Michael the Archangel

Michael is a mighty archangel described in Scripture as commander of God’s heavenly armies. Many of us call upon him daily as a defender and protector. But in what sense does he protect? And what is the battle really about?

Scripture describes Michael casting Satan out of heaven (Revelation 12), battling with Satan over the body of Moses (Jude 9), or battling a spirit described as “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 12).

If angels are spiritual and immortal beings, what does it even mean for them to “fight”? They cannot be wounded or killed – so how can there be any battle, any victory or defeat?

The real battleground is over human freedom, and all that is impacted by our “yes” or “no.” This battle has implications for each one of us individually, but also cosmic ones – because God makes us his stewards.

Each and every human person is created in God’s image and likeness. The devils envy and hate each one of us, and relentlessly seek to ruin us. But God also placed the entire cosmos under human stewardship. God invested us with true authority – an authority the devil has always envied and hated. He seeks to steal it away by seduction and lies. He seems to succeed – both with Adam and Eve and with each of us. They and we give away what is not his to take. And then he thinks he can hold us captive.

Enter Jesus as the new Adam. He ushers in the Kingdom of God, the new creation, new heavens and a new earth. Those who are willing to die with him and rise with him through Faith become members of his Body. Under his headship, every enemy is placed under his feet, until at last even death itself is destroyed (Ephesians 1-2). All this happens by human agency, by the exertion of human freedom – his human freedom, but also yours and mine.  In due time, our human destiny is to become higher than all the angels as we behold God face to face and become like him (1 John 3).

We tend to esteem our own dignity and freedom far less than God does! He never forces us to do anything. For that matter, evil spirits cannot force us to do anything either. Had Adam said “no” and told the devil to leave, the devil would have had to honor Adam’s God-given authority! The same holds true for us, though we need the power of Jesus to reclaim and restore that which we have given away. United with him and in him, we need never fear evil spirits. Indeed, it is they who fear us as we shine with restored glory!

When I say that God honors our freedom, that also means that he allows our freedom to have its consequences. We were the stewards of this current cosmos, and we failed in our stewardship. Though it still bears stunning goodness and beauty, this cosmos is irreparably damaged. The world as we know it is passing away.

[NOTE – I am using the original Greek word kosmos, which can be translated either as “world” or “universe”]

Jesus tells us that he came into this cosmos not to condemn it but to save it (John 3:17).  He will cast out the devil, the ruler of this cosmos (John 12:31). But in what manner? Jesus does not stop us from dying, and he does not stop this universe from coming to its just demise. His kingdom is not of this world – because we the stewards have truly ruined it by giving dominion over to the devil. The devil will have his pound of flesh. But the devil has never understood love or the new life that springs forth from love.

In his dying and rising and ascending, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. And he ushered in the new creation. Like his risen body (or rather, AS his body) this new creation is both the same and new. We already participate in it! In Christ the head, the battle is done. It is finished. Love wins.  In us the members, the battle is still playing itself out – we need only give over our freedom!

In the early Church, the Letter to Diognetus taught that we Christians are in the world, but not of the world. In one sense, we live and act just like everyone else. But we actually live in an entirely different dimension!  In the 300’s, Gregory of Nyssa observed that “the foundation of the Church is the creation of a new cosmos.” More recently, Pope Benedict XVI explained the Ascension of Jesus as opening up a new dimension of human existence.

That is where Michael comes in. He is the mighty guardian of this new creation. He is God’s answer to the devil. His name is not a name but a menacing question: “WHO IS LIKE GOD??” The devil styles himself a god, but is not. Michael brings God’s Truth and Love to full light and casts out the devil. All that is true and good and beautiful is resurrected in the new creation. All that is disordered, all that tends toward ruin or destruction, all that spirals towards nothingness – that belongs to the devil, who will ultimately be the ruler of nothing.

But back to human freedom. If we want Michael’s protection, we must choose to abide in the new creation, rather than cling to this world, which is quickly passing away. That means becoming willing to die to what is easy or familiar and trust in the newness that is coming. We gain glimpses and tastes of that newness, but are not yet ready for it in all its fullness.

It is truly challenging to abide in the “already but not yet” of Hope. Even now, we possess the Kingdom and already participate in it. But we are not yet ready to see God face to face, and not so completely transformed as to share in the fullness of the ascended glory of Jesus. We call on Saint Michael again and again to defend us in that in-between place, in which we are still vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one. Michael willingly and faithfully defends us. He safeguards the space in which grow. but only we can do the growing!

The more we become who we are, the fewer entry points the devil even has to attempt an assault. God’s light shows us the weak spots where the devil will predictably attack us. We ask Michael’s protection – but we also cooperate with Christ to repair those breaches!

