke: 2: 13–15). The angels protected Jesus in his infancy, served him in the desert and gave him strength in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). The angel in the empty tomb tells the women of his resurrection (Mark 16: 5–7). The fact that Jesus knows and makes use of angels means that we can legitimately benefit from their help, too.
The idea that we all have a guardian angel is an ancient one; it is really a crystallisation of what we find written about them in the Old and New Testaments. St Basil said ‘beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’. The idea that we have such perfect and worthy creatures dispensing God’s grace may be difficult to grasp. I think that it is all about company: God loves to have lots of people with him, sharing his life. We all flourish and behave better in good company, so God provides it by giving us guardian angels. The writer to the Hebrews show the flipside to this when he says ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13: 2).
This Michaelmas may we be prompted by the aid of the angels to share more fully in the heavenly company which unites earth to heaven, by joining the angels in their unending hymns of praise.