Circular Letter: Fall 2011

Devotion to St. Michael the Archangel: Part 1

Prince (Arch-Strategist) of the Heavenly Hosts!

Bless the Lord, all ye His angels: you that are mighty in strength, and execute His word, hearkening to the voice of His orders. Bless the Lord, all ye His hosts: you ministers of His that do His will.  (Ps 103:20-21)

Historical Glance at Devotion to St. Michael

Devotion to the holy angels and, in particular, to St. Michael dates to the very beginnings of the Church; it is like an inheritance from the Jewish synagogue, where the angels, especially St. Michael, were held in high esteem as God’s ministers. The early Christians, also, closely associated the angels with Christ. Him they adore! In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read,

Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are His angels. They belong to Him because they were created through and for Him: ‘For in Him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through Him and for Him’

(Col 1:16). They belong to Him still more because He has made them messengers of His saving plan:

‘Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?’  (Heb 1:14). (CCC 331)

Jesus had assured His disciples that He would come in glory with His Angels to judge the living and the dead (cf. Mt 16:27; 25:31). They often play a role in Christ’s parables as laborers in the field of God, in the harvest and at judgment (cf. Mt. 13:39-41). The angel Gabriel had proclaimed the Mystery of the Incarnation (Lk 1:30ff); other angels announced Christ’s birth (Lk 2:10). Still other Angels proclaimed Christ’s Resurrection (Mk 16:5; Lk 24:4-7). Other angels had freed St. Peter (Acts 12:7-11) and some disciple from prison (Acts 5:19). Finally, the Apocalypse of St. John revealed the multifaceted involvement of these angelic ministers of Christ in the life and liturgy of the Church. They not only serve Christ, but are assigned by God to help and protect us and the Church as well. Scripture tells us that God “has given His angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways” (Ps 91:11).

First Look at Devotion to the Holy Angels

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, speaking with regard to devotion to the angels, says: “[This truth] should fill you with respect, inspire devotion and instill confidence: respect for the presence of the angels, devotion because of their loving service, and confidence because of their protection.… They are here to protect and serve you… So let us be devoted and grateful to such great protectors; let us return their love and honor them as much as we should. Yet all our love and honor must go to [Christ], for it is from Him that they receive all that makes them worthy of our love and respect.”  (Sermon 12)

Among all the angels, though, there is only one known in Sacred Scripture, who represents, as it were, the whole mystery of God and who in His Name watches over and protects the entire People of God: that is St. Michael. The better we understand St. Michael, the deeper our love for him shall grow and the greater our esteem will be towards him. Now, a true devotion to St. Michael presumes that we cultivate a spiritual friendship with him.

Friends share a common vision, they have one heart and one soul! To be a friend of St. Michael, we must hold sacred what he holds sacred! Before all else, he is a servant of God, a defender of the Divine honor! To be brief, there is no such thing as devotion to St. Michael in a soul which has no devotion to Almighty God.

In the liturgy of the Mass, the celebrant traditionally prayed to St. Michael when he placed incense upon the burning coal, because incensation – following the imagery of the Old Testament – is a sign of the worship of God in spirit and in truth. Devotion itself is like holy incense which rises up in our sacrifice to God. The sacrifices which please God are a humble contrite heart (cf. Ps 51:17) and a sincere and joyful song in praise of His Name:

“Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High”  (Ps 50:14). How similar this is to Michael’s name, “Who is like GOD!”

How important the true virtue of devotion is! After the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, no virtue is more important than the virtue of religion, by which we pay to Almighty God the adoration and honor due to His Name. While the virtue of religion looks to the payment of the debt towards God, the virtue of devotion helps us interiorly to be zealous and ardent in the fulfillment of our duties towards God. The two virtues clearly go hand in hand. We could say that devotion gives brilliance and beauty to the practice of religion; without devotion, the practice of religion would be mere formalism.

The first duty we have towards God, of course, is to love and worship Him with our whole, mind, heart, will and strength. On the other side, hell began when the evil spirits first refused to fall down and worship GOD! At a time where the majority of adults do not even assist any more at Sunday Mass, one wonders if they realize on whose side they are standing. They are surely not following the lead of St. Michael.