Gregory the Great calls the earthly Church “the Dawn” – surely and certainly ushering in the full light of Day, but still mixed up with the darkness. We eagerly await the full Day, when Christ will always shine, and when Michael’s protection will no longer be needed. In the meantime, we engage our journey of change and growth, until Christ becomes all in all.

A Horn of Salvation

He has raised up for us a horn of salvation, in the house of his servant David (Luke 1:69).

These are the words proclaimed by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, after nine long months of silence. Nine months to ponder the promises of God given through the angel Gabriel.

At the very moment of proclaiming that his newborn son will be named “John,” Zechariah was flooded with the Holy Spirit and burst into praise – in words that many of us proclaim each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours. Unfortunately, our English version loses something in translation, saying “He has raised up for us a mighty savior…”

By contrast, the original text speaks of a “horn of salvation.”  Why?

If the name John (“God is gracious”) was significant and willed by God, so much more the holy name of Jesus, at which every creature must bow – those in heaven, those on earth, and even those in the infernal regions (Philippians 2:10-11).

The name “Jesus” in Hebrew is Yeshua – the very same name as “Joshua” in the Old Testament. The name means “savior.” Joshua was a figure of salvation – giving us a foretaste of Jesus, the true savior of the world.

Joshua led the Israelites in the battle of Jericho (see Joshua 5 and 6). But more truthfully, it was God himself, through his mighty messenger, who won the battle. As Joshua approaches Jericho, he sees a fierce warrior, drawn sword in hand, and asks him, “Are you one of us, or one of our enemies?” And the warrior replies, “Neither. I am the commander of the army of the Lord: now I have come” (Joshua 5:13-14).

We could debate whether this messenger was Michael the Archangel, or the Word of God himself (not yet in the flesh, not yet named “Jesus”). Either way, the instructions come directly from the Lord: Joshua and his soldiers are to circle the city for six consecutive days. Then on the seventh day they are to circle the city seven times. Seven priests are then to blow their seven horns, followed by a jubilant shout.

In light of that story, the seventeenth-century theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet interpreted Zechariah’s choice of words: “The word horn is one of magnificence and terror that in Scripture signified at once glory and an incomparable power for defeating our enemies.”

But who are these enemies from which we need to be delivered? Bossuet reminds us, “They are, in the first place, the invisible enemies who hold us captive by our sins.”

The apostle Paul says the same: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).

What important reminders for us today! If we spend mere minutes on social media, we will encounter animosity and enmity – one group of humans pitted against another group of humans, their accusations dripping with contempt. The devil is a master strategist, and “divide and conquer” is one of his choice strategies!

But – you might object – some human beings are perpetrating atrocities against other human beings, or threatening to force us to change our beliefs, or else. Doesn’t that make them “enemies”?

Yes and no. Human beings are only ever “enemies” in a secondary sense. They are, first and foremost, created in God’s image and likeness. He wills their and our salvation (1 Timothy 2:4). Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul gets even more specific: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:19-20).

This is not a command to become objects for others to use or oppress. Rather, it is a command to be on fire with the love of Jesus and to trust God the Father. Jesus was never a powerless victim to others’ manipulations and schemes; yet he truly loved his enemies. Bossuet suggests that this manner of heaping coals upon their head is “to warm up and melt their icy and hardened hearts.” Not all with hardened hearts will welcome this melting. God desires that all be saved, but fully honors our freedom.

Jesus came among us as a true savior from our real enemies. He allowed God’s own breath, the Holy Spirit, to blow through him according to the Father’s will. He knocked down the wall of hostility that had divided us, opening up true reconciliation with the Father and with each other (Ephesians 2:14-16).

For us on earth, the battle is still playing itself out. We are still in the middle of the story. It is so normal for us to feel terrified. It is so tempting for us to look for scapegoats – to depict one human or group of humans as “the enemy.” We need not let the evil spirits play upon our fear and our shame. We need not allow them to seduce us into hatred, division, or contempt. We need not succumb to the lie that secular human efforts will save and deliver us.

Imagine how hard it must have been for Joshua and his soldiers to surrender with trust to God and his promises! Were they really to believe that seven priests blowing on their horns would win the battle, rather than military might or human cunning? But at God’s command, so it happened.

And what a powerful reminder that God does not belong to any sides in our human factions! For him, there is never an “us versus them.” He is fully in charge, and all human beings are called to be restored as his beloved children.

Rather than seeing other human beings as enemies to be fought, rather than looking to secular means of deliverance, will we trust the living God? Will we give our fears over to him, and seek the deliverance that only Jesus can bring?