Thursday, September 29, 2016

Christ the Fair Glory and the Holy Angels: A reflection on this Feast of Michaelmas.

Today is the feast of Saint Michael and all angels, today we give thanks for this great gift God has bestowed upon us, it is always so moving and so uplifting to only try to think about something so pure and holy like the blessed angels of God, who was so good to bestow all these heavenly creatures, this great army of love, to each single one of us.

The Angelic Host by Antoniazzo Romano in the Bessarione Chapel in SS. Apostoli

Angels in the Holy Scriptures are those pure, mysterious, created intelligences who are not human and who adore and glorify God in heaven and have and do take part in the most important moments of the "history" of God and who act as His messengers here on earth. Of course we do not know much about them, our Lord describes them as rejoicing over penitent sinners in the Gospel of Luke. In the Gospel of Matthew Christ describes the angels as the beholders of the face of God. In the Old Testament there are several references to "messengers of God". It is here that the word angel originates, the word for messenger in Hebrew is Malach which in Greek is Angelos or Angelus in Latin. By the time of Christ, Jewish devotional beliefs included several specifics about angels, such as a primitive idea of angelic hierarchy, they also happened to have different names. The most famous were the four archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel.

Saint Michael by Raphael

Michael ("Who is like God?") is the mighty captain of the heavenly host, he is mentioned in the Books of Daniel and Jude, where he is said to be the prince of the people of Israel and where he disputed with the devil over the body of Moses. Again, in the Book of Revelation he famously led the heavenly armies against the dragon. In Christian iconography he is pictured with an armour, carrying a lance, his foot is on the neck of the dragon that is being pierced by the archangel.

Saint Gabriel in Antoniazzo Romano's Annunciation at Sant'Onofrio

Gabriel ("God is my champion") is the most important messenger of God to mankind. He initially appears in the Book of Daniel, later, in the Gospel of Luke he is said to have announced the births of John the Baptist to Zachariah and of our Lord to our Lady. In Christian iconography he is usually portrayed with blue or white garments and holding a lily (representing the Theotokos) and/or a trumpet, a shining lantern, a branch from Paradise presented to him by the Theotokos, or a spear in his right hand and often a mirror, made of jasper and with a Χ (the first letter of Christ (Χριστος).

Saint Raphael by Perugino with Tobias

Raphael ("God heals") is mentioned in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where he is disguised as a man and leads the young Tobias on a quest and enables him to accomplish it. He is "forefather" of the guardian angels. In Christian iconography he is often depicted holding a staff, as he is also the guardian of journeys. He is also often depicted holding or standing on a fish, which alludes to his healing of Tobit with the fish's gall.

Saint Uriel in the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo

Uriel ("God is my Light") is mentioned in the Book of Enoch and is a messenger, usually of less "fortunate" happenings. He also appears in the Book of Esdras in which Esdras has to answer important questions and God sends those answers through Uriel. In the Christian tradition he helps the Holy Family through their flight into Egypt. "He stands over the gate of heaven and watches over thunder and terror". In Christian iconography he is often depicted carrying either a book or a scroll, both of which represent wisdom. Another symbol connected with Uriel is an open hand holding a flame, which represents God’s truth.

Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini

In Christian theology, as it evolved during the Middle Ages, thanks to the great minds of Pseudo-Dionysius (On the Celestial Hierarchy) and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) we can divide the different angelic spheres into different categories. Of course these Medieval philosophers did not operate out of their fantasy but on sound theological proof.
Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father,] far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion,.... (Eph 1:21) 
For by him [the Son] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Col 1:16) 
And having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:15).
The definitive classification system is the fruit of several theologians, from Saint Jerome and Saint Ambrose to Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Thomas Aquinas. We can divide the angelic host, the choirs of angels, into nine orders divided into three triads of three each. Above of all of them are the four Archangels, of whom Michael is the head of the whole company, it has to be mentioned that they are different from the archangels in the third triad as they are Archangels with capital letter. This great congregation of angels adores and glorifies the Holy Trinity in a turmoil of love in heaven, here is the hierarchy:

Interestingly, the angelic hierarchy can be also divided according to the colours of the angels' wings:

Detail of the Annunciation by Lorenzo Monaco in Santa Trinita in Florence

In the first sphere, right under the Archangels, are the heavenly servants of God, those who are closest to the Trinity.

