Commentary on the Readings
Feast of the Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (September 29)
Angel: anyone who is a mediator of God’s tenderness
We can run the risk of reducing the message of today’s Gospel to a lesson of good manners, to remember to say ‘thank you’ to those who help us. The SamaritanIn the collective imagination, the angel has a well-defined character and those who paint him must adhere to certain pre-established canons. An angel with hippy traits, tail, tattoo on his arm and jeans would have little chance of being accepted, not only by the more traditionalist parish priests but also by the less bigoted faithful. The angel has to radiate a bright light, has wings, flowing hair and the soft features, but still male because no angel has a woman’s name. Painting an angel with shoes would be the grossest error a painter would commit: an angel flies, not walk.
To us heirs of the Enlightenment and positivist culture, this ethereal figure appears more than a real being, a naive, archaic pre-modern legacy; a regression to the world of childhood fairy tales where gnomes, fairies, and elves enter the scene. In the era of science and technology, faith in angels would seem destined to a rapid decline. However, here it is re-emerging and fashionable again. Surveys show that 60% of Italians are convinced to be assisted by a guardian angel, 50% say they talk to him and 6% calls for their protection from accidents.
“You are an angel!” We all have heard this compliment at least once: from a friend to whom we have given a hand at a difficult time; from an office colleague, delighted in seeing us react to an offense with a smile and calm words, by a married couple we helped to reconcile; by a wife to whom we brought coffee in bed caressing her as she sipped it.
“You are an angel.” Is it just a figure of speech, an image, a metaphor? No, it is a reality—today’s readings tell us.
The angel was born to fill a distance. The Hebrew word mal’ak comes from the root la’ak that means to send and is attributed to anyone who is sent to convey a message, gather information or take a specific action in the name of an agent. The Bible does not make any distinction between people’s envoys and God’s. Anyone who goes between people or between distant communities or between God and people is called mal’ak—angel.
Even when the sacred text gives a name to the messengers of God, it is difficult to determine whether it points to real characters, to spirits who assumed human forms, or if one uses an image, a personification to describe the ineffable experience of divine intervention in people’s favor.
The feast of the archangels is an invitation for us to turn around and to recognize the angels who are at our side. They do not move with wings, but guide with caution; they are serene and kind even when the traffic is not flowing. They do not wear a bright robe, but the sari of Mother Teresa, the gown of the doctor, the worker’s suit or jeans of a young priest of the Oratory. And if they do not have shoes it is because they removed them to offer them to the poor.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Lord—that I may be your angel.”
This reading has already been commented on in the feast of the Transfiguration (you can refer to it to have a more detailed explanation of the text). Today, it is resumed because in v. 10 it speaks of the heavenly court: “A river of fire sprang forth and flowed before him. Thousands upon thousands served him and a countless multitude stood before him. Those in the tribunal took their seats and opened their book.”
In ancient times God was imagined as a great ruler who had his dwelling in heaven, in a palatial home located above the clouds. It was believed that, like all the glorious Eastern kings, he, too, was surrounded by bodyguards. The fearful and reverent servants prostrate in adoration before him. They sang his praises, attentive to his desires, promptly execute his commands and ready to fight his enemies.
Israel has shared these convictions with the neighboring peoples. She attributed various names to the divine beings who are at the Lord’s side. She called them “the saints” (Ps 89: 6; Dan 4:10), “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1), “angels, mighty executors of his commands … his hosts, his ministers” (Ps 103:20), and has even called them “gods” (Ps 8:6).
To some of these most prominent celestial figures, specific names were given—Raphael, Gabriel, Michael—and were also entrusted a particular task.
In the book of Tobit, the guardian angel appears for the first time. By the Lord’s will, he guards over people entrusted to him (Tb 3:17; 12:17-20). Raphael is in charge of accompanying Tobias along his journey. He frees Sara of the demons and places her in a position to be a happy bride. Then he cures the elderly Tobit from blindness and, at the end of the story, reveals his identity: “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who represent the prayers of holy people and who stand before the glory of God” (Tob 12:15).
There are other two archangels spoken of in the book of Daniel. Gabriel is the interpreter of visions. He announces the imminent end of the world of wickedness and the beginning of the new times (Dn 8:15-16; 9:21-27). It is he who, in the Gospel of Luke, was commissioned to announce to Mary that she was chosen to become the mother of the Savior (Lk 1:26-38).
Michael is the guardian angel of God’s people (Dan 10:21; 12:1) and the symbol of the forces of good fighting against evil. This mysterious and dramatic conflict is described in the book of Daniel (10:12-21) and in Revelation (Rev 12:7-12).
Why these names?
Michael means, “Who is like God?” It is a question that on this feast is addressed to each of us and the answer is obvious: “No one!” There is none that can equal the Lord. In the Bible, the call of God often recurs: “I am the Lord, there is no other savior but me” (Is 43:11; Hos 13:4); and Israel has experienced it. Every time she abandoned her God and put her trust in other gods, she decreed her own destruction, fell into slavery, was deported in exile, and saw her land devastated.
This is what is happening today to those who prostrate themselves in adoration before the idols—the bank balance, success, power—convinced that they will give them more than what the Lord is able to grant. They will be disappointed.
“No one is like God.” Michael is a reminder, a warning against the danger of worshiping the things of this world. Even the most sacred institutions like the family, the church community, political or religious authorities are not God. They should be given their right value; they must be valued but woe to attribute to them an honor, a cult, a veneration that belong only to God. We would render them a disservice; we would deprive them of their nature. “No one is God”—is Michael’s message on today’s feast.