We have an infinite debt to God, for He created us out of nothing, He has called us to eternal union with Him, and He redeemed us back to Himself when we abandoned Him through sin. We should be overwhelmed with love and gratitude. This is a debt we cannot pay back by putting a few coins into the collection; we can only begin to respond to it by loving God sincerely and totally. Moreover, we may not keep this love a secret in our heart, but must express it openly and properly in reverent and devoted worship.

Furthermore, God Himself, in His kindness, has given us the Law and the Liturgy; He Himself shows us how we ought to serve Him. After Moses had received the Law from God on Mount Sinai, he proposed it to the people with these words:

Behold I set forth in your sight this day a blessing and a curse: A blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; a curse, if you obey not the commandments of the Lord your God, but revolt from the way which now I show you, and walk after strange gods which you know not.      (Dt 11:26-28)

The moral choice for God does not stand alone; we must also say “yes” or “no” to the way of salvation He has ordained: Jesus Christ is the only way for us. No one comes to the Father except through Christ (cf. Jn 14:6, 6:44). Indeed, “there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Now, here is the key question: Will devotion to St. Michael help us get to heaven? Will it help us draw nearer to Christ? Will we become more Christ-like through this devotion? Mankind, we know, receives salvation through Christ! But how did the angels get into heaven?

In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses: “Behold I will send my angel, who shall go before thee, and keep thee in thy journey, and bring thee into the place that I have prepared”  (Ex 23:20). Is this promise now obsolete? Did it only apply to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, …or is it a promise of guidance unto the promised land of Life Everlasting in Heaven? The Church applies this text to the Guardian Angel and therefore understands the promise principally in terms of the spiritual life.

We may even ask if the angel God promised to send was not St. Michael himself, since the prophet Daniel identifies him as the protector and patron of Israel? Possibly, we cannot know for sure. But we can surely know that St. Michael’s assistance is not limited to temporal helps. What good would a devotion to St. Michael be for us if it were only temporal? If, after having saved us from our temporal enemies, we would end up in hell? Temporal salvation is good, eternal salvation is clearly infinitely superior. The answer to this question is easy: we pray to St. Michael to defend us against the devil, and surely not for temporal ends alone.

Devotion to St. Michael should help us get to heaven. The virtues of religion and devotion similarly include and embrace the veneration we owe to the friends of God for His sake. St. Thomas Aquinas explained:

The devotion which we foster towards the saints of God, whether dead or alive, does not terminate in them, but passes beyond them to God, for in honoring God’s servants, we honor God Himself. (Sum. Th. II-II 82, 2, 3m)

God Himself, it seems, is zealous for the devotion to St. Michael of Christian nations. Many namely are the shrines dedicated to him, following his apparition. Not only at Monte Gargano, Italy (490), but also in France at Mont Saint Michele (709). Charlemagne spread the devotion to St. Michael throughout his kingdom (8th-9th Century). In Spain and Portugal apparitions of St. Michael in the 11th and 12th Centuries are linked to the Crusades which expelled the Moslems from the Iberian Peninsula. St. Boniface consecrated a Church to St. Michael in northern Germany, a fact which indicates that this devotion was part of the foundation of Christianity in Germany.

Biblical Description of St. Michael

It is St. Gabriel the Archangel who first introduces St. Michael to us by name in Scripture; this takes place in the book of Daniel. And there he tells us several significant truths concerning St. Michael and his mission:

1) St. Michael is a “major prince” among the angels (Daniel 10:13).  2) He fights on behalf of Israel at Gabriel’s side (10:21a).  3) Michael is the special patron and protector of Israel (10:21b, 12:1).  4) And finally, St. Gabriel tells us that Michael will save the Chosen People in the great battle (12:1).

In the Apocalypse we find St. Michael victoriously leading all the heavenly hosts in battle under the banner of Jesus and Mary against the devil and all the evil spirits. The Apostle Jude in his Epistle observes how St. Michael contended with the devil. Wherever we meet St. Michael in Scripture, he is in battle against the enemy in behalf of the elect of God. This holds true also for his presence throughout the history of the Church. Hence, it was understandable that Pope Leo XIII, after the terrible vision of the destruction that the devil would seek to cause in the Church, instinctively turned to and called upon St. Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Hosts. It was at that time that the prayer to St. Michael was composed and prescribed for the whole Church.