The first sphere

1) The Seraphim, which literally means "the burning ones", first mentioned in Isaiah, are the highest angelic class and they take care of God's throne, they adore, glorify and sing incessant hosannas, they are fiery six-winged angels, two wings cover their faces, the other two cover their feet and the last two are used for flying.
2) The Cherubim, first mentioned in Isaiah are the guardians of the holy throne of God and the tree of life. In traditional iconography (like the evangelists) they have four faces, those of an ox, a lion, a man and an eagle and four wings, in later Medieval iconography they began to be represented as putti looking like angels, in this case the wings are their iconographical mark.
3) The Thrones, mentioned by Saint Paul in the Letter to the Colossians are the living symbol of God's justice, power and authority, among their symbols is in fact a throne. They can probably be associated with the Ophanim angels in the Book of Daniel. They are represented as a beryl-coloured sort of wheel of wings, their rims are covered with hundreds of eyes. They are closely connected with the cherubim, sometimes they are associated with the twenty four elders of the Revelation and are represented as adoring elders who listen to the will of God and present the prayers of men.

In the second sphere are the heavenly "governors of the creation" who subject matter and guide the spirits.

The second sphere

4) The Dominions or Lordships, found in the letters of Paul regulate the duties of lower angels, they rarely make themselves known to humans. They look like beautiful humans with a pair of wings, just like we imagine angels. Sometimes they have orbs of lights fastened to their swords and sceptres.
5) The Virtues or Strongholds, found in the Letter to the Ephesians are those through whom signs and miracles are made visible in the world, they have control over the movements of celestial bodies, the weather and nature. They are closely interlaced with saints because of their role. They look like the Dominions. They usually hold a sceptre and an orb.
6) The Powers or Authorities, again found in the Letter to the Ephesians, are warrior angels, they are opposed to evil spirits and demons which are cast down by them. They also distribute power among the human race. They are represented as soldiers with full armours, helmets but also with weapons like spears and shields. They supervise the world and maintain order in it.

In the third and last sphere are the angels that directly act as guides, protectors and messengers to mankind. Angels in these categories look like the way we have always imagined them, with large white cloths and a pair of feathery wings.

The third sphere

7) The Principalities or Rulers, found in the Letter to the Ephesians, are the angels that guide and protect individual nations, groups of people and institutions such as the Church. They preside over lower bands of angels and charge them with the orders coming from above, some of them minister, other assist. They carry their orders to the main groups of people on earth, they are thought of as guardians of the realms of earth. They also inspire the arts and science. They are usually are represented with crowns and sceptres.
8) The archangels, it is the same order to which it belongs the ruler of the heavenly host: Michael and the other three Archangels. Since they are at a higher level, they are also seraphs above all other seraphs, and therefore Archangels with capital letter as opposed to the other archangels in this category. The word comes from the New Testament, from 1 Thessalonians and Jude to be precise. The archangels are the direct guardian angels of nations countries and personally deal with politics, military matters, commerce and trade, but also with tricks played by demons on mankind, which they protect and guide in special cases. They look like "regular" two winged angels.
9) The Angels are the lowest order of angels. They are the ones concerned with the affairs of singular living things, they are regular messengers to mankind. Guardian angels come from this class, they guard upon single humans.

Christ in glory with Angels, Renaissance master in the Church of the Crocifisso and Gonfalone in Fano

I think it is a moving thought to be protected and guarded by such a heavenly host, directly linked with God, who was so good to give us such a heavenly host of pure and good hearted creatures, serving Him, to our own good, bringing love, protecting us and bringing us on the right path. From our own personal, guardian angels to the great Archangels. It is a comforting thought and it certainly moves each and everyone of us if we stop and think about it. Angels have always been present at important moments like the Annunciation of our Lord, they are central beings in the story of God's manifestation to mankind but also to our own personal life, it is not a case if in Christian iconography the most touching moments of the lives of saints when they were still human beings were surrounded by comforting or cheering angels. Each one of us is helped by these great and pure creatures, and the love and protection of God are manifest through them, and when this happens to all of us, it is in the forms of the great angel saints. On this their feast day let us give thanks to the great heavenly host, to all angels from Michael to our own personal guardian angel, let us praise them, let us praise them and God, while they protect, guide us and praise God. One of the most beautiful canticles of Medieval Christianity is indeed the Te Deum, so dear to us Anglicans. There is one great point about it, it is that we are not singing it, or better, we are, but we are not alone, when we utter, sing, its words, we are actually doing it with the whole company of heaven, in that very moment, we have to imagine the sky open upon us, and together with their celestial voices we will have a mystic vision of heaven: To thee all Angels cry aloud; the Heavens, and all the Powers therein; To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory!

