Homily – 29 September 2012
Feast of Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and Saint Raphael, Archangels
Fr. Gregory Gresko, Chaplain, Blessed John Paul II Shrine
This morning, we celebrate the Feast of Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and Saint Raphael, Archangels. The theology of the Church teaches us that angels are spirits without bodies who have superior intelligence, power, and most of all, holiness. They exist in nine choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. Each angel is a “saint” because he dwells perfectly in the presence of God. In all who they are, and in all that they do, angels provide a perfect example for us to follow as they dwell in intimate and affectionate relationship with God, contemplating Him, praising Him, and loving Him both in heaven as well as wherever they are sent. An angel gains a name according to the specific message brought from God.
The angels whom we venerate this morning are particularly important to us in the Christian life, both for the messages they have brought from God to mankind, as well as for the examples they provide us from the heavenly hosts in what it means to be holy, a quality for which we strive in any life that would be called authentically Christian. Micha’El – meaning “Who is like God?” – serves as the leader of God’s holy angels whose name is their war cry against Satan and his followers. As one of the chief princes of heaven, Saint Michael wields the strength of God to lead heaven’s powers in victory over the forces of hell. He is the defender of Holy Mother Church and stands ready to help you and me in our both our personal and collective battles against the forces of the evil one. Although Michael is called “Archangel”, the Greek Fathers (among others) place him as head over all Angels as “Prince of the Seraphim”. Gabri’El – signifying “Man of God” and “God has shown Himself mighty” – appears to Zechariah to announce that the greatest man until that point in time will born to the world, John the Baptist, who will be the new Elijah to prepare the way for the Lamb of God to redeem the world. Most importantly, Saint Gabriel comes to Mary at the Annunciation, revealing the will of God that she is to bear the Son of the Most High. Upon her acceptance of the Father’s will in her “fiat” of faith, the Holy Spirit immediately overshadows her as a tabernacle of His presence as she conceives Jesus as the Son of God and Son of Man, a message superior in importance as it announces man’s salvation. Finally, we have Rapha’El – “God has healed” – who in the Book of Tobit binds the desert demon Asmodeus that had been threatening Tobiah’s life. Saint Rapha’El helps Tobiah to find a wife, cures the father Tobit’s blindness and reveals himself as one of the seven Angels who stand before God’s throne.
In the first reading today, we see a glorious vision described by the prophet Daniel of God’s Kingdom, shared between God the Father as the Ancient One, and the Son of Man who will be manifested to the world in the person of Christ. We encounter an awe-inspiring sight, with the Father sitting on His fiery Throne that shoots streams of fire into its surroundings, and myriad angelic hosts of heaven surrounding God in glory. We see approaching the Father’s holy throne the Son of Man, whose dominion, glory, and kingship is promised to be everlasting across all nations and tongues. Why would we want to serve any other god, given God’s glory revealed here that not only inspires us but makes us fall prostrate in awe? Why would we desire any alternative to God’s Kingdom, when we are assured that this Kingdom is the one that is truly genuine, the only kingdom that will stand the test of time as worldly powers fall? To choose a different Kingdom is certainly our choice if we insist, but we would pledge ourselves to any other at our own peril. God is a holy God who does not share His throne with what is not holy. God become man is given His Throne because He is perfect in holiness. The idols of the impure and profane throughout the ages are never lifted to this dignity. Choose as we may, but let’s take this vision seriously as Daniel proclaims to us about the eventual judgment: “The court was convened, and the books were opened” … We will account for what we choose, and only the holy are admitted to this heavenly scene.
We may be tempted to spend our lives on earth in fear of this day, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether we live in love or in fear has everything to do with who we are and what we do. But, how can we ever be holy enough in God’s eyes to pass muster in His heavenly court? How can I be admitted to the presence of God when I know my obvious struggles, my weakness, and my failings? I know that on my own, I’ll never be worthy of such reward. The Psalmist gives us encouragement as well as the secret to success on this question: Happy the man whose offense is forgiven, whose sin is remitted. Happy the man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no guile. These words give us hope, if we only take them with sufficient seriousness and amend our lives, seeking God’s holiness and righteousness with the fervor of the Psalmist. We can never take God’s forgiveness for granted, treating His grace cheaply. If we have chosen to be men of God, that means we place our egos humbly before God’s holy throne and allow Him be our God once and for all, giving Him 100%. As God, He is worth receiving nothing less than that.
