At the end of September, we celebrate a feast of angels. Since 1970, western Catholics have celebrated the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels on Sept. 29. Prior to 1970, before changes in the church calendar following the Second Vatican Council, each of these angels had separate feast days.
In the Eastern Catholic and the Orthodox churches of the East, there has long been a single feast honoring all the angels. It is called the “Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers” and falls on Nov. 8. (“Synaxis” comes from a Greek word meaning a liturgical celebration, usually including Mass as well as the Liturgy of the Hours.)
The Eastern-rite feast dates back to the fourth or fifth century. At that time, a book on the “celestial powers” was written by one Dionysius. He was credited with being a disciple of Paul. However, since this Dionysius’ writing was much later than the time Paul’s Dionysius lived, this writer is now called Pseudo-Dionysius.
His ideas joined with other traditions and, by the time Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) wrote on the topic, the “nine choirs of angels” had been delineated. These choirs included seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels.
Since there are nine choirs of angels, the Eastern churches decided it was best to honor them in the ninth month. (At that time, the New Year was observed in March.) The eighth day of the month was chosen because “the eighth day” is traditionally “the day of the Lord.” Also, in Eastern church traditions, the “Day of the Dread Judgment” or the Last Judgment — when the angels will gather all creation before God’s throne — will fall on “the eighth day.”
In the Western church, the first celebration for a group of angels was the feast of the Guardian Angels (Oct. 2), which dates to 1608. Pope Paul V seems to have chosen the date of Sept. 27 for this feast, because it was near the St. Michael’s feastfday (which was then Sept. 29). About 70 years later, Pope Clement X moved the Guardian Angels feast to Oct. 2.
Others feasts of individual archangels also developed, sometimes several feasts for one angel.
Sept. 29 originally belonged just to St. Michael. It dates to both the sixth and the eighth centuries and dedications of two different churches in Michael’s honor in Rome. Those dedications were on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30. Michael’s feast day was also called Michaelmas.
All the named angels in the Bible and Christian tradition have names that include “El,” the Hebrew word for “God.” Michael’s name can be taken as a question: “Who is like God?”
Because of the tradition that Michael led the heavenly hosts against Lucifer’s revolt, this angel is called the military leader of angels. In the Eastern Church, his title is archistrategos or “chief general.”
However, there have been other feast days for St. Michael. These were often related to reported appearances of the archangel.
In France, the archangel was honored at Mont-Saint-Michel on Oct. 16, because he was said to have appeared there. Another appearance by the angel, at Mount Gargano in Apulia, Italy, was honored on May 8. Christians in Ethopia still honor Michael on May 8, while Coptic Christians honor him on June 19.
In Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), Michael was known as a healer and had a shrine — called the Michaelion — there. He was said to have appeared to the Emperor Constantine at the spot in the fourth century. Sick people would sleep in the shrine overnight on the eve of the angel’s feast day of June 9.
The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes a feast of Michael on Sept. 6 for the Greek Orthodox, marking yet another appearance at a spring in Colossae. Christians in Egypt also linked the River Nile to Michael and honored him on the 12th of each month, but most especially on June 12, when the river traditionally begins to rise.
St. Gabriel the Archangel was honored on March 24 before 1970. Since he is the angel of the Annunciation and the Annunciation feast is March 25, he was honored the day before. Gabriel’s feast was not officially added to the Western church’s calendar until 1921.
Gabriel is mentioned four times in the Bible — appearing twice to the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament and to Mary and to the father of John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel. However, Christian tradition also says he appeared to Joseph and to the shepherds, and strengthened Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Gabriel’s name means “God is my strength.” However, surprisingly, there is more to his name. It can also mean “the warrior, or hero, of God.” Most Western art depicts Gabriel as mild and gentle, often holding a lily. Yet in icons of the Eastern Church, Gabriel and Michael often appear as armed guardians of humanity. And the “Catholic Encyclopedia” says that Jewish tradition cites Gabriel as the angel who destroyed Sodom at God’s command.
The Coptic Church honors Gabriel on June 20.
St. Raphael was traditionally honored on Oct. 24, though his feast — like Gabriel’s — did not become part of the church calendar until 1921. Raphael does not appear in the New Testament, only in the Old Testament as the companion of Tobias in the Book of Tobit. His name means “God has healed.” With Tobias’ story, we can see Raphael as the model for all guardian angels, since he travels with Tobias and protects both him and his wife, Sarah, from the demon Asmodeus.
Raphael’s reputation as a healer comes from the same story, when he shows Tobias how to heal Tobit of blindness. Tobias uses the gall from a fish that Raphael had helped him catch.
While Catholic tradition only names three archangels, from Raphael’s own words, we know that there are seven archangels. He tells Tobit and Tobias: “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the glory of the Lord” (Tb 12:15).
Names of these other archangels are not really known, since they differ in various apocryphal sources. However, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches consistently name one of these as Uriel, “the light, or fire, of God.” For those in the East, this archangel is the one who reveals divine knowledge. His statue often appears in religious good stores and he holds a flame.
In the Ethiopian church, Uriel is honored July 11, while Coptic Christians honor him July 15. Jewish tradition also names Uriel as an archangel. And the Anglican Communion honors Uriel as the patron of the sacrament of confirmation.
As we reflect on the feasts the archangels (or “bodiless powers”), we should remember, as the late Eastern Orthodox mystic, Archimandrite Kiril Pavlov did, as we believe in angels, we “call upon them in our prayers and emulate them according to our strength in our earthly lives, so that when we leave this world we might be worthy of a place with them.”
Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia”; Greek Orthodox Church in America at goarch.org; Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; romereprots.com; Lives of the Saints at ewtn.com; catholicism.org; communion.stblogs.org; lit.royaldoors.net; and “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of Heaven.”