1. St. Gabriel identifies St. Michael

St. Gabriel tells Daniel the prophet: “ Behold Michael, one of the chief princes , came to help me …”

Here we have three important communications: First, St. Michael is one of the chief princes or leaders among the angels. The title here is also to be understood militarily, as St. Michael has come to the aid of St. Gabriel in the battle against the prince of Persia (Dan 10:3), who has been opposing St. Gabriel’s mission in favor of Israel. St. Michael is, therefore, one of the main officers in the heavenly hosts. The military aspect of the angelic ministry is an important one. God’s title, “Lord of Hosts” is a very common name of God in the Old Testament (appearing more than 260 times).

Patron of Israel, Patron of the Church

St. Gabriel also identifies St. Michael as the prince and patron of Israel. This suggests possibly that all nations have their angelic patrons. In any case, St. Michael is the protector of the Chosen People of God, the descendents of Abraham. Now since Abraham’s principal descendents are by faith, not by blood (cf. Gal 3:7), it did not take much to transfer St. Michael’s patronage over to the Church.

In this context, we can think of the plague that was ravishing Rome in 590 at the beginning of the Pontificate of St. Gregory the Great. He led a penitential procession through the city to St. Mary Major, begging divine mercy and intervention. When they arrived at the bridge over the Tiber, St. Michael appeared above Hadrian’s tomb sheathing his sword; the plague was ended. Here St. Michael, as an angel of divine chastisement, was placated by humble petition and brought healing and protection to the chosen people. The link of St. Michael as a healer, therefore, stands in relation to sickness and death as punishments for sin. By these we are also humbled, and when we humble ourselves, St. Michael comes quickly to our aid.

Military prominence

 It is evident that Michael has a choice mission among the angels. And so, if he is the angelic protector over Israel, St. Michael must be the commander in chief over all the angelic hosts. This conclusion is indeed corroborated in the Apocalypse, where it is St. Michael who leads the holy angels in the battle against the devil and all the evil spirits, casting them out of heaven (cf. Apoc 12:7ff). In passing it is important to observe that the military office of the angels is not the highest, since spiritual battle only takes place in this world over the souls of man. Hence, there any many angels higher than St. Michael in the Heavenly Hierarchies, with higher offices of adoration and light. The spiritual battle continues even today; that is why Pope John Paul II, following the example of Pope Leo XIII, exhorted the faithful to call upon the help of St. Michael and his angels:

May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle we are told about in the Letter to the Ephesians: ‘Draw strength from the Lord and from His mighty power’ (Eph 6:10). The Book of Revelation refers to this same battle, recalling before our eyes the image of St. Michael the Archangel (Apoc 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid recollection of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to St. Michael throughout the Church. Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world. ( Audience, April 24, 1994)

Protector of the Dying

St. Joseph is, properly speaking, the patron of a happy death. We could say that St. Michael is the protector against an unhappy death!  In the life of St. St. Gertrude from 1172, we read that as she approached the point of death she invoked the Archangel Michael. “She beheld the glorious chief of the angelic hosts with a multitude of angels, all prepared to assist her and to combat the demons, whom she also saw under hideous forms. But they were so weak and powerless, that they could not do her the slightest injury. This afforded her the greatest consolation.” 1

This too is inferred from St. Gabriel’s words: “At that time shall Michael rise up, the great prince, who stands for the children of your people : and a time shall come, such as never was from the time that nations began, even until that time. And at that time shall your people be saved , every one that shall be found written in the Book.” (Dan 12:1)

By implication this will be the final battle at the end of time, since St. Gabriel speaks here of the Book of Life, in which the names of the elect are inscribed. Death, of course, is the last battle for each one of us, and Michael has the task of saving those whose names are in the Book of Life. He does this in two ways: First, St. Michael wards off the demons, who tempt in a special way at death. Secondly, he intercedes for a merciful judgment and leads the departed souls into heaven. There is a great liturgical antiphon which associates St. Michael with the Holy Spirit in the ministry. It reads:

The Archangel Michael comes with a multitude of angels; God entrusted him with the souls of the saints, that he lead them into the paradise of bliss. Send forth your Holy Spirit, Lord, from Heaven, the Spirit of Wisdom and of Understanding, that He lead them into the paradise of bliss. 2

2. Michael in Other Biblical Texts

Given the fact that St. Michael is the Patron of Israel and military commander of the angelic hosts, theologians and pious authors have frequently identified certain angels in Scripture who come to the assistance of Israel with St. Michael. There is no apodictic proof for such identifications. If St. Michael is really the commander in chief, then he certainly has legions of angels to assist him in his ministry. Still, this unity in ministry affords us some insights about Michael and his manner of service. All these angels are zealous for the glory of God and the well-being of God’s Chosen People. They quickly and discretely carry out their task and then return to God, who sent them. St. Raphael – in another context – says it well:

“When I was with you, I was there by the will of God: bless ye Him, and sing praises to Him”(Tob 12:18).