We find encouragement and challenge in the Gospel this morning to this effect. Nathanael inspires us with his example of how to pursue God’s holiness in our everyday lives. Jesus proclaims of Nathanael, “Here is a true child of Israel. In him is no duplicity” -- that is, no deception, no guile, no falsehood, no unfaithfulness. When Nathanael responds with surprise and inquires as to how Jesus knows him, the Lord shares that he “saw him under the fig tree”. We must ask ourselves here: How can such an answer be so significant to Nathanael that he drops everything in self-abandonment and follows Jesus as a faithful disciple? Some scholars hold that Jesus' statement is based most likely on a Jewish figure of speech referring to the studying of the Torah, as a Hebrew Midrash indicates how rabbis would study the law “under a fig tree” (Midr. Rab. Eccl. 5.11). From the brief exchange noted here, understood well through this young man’s perseverance and focus in studying the ways of God, Nathanael recognizes Jesus as "the Son of God" and "the King of Israel". In response to his immediate profession of faith, Jesus promises Nathanael and the other disciples present that they will “see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”, in direct allusion to Genesis 28, when Jacob is given the vision of heavenly angels ascending and descending. The Old Testament vision of “Jacob’s ladder” is transformed by Jesus into a New Testament promise of heaven for believers who would trust that Jesus is God become man. It is Jesus Himself who is the Ladder bridging the abyss between heaven and earth.
So why is Nathanael important to us today? He is one declared by Christ as true (alēthōs) as opposed to full of guile, duplicity, falsehood (dolos) … A “true child of Israel” is one who has striven to be an authentic man of God and shows us that we discover Christ as the epitome of all holiness when we seek God prayerfully and studiously in fervent faith. The calling of Nathanael to be a disciple here, and the calling of other disciples in the verses that precede today’s, are understood best with reference to Jacob, who received the name “Israel”, that is, “one who sees God”. Within John’s broader context, those who can “see God” are the Son of Man Himself and those others who, with open hearts, receive the truth that the Son of God brings from heaven to earth. Immediately prior to today’s passage, the first disciples are asked to “come and see” in following Jesus. They are given the promise opsesthe (the Greek indicates the plural at the end of today’s passage) -- “you (plural) will see” -- when they as men become disciples of faith in the testimony of John’s Gospel. When men seek holiness in the person of the Lamb of God, the Christ as proclaimed by John the Baptist, they as a new fraternity of faith will be transformed into a new Israel “who sees God” surrounded by His heavenly hosts and are given the promise of heaven.
Nathanael reappears at the end of John's Gospel as one of the disciples to whom Jesus revealed Himself at the Sea of Galilee following the Resurrection, and as a disciple of devout Jewish faith, he comes to embody a “man of God” as a devoted follower of Christ. Nathana’El, whose name in Hebrew means “gift of God”, is held by Tradition to be the disciple also called Bartholomew (Aramaic, “son of Tolmay”, thus given a name best understood as “gift of God, son of Tolmay”), who is familiar to us as the apostle depicted holding a large knife as his instrument of martyrdom, skinned alive and holding his flesh in Michelangelo's Last Judgment as he is raised to the side of Christ in heavenly glory as reward for his faith in the Son of God and the testimony of his life, having given His life in blood in return for God’s love.
In today’s Scriptural passages, we discover that our fundamental vocation as Christians is to fulfill the call to holiness that God has placed on every heart. It is a calling that is sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, where we are purified by the waters of God’s grace and die to our sins. In the accompanying anointing, we are “chrismated”, sealed with Holy Chrism and marked for time everlasting as a son of God. Our baptism is a gift that we never should take for granted … In it, we discover what it means to belong to God, to be set aside by Him to be a holy son as He is holy. In this holy sacrament we find our mission, to exist for God and for neighbor in holy love, so that God’s Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.
In his address to German bishops early in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI provides the Church a fundamentally important point of reference in terms of where we stand in bringing about a New Evangelization, given the state of today’s world: “People don’t know God, they don’t know Christ. A new paganism is present” (Cologne, 21 August 2005). In order to be God’s instruments of transformation in the world, we must be part of the solution, and not part of the problem … We must be Christians through and through, in who we are and in what we do! We must never be pagan in thought, word, or action.
The Year of Faith that soon begins on 10/11/12 -- commemorating the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Second General Council of the Vatican as well as the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church -- exhorts us as Catholic men to stand firmly in faith as Nathanael did, without any duplicity of heart that would cause us to believe one way and behave another. We are true as men of God only if we first know the Faith that we claim to believe. Now is the perfect time as we embark upon this Year of Faith, to become “men without guile”, joining Nathanael under the fig tree to meditate upon the Word of God, and as Pope Benedict has encouraged us, seizing this opportunity anew to study well that Faith we profess, summarized so beautifully in the Catechism and in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. If we choose to do so, we will rediscover the beauty of being Christian and of being Church, and we will be equipped to evangelize our world with fervent faith, refusing to be given over to mediocrity.
God has set forth as man’s destiny to be raised higher than the angels. The angels of heaven are God’s messengers sent to help us realize our ultimate goal of perfect communion with God in heaven. Maybe I need Saint Michael’s superhuman strength to battle the evils of particular temptations or sins in my life, so let me call upon him for heavenly aid! If I need Saint Gabriel as a source of heavenly power to become a better man of God, then I need to ask him for help. If I need God’s healing of deep wounds in my life, then I should seek Saint Raphael’s assistance. May their angelic holiness inspire us and their leadership direct us to embrace, in our minds and in our hearts, that holiness which manifests the perfectly loving essence of who God is and what God does, so that we might be transformed more fully -- as individual men and as fraternal community -- into God’s holy people and dwell forever in heaven with Him. Amen.