If there’s one thing we’re learning as a culture it’s that the world is a far more complicated place than we’ve understood it to be. A simple world is one we can get our heads around, a world of obvious binaries of right and wrong, heroes and villains, male and female, animate and inanimate, even ‘here’ and ‘there’. And yet, that isn’t the world we live in. Things are rarely what they appear to be.
Today is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, a day when the Church calendar reminds us that Christianity too has long told us the world is more complicated than our eyes and minds would have us believe.
In the Scriptures are are many stories where people have seen something invisible to the ‘normal’, naked eye: Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder stretching to the heavens and James, John, and Peter seeing Jesus shine in his pure uncreated glory on the mount of the Transfiguration are two such stories. Our tradition tells us that these stories are neither miracles of physical sight nor of imagination, but a glimpse behind the veil, a gift of seeing the world as it really is, in all its complexity.
If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that this idea has become an important part of my understanding of faith and the spiritual life: that every tree can become for us a burning bush and every human face we encounter can become for us an icon of Christ if we have eyes to see. All of creation has the capacity to be a theophany, a revelation of God and an unveiling of what’s present beyond the veil of our five senses.
And so it’s fitting that one of the readings appointed for today comes from the book of Revelation, or as its Greek name would have it, the Apocalypse: the Unveiling. We tend to think of the apocalypse as “the end,” but it is less about the ending than it is about a radical revelation of things as they are; it’s like ripping off a bandage, exposing the gaping wounds for all to see; or, opening up an old piece of clockwork and seeing the gears and cogs that make it tick. Because apocalyptic literature speaks of deep existential and metaphysical truths too vast and complex for our understanding, it speaks to us through its own symbolic language. It speaks to a particular historical moment — in the case of the book of Revelation, a period of persecution facing seven churches in what is now western Turkey — but simultaneously of invisible forces that are always at work in the world, what the New Testament elsewhere refers to as “principalities and powers” and “thrones.”
The reading today from the Apocalypse (12.7-12), has the Archangel Michael and the angelic army defeating Satan and casting him down to earth. Like a wounded animal, Satan lashes out, inflicting as much damage as he can. In context, the story serves to comfort the faithful in the Seven Churches of Asia. They are experiencing a violent persecution, but they aren’t to despair: it’s just the last gasp of a war that’s already been won.
This is a sadly evergreen message in our world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every generation has seen itself if this story, caught in the death throes of the old world and its powers, Molech — violence — and Mammon — greed. And so it’s expected — and good and right — if we too see ourselves in it, as we witness Mammon and his worshipers destroying the world and its future in the vain pursuit of lining their already overstuffed wallets. The message is the same for us now as it was for the Seven Churches two thousand years ago: Keep the faith; the victory has already been won, whether it looks like it or not.
The danger is real; but despair is not the answer. Beyond the veil of blood and tears that is our world, God is at work.
And this is the promise offered by today’s feast: a reminder that there is more to the world than meets the eye. That beyond the veil, in ways we cannot see or comprehend our broken world is being healed, the battles that feel like lost causes have been won, and the whole world is alive and declares the glory of God. It doesn’t lessen our present danger or mean that we don’t need to act within our circumstances, but offers a reassuring hand on our shoulder: we aren’t alone and we can’t see the whole picture.
As the Apostle Paul reminded the faithful in Rome just a few decades before John sent his letter to the churches in Asia, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And,
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And on this feast of St. Michael and All Angels, to this, let the angels of the churches say Amen.