Angels always point us to the One who is greater

Angels remind us that the entire universe is shot through with God’s presence and activity

The topic for this month’s column came from my patron saint himself, Michael the Archangel, by way of a dream.

I was at the Vatican, and Pope Francis was asking me to prepare an exhibit of art depicting my patron saint, Michael the Archangel. It was to open on his feast day, Sept. 29. Of course, I agreed. Later in the dream, St. Michael appeared to me.

“Greetings, Michael the Lesser of Collegeville,” he said in a lofty tone of voice. “That’s what I call you. I’m so glad that you have agreed to prepare an exhibit about me. Not that I’m looking for glory for myself. To God be the glory, for salvation and power and honor belong to God alone.

“But,” he continued, “I hope that you will show the many aspects of my saintly angelic personality, and you know that I’m not like my portrayal in the ‘Dominion’ television series on the Syfy channel. But I am a warrior against evil, and thus many artists have depicted me in military gear casting Satan into hell. Or weighing the souls of the dead in scales to see if their goodness outweighs the evil they have done. I’ve seen a New Mexican ‘retablo’ (devotional painting) that shows me doing both things at the same time!

“I like the way that bronze sculptor Joe O’Connell has portrayed the angel in my Mass chapel in the lower St. John’s Abbey Church,” he said. “There, the angel is holding a smoking censer — yes, we angels can hold fiery hot things without harm! And his face is so fully attentive to the crucified-yet-risen Christ hanging over the altar. We angels are absorbed in worshiping God — and there’s nothing that we angels would rather do!

“And I like the Byzantine icon of me where I’m dressed in a most lovely rose-colored robe, looking so serene and reflective and peaceful. As if I’m saying to myself, ‘See, God’s plans for mortals and angels have worked out so well! I’m so glad that I was part of them, by God’s power!’”

And, then, in my dream, I dared to ask St. Michael: “But which image of you is true?” He replied: “All of them, of course! When you bear the name ‘Michael,’ which means, ‘Who is like God?’ they all are true.”

Serving God

Angels are about God, not about themselves. The most prominent name in the history of angels emphasizes this. The word “Michael” literally means, “Who is like God?”; in other words, “Nobody takes the place of God, not even me.”

The language of angels says this about God: that God is to be adored and praised; that God transcends all that is human with a majesty beyond all earthly glory; that God is nonetheless present among human beings, knowing us and revealing Godself to us; that God’s power and activity are exercised here on earth, not only in heaven; that God’s power protects, supports and leads us to union with God.

To know something about angels, to speak about them, is to know something about God and speak about God.

Angels reflect the belief that there are forces in our lives beyond our comprehension — that there is a spiritual as well as a material part of our lives. Angels remind us that the entire universe is shot through with God’s presence and activity. We do not know what the angels are; we do know what they mean. Angels remind us of the unity and order of the whole creation in the service of God.

People are sometimes afflicted with a sense of loneliness on our planet, with a sense that perhaps they are just an accident in the cosmos after all. But in the Christian view of creation, we are no accident, and the angels aren’t either.

We don’t share DNA with the angels, but we share their privilege of gladly serving and worshiping the maker of heaven and earth. The teaching about angels opens our eyes to this vast, unimaginable service, as all beings and all things seek to serve God and so attain fullness of life.

There is mystery here. To attempt to eliminate the mystery is to miss the “many-splendored thing” — the vocation of angels and mortals in the service and worship of God. And to eliminate the mystery is to eliminate God, because the activity of God can best be expressed in poetry and symbols, as we learn from the sacred liturgy. All you holy angels, pray for us!