Music making angels - detail from the East Window at York Minster

Personally I love this Feast of Michaelmas, in old England it signed the beginning of the working year, it still does in Oxbridge, it all started in between the 5th and 8th century in Rome, when a basilica dedicated to the holy angels was consecrated in Rome, a huge celebration followed and today it still is here. I feel very lucky to live in Rome, after many centuries the city still keeps a strong link with angels.
The feast of Michaelmas is the only angel's feast that is mentioned before the 9th century, it was provided for in the Sacramentary of Pope Leo I, in the middle of the fifth century. Originally the feast had reference, and probably took its rise from, the dedication of a church, long since lost, in the suburbs of Rome. It was a very popular festival at Rome, for in the Sacramentary there are set down five forms of service for its celebration. Other commemorations of Saint Michael were observed in Constantinople on November 8, Eastern Christians still celebrate the feast on this day, in connection with an appearance of the Archangel on Mt. Garganus in Apulia. In the calendar of the Roman Church, September 29 is the Dedicatio S. Michaelis Archangeli, an abbreviation of the old designation Dedicatio basilicae St. Michaelis Archangeli, which connects the festival with the dedication of the church, referred to above. The calendars of the Sarum Missal and Breviary, have simply, Michael Archangeli, and this commemoration of St. Michael alone, apart from the addition "and all Angels", is found in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer from 1549 to 1662; when for the first time, at the last revision of the Prayer Book, the addition "and all Angels" there appears.
Pope Paul V (A.D. 1605-1621), at the request of Ferdinand, afterwards Emperor of Austria, added to the Roman calendar the festival of the Guardian Angels, Angelorum Custodum, to be observed on October 2. The collect for Michaelmas may be traced to the Sacramentary of Gregory, and it is most interesting to find that, in a sermon of that great bishop, for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, there should be so much which illustrates the first clause of the collect. "Gregory is preaching on the Gosepl of the day, which consisted then, as it does now, of the two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He gets to the subject of the angels in expounding the latter parable. Nine of the pieces of silver represent the nine orders of the unfallen angels, while the tenth (or lost) piece represents the human race, which by the fall was lost to God. The notion that there are nine orders is borrowed by Dyoniysius as we mentioned previously. And the collect goes "O Everlasting God, Who hast constituted the services of angels and men in a wonderful order" refers to this. It is related by Isaac Walton in his biography of Richard Hooker, that this great Churchman passed away contemplating the divine order in the heavenly places, with the words on his lips: "I am mediating the number and nature of angels, and their blessed obedience and order, without which peace would not be heaven, and oh, that it might be so on earth!" In his famous Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker speaks of the holy angels as "in number and order they are huge, mighty, and royal armies. In the chapel at New College, Oxford, are a beautiful series of windows, depicting members of the nine choirs of angels. The colour for Michaelmas is white.
As aforementioned Rome is home of several locations dedicated to angels, here are the main ones:

Sant'Angelo in Pescheria

The oldest (still-standing) church dedicated to Saint Michael was Sant'Angelo in Pescheria (8th century) in the Jewish Ghetto, it was built inside the ancient Portico d'Ottavia, where, according to legend, Saint Michael appeared.

Saint Mary of all Angels and Martyrs

In 1561 the former Baths of Diocletian were transformed by Michelangelo (nonetheless) into a great basilica dedicated to Angels and Martyrs.

The Castle Sant'Angelo and Bernini's Angels' Bridge

Another place in Rome where the role of angels is central is the former Mausoleum of Hadrian, the Castle Sant'Angelo. Dedicated to Saint Michael when he appeared on top of it twice, once to report the end of the plague of 590 and another when Pope Gregory I had heard that Romans, even Christians, were revering and old Pagan idol which was smitten to the ground by thunders. Today a gigantic statue of the angel saint shines over its top. Also, the bridge is renowned for its Angels' Bridge by Bernini, decorated with statues of angels that welcome pilgrims to the Christian side of the river.

Guido Reni's Saint Michael

Last but not least, Rome is home of the most famous art work portraying Saint Michael, the beautiful masterpiece by Guido Reni in Sant'Immacolata dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto. A spectacular, sensual Baroque masterpiece that elegantly shows the power of God's goodness over evil.

My church, All Saints' Anglican Church, has a spectacular window by Clayton&Bell in the Lady Chapel, it represents the Archangels Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Zadkiel and Chamael.

Collage of angels to be found in Rome

Today in Rome we can see angels everywhere, in churches, bridges and in all sorts of works of art: from annunciations, to nativities, they are everywhere. To remind us that as they were present in those cases, to glorify God or comfort the saints, they are also always with us.
May Saint Michael protect you, may Saint Gabriel guide you, may Saint Raphael restore you, and may Christ the fair glory and the holy angels bless all of us.

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