While many of us think that the feast of the archangels is past for this year, there is a feast of archangels celebrated today, Nov. 8. In the church in the West, the archangels are celebrated on Sept. 29; in the church of the East, Nov. 8 is the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers.” (“Synaxis” comes from a Greek word meaning a liturgical celebration, usually including Mass as well as the Liturgy of the Hours.)
In the West, we recognize three archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. However, in the book of Tobit, Raphael identifies himself as “one of the seven who stand before God” (12:15), giving rise to the tradition of seven archangels.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” also cites Jewish tradition of seven archangels, based on the non-canonical Book of Enoch. These include our three, along with Uriel, Raguel, Sariel and Jerahmeel. The Orthodox Church in America lists an additional five angels (Making eight total) as Uriel, Selaphiel, Jehudiel, Barachiel and Jeremiel.
The names vary, although the addition of Uriel seems most prevalent. His name — “Fire of God” — implies his role, which is most often as the messenger of divine knowledge. Of course, all angels are messengers. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, citing St. Augustine, “If you seek the name of (angels’) nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit,’ from what they do, ‘angel.’”
When we think of angels, we often imagine them as beautiful, brightly robed and, of course, with wings. Wings symbolize messengers. In fact, since angels are pure spirit, their normal state would not include a body, much less wings. With their whole beings, angels are the “mighty ones who do (God’s) word” (CCC, n. 329).
In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, these “mighty ones” are called “bodiless powers,” to focus more on their work rather than their appearance. Angels are guardians, governors, worshippers of God and, yes, messengers. There are traditionally nine choirs of them: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. These choirs have a ranking, with seraphim as closest to God and archangels and angels as farthest down the list.
Then how did Michael, a lower angel, become the commander of the “bodiless powers?” In both Eastern and Western Christian traditions — as well as Jewish texts — Michael is the leader of the angels. In the East, he is called archistrategos or “chief general.”
It turns out that, while Michael started as a “lower” angel, he earned his higher ranking the hard way.
We know how Michael drove Lucifer (originally a very high ranking angel, whose name meant “light-bringer”) and the other fallen angels from heaven. This appears in the Book of Revelation (12:7) as a great battle in heaven at the beginning of time, when “Michael and his angels fought the dragon.”
Jewish tradition holds that Michael was indeed a lesser angel when Lucifer and other great angels defied God. Lucifer (also called “Satan”) had become so proud that he challenged God for control of heaven.
Other Jewish writers say matters came to a head when God revealed his plan to redeem humanity through a woman (Mary) and by God’s son becoming a man. Since this meant that angels would have to kneel before human beings, proud Lucifer refused.
Basically, Lucifer said God was wrong and Lucifer knew better. So Lucifer deserved to take God’s place.
Michael was so outraged at Lucifer that he rose up with his battle cry — also his name — “Who is like God?” and challenged Lucifer. Michael led other angels to God’s throne and, from there, drove Lucifer and his followers from heaven.
Because of his great zeal — and one can presume, at great risk to himself — God named Michael as commander of the heavenly hosts.
Gabriel and Raphael are the only other archangels found in Scripture.
Raphael, in Scripture, helps Tobit and his father, Tobias. While we often think of Raphael as a companion of travelers and a healer, he also battles fallen angels. In Tobit, he binds the demon, Asmodeus, so that this fallen angel cannot kill Tobit, as it had done with the other husbands of Sarah.
Gabriel is known as the angel of the Annunciation. However, he also has a warrior side. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” says Jewish tradition credits Gabriel as the angel who destroyed both Sodom and the host of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, when he attacked Jerusalem (2 Chronicles).
So angels are more than our familiar images of winged beings. They possess many dimensions and powers, with or without any physical bodies.
This brings us back to Nov. 8 and “the bodiless powers.” The Orthodox Church in America explains that the Nov. 8 date should remind us of the vast number of angels and of their roles now and into the future for two reasons:
n November was originally the ninth month of the year and there are nine choirs of angels. (It was 1582, before the church formally accepted Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day.);
n Nov. 8 was chosen because of the significance of “the eighth day.” It is traditionally the “Day of the Lord,” a phrase indicating both eternity and “the day of judgment.” On the Day of the Lord, the angels will gather the souls of the just and the unjust to behold the Lord coming in glory, attended by heavenly powers.
Remembering those heavenly powers on the eighth day of the ninth month reminds us that the bodiless powers serve God’s will now and until the end of time.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Orthodox Russia” vol. 22 at holy-transfiguration.org; “Orthodox Saints, vol. 4”; Greek Orthodox Church in America at goarch.org; Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; “Angels according to Orthodox Tradition” at Mystagogy weblog; catholicculture.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in spring 2014.