“Joshua’s Angel”

Moses’ successor, Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land, also dealt with an angel, who is often identified with St. Michael. Preparing for the siege of Jericho, Joshua encountered an angel with a drawn sword before the camp; Joshua challenged him, saying: “Are you one of ours, or of our adversaries?” (5:13). The angel returns the wonderful response: “No: but I am the arch-strategist [captain, prince] of the host of the Lord, and now I am come”(5:14). It’s as if he had said, I am neither one of yours nor one of the enemy, but rather I am one of God’s angelic princes!3

The text raises the question: What does Scripture mean when it calls St. Michael a prince, or a captain or the arch-strategist of the heavenly hosts? We also call upon St. Michael as the Archangel, in accordance with the words of St. Jude 1:9. St. Gabriel identifies him as a prince, captain or leader. In the New Testament. St. Jude clearly identifies him as an Archangel. The fact that in Apocalypse 12 St. Michael is not even called an Angel or a Prince or an Archangel, but is simply identified as the leader of the holy angels in the battle, manifests that the early Christians were quite familiar with him. St. John felt no need to introduce him to the community of the faithful!

3. St. Michael: Prince, Leader, Captain, Arch-Strategist

Biblically speaking, the title, “prince” has two areas of meaning: one human, the other angelic. Humanly speaking, “prince” was a generic sort of term, designating an important “leader” or “commander”. Although the supreme commander could also be called a prince, the term generally indicated a lesser degree of authority. The accent was on “authority over others”.

In itself the term does not connote moral goodness or evil, but simply a position of authority. A prince can be good or evil. The enemies of Israel also had their princes. Moreover, St. Jude tells us that the fallen spirits did not retain their “principality” or position of authority, but left their dwelling (v.6). Hence, Christ is the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6) and on the other hand, the devil is the “Prince of this World” (Jn 12:31; cf. Eph 2:2).

This Hebrew word, “sar”, was applied to St. Michael in all three passages in Daniel (Dan 10:13, 21 and 12:1). The angel who appeared to Joshua was similarly called a “sar” (Jos 5:13-14). The Septuagint, the 3rd Century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament, renders the three texts about Michael in Daniel as “the great prince” or “one of the first princes”. The Septuagint translates the same term for Joshua’s angel not as “prince” but rather as “arch-strategist”  of the Hosts of God. The angel is a military commander of the angelic hosts!

It is against this background that St. Paul will later identify one of the basic groups of angels as the Princes (or Principalities), that is to say, the choir of Princes form a group of angelic leaders, governors and military commanders.

St. Michael is also called an archangel in the New Testament (Jude 1:9). The common denominator between “Prince” and “Archangel” in the angelic hierarchies is authority over other holy angels. The Archangels constitute the 8th choir of holy angels and have authority over the multitudes of Angels in the 9th choir. Analogically, the Princes or “Principalities”, as they are sometimes called, exercise an authority over all the choirs of the 3rd ring of holy angels.

Since Michael holds both of these titles, it follows that one of them must be said properly and the other is applied to him in a generic or honorary fashion. From this it reasonably follows that the lesser title indicates for us St. Michael’s nature or choir rank, since there would be no honor in calling someone by a rank inferior to their nature.

Secondly, St. Michael’s generic or honorary title as “Prince” is neither simply honorary or generic. It is clear from Scripture that he actually guides and has authority over the angelic hosts of God. And since God acts with good reason, we need to conclude that St. Michael is an Archangel according to his natural rank, and that by the grace of God he has been elevated to be the Prince of the heavenly hosts.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

(End of part 1. To be continued in the next LCL.)

 1 Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude, TAN, Rockford, 1983. Part V, ch. 28,  p. 561

  2 Benedictine Breviary (1959), Office of the Dead, Responsory 6

  3 During the Civil War in the USA, one of President Lincoln’s aides suggested that they pray that God take their part and be on their side. Lincoln responded: “O I never pray like that! I know that God is always on the right side… and therefore, I prefer to pray that I be on His side!”

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