Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Surrounded by Angels


When I was confirmed in 1957 at the mature age of nine, I chose Michael for my confirmation name. I did not choose it to honor some relative or family friend. Rather, what impressed me most was its association with the great warrior archangel, Michael who battled against the dragon … who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world (Revelation 12:7-9). In those days, we regularly prayed to Saint Michael the Archangel after (Low) Mass: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. I really liked that prayer; and, for my confirmation, I wanted to identify with that great warrior archangel.

For centuries, Michael has been honored on this day. Hence, the traditional English name Michaelmas for today. Coming just after the autumnal equinox, as the days are visibly darkening, it must have seemed a very appropriate day indeed to honor the Church’s champion against the original “Dark Lord.” Since the calendar reform of 1969, the archangels Gabriel and Raphael (the only other angels identified with proper names in the Bible) have been folded in with Michael in one composite feast of the Archangels.

Where would we be without angels? Here in this church we are literally surrounded by statues, murals, and windows of angels – among them the three gilded bronze angels kneeling above the baldachin over the High Altar (photo) and the four bronze angels with outstretched arms and interlocking hands that encircle the huge globe of the sanctuary lamp. The Angel of the Moon, high up on the south wall of the sanctuary is considered one of the most notable of John La Farge’s murals. Its companion piece, The Angel of the Sun, on the north wall, was painted by William Laurel Harris (the same artist who also did the monumental mural The Crucifixion above the Church’s main entrance). Above and behind the High Altar, the central window depicts Mary Queen of Angels. On the south side of that central widow is a stained glass window of the Archangel Michael, and on the north side is one of the Archangel Raphael. The Archangel Gabriel appears in the painting above the Annunciation Altar in the south aisle. Painted figures of angels also flank that altar on either side, and angels are depicted adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance painted about the Sacred Heart Altar in the north aisle.

Likewise, the liturgy daily reminds us of angels. At every Mass, we join in praying the Sanctus, an acclamation based on the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the angels in heaven (Isaiah 6:3-4). The Gloria’s opening words recall the hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds on the first Christmas (Luke 2:14). At Funerals, we pray May the angels lead you into Paradise. That familiar In Paradisum prayer was, of course, the basis for Horatio’s famous farewell to Hamlet, Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2).

Then, there are the Guardian Angels, commemorated this coming Saturday, October 2.

It seems the angels really are everywhere – not just in pretty pictures and in the countless books found on the shelves devoted to angels in contemporary bookstores! Where would we be without them?

Homily for the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 29, 2021.

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