Raphael means “God cares.” With this name, we are reminded of another truth of our faith: the God in whom we believe is the one who comes close to those who are sick, and heals him.
The disease that causes suffering and prevents one to live is not just physical. There are moral diseases, situations of spiritual weakness, painful and humiliating injuries and wounds of the soul, that take away the joy and sometimes even the will to live.
Man desperately seeks healing and he cannot find a way to break free from what oppresses him, he is discouraged, resigns or swears at the inscrutable fate.
Today’s feast reminds us that there is no disease that God cannot and does not want to heal; for him, there are no unrecoverable situations. Faced with the infirmity of his people his heart of a doctor is moved and he intervenes: “Why cry out now that you are hurt? Do you cry for your hurt? I will restore you to health and heal your wounds” (Jer 30:15-17). The psalmist assures: “He forgives all your sins and heals all your sickness;” “He heals their broken hearts and binds up their wounds” (Ps 103:3; 147:3).
Gabriel means “God is my strength.” It is the third message of this feast. Every person is called to serve a mission in the world, yet the most common experience is that of impotence, inability to carry it out. There are parents who fear they will not be able to establish a good relationship with their children; pastors who say they are unable to solve the problems of their communities; spouses who do not mend their disagreements and heal their tensions; the sick who do not have the strength to endure their condition; we all feel weak and fragile in the face of the Lord’s call.
Today’s feast wants to inspire courage in those who fear being overwhelmed by evil, reminding them that man never commits himself alone, beside him there is always God.
After reflecting on the message that comes from the names of the archangels, we also want to grasp the meaning of the functions they perform. The Bible testifies that God does not act in favor of the man directly, but through intermediaries. And these are called “angels.”
The Lord said to the people of Israel who are about to leave Egypt: “See, I am sending an Angel before you to keep you safe on the way and bring you to the place I have made ready. Be on your guard in his presence and listen to him, do not resist him…” (Ex 23:20-23). Who is this “angel” sent by the Lord? He is not an invisible spirit, but Moses, a man of flesh and blood. He is the angel in charge of freeing the people.
Even in the New Testament, we find the same image of the angel. Mark presents the Baptist as the “angel” sent before the Lord to prepare his way (Mk 1:2). Anyone who lets himself be the intermediary of God’s saving work is his “angel.”
Today’s feast is an invitation to recognize “the angels of the Lord” who are at our side. Anyone who helps us on the path of good, whoever announces his word is “an angel of the Lord.” In our turn, we are called to be “angels of the Lord” for our brothers. We are when we help them to break free from the slavery of idols (and we can make them understand that “no one is like God”), when we cure their ills (and through us “God heals them”), when we help them in times of difficulty (and so they can make the experience of the “power of God”).
Neither Michael nor Raphael is mentioned in the Gospels. Only Gabriel is remembered in the annunciation to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:19-26). This is why the liturgy has chosen a passage that mentions the “angels of God” in general. It is just a suggestion, but it is valuable. The dialogue between Jesus and Nathanael is part of the story of the first disciples’ calling.
The evangelist John relates that one day the Baptist was along the Jordan with two of his disciples. He fixed his sight on Jesus who was passing by and said: “Behold the Lamb of God.” The two disciples hearing him say so, left him to follow the young rabbi from Nazareth (Jn 1:35-39). One of them was Andrew who found his brother Simon. He immediately spoke with enthusiasm of the encounter with Jesus and brought Simon to him.
The next day Philip was involved in the group. He encountered Nathanael and told him of the sensational experience: “We have found the one that Moses wrote about in the Law, and the prophets as well: he is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”
Skeptic, Nathanael exclaimed: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip answered, “Come and see” (Jn 1:40-46).
Our passage begins at this point. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, he said of him: “Here comes an Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him” (v. 47).
Nathanael is presented as the righteous man of whom the Psalms spoke: the one who “has clean hands and pure heart” (Ps 24:4) and “in whose spirit is found no deceit” (Ps 32:2).
Although influenced by the mentality of his people and by the religious traditions inherited from his ancestors, he offered no obstacles. He is loyal, is ready to question his beliefs and be open to the newness of God. The words of Jesus capture him by surprise. He realizes to be in front of someone who can read his heart.
The evangelist John often emphasizes this knowledge that Jesus has of man’s heart: “He had no need of evidence about anyone, for he himself knew what there was in each one” (Jn 2:25).
The expression “You were under the fig tree and I saw you” is rather enigmatic. Probably it alludes to an image used by the prophet Hosea (Hos 9:10) presenting Israel as a fig tree. God saw this tree (Israel) grow lush and put the first fruits; he expected them to ripen. However, the people, betraying his expectations, abandoned herself to apostasy and became abominable.
Nathanael is an authentic Israelite, the tasty fruit that popped up among the branches of Israel. He belongs to that part of the people who remained faithful. He is ready to receive the revelation of the Messiah and in fact immediately recognizes Jesus as “the Son of God,” as the long-awaited descendant of David, as “the king of Israel.”
And so we come to the images of the “open skies” and “angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
In the Old Testament, there is a story in which the most revolutionary intuition in the history of the religions of antiquity is referred to. It is the dream of Jacob: “A ladder stood on the earth with its top reaching to the heaven and on it were the angels of God going up and coming down. Jacob woke from this dream and said: ‘It is nothing less than a House of God. It is the Gate to Heaven’” (Gen 28:10-17).
The gods of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ugarit permanently resided in heaven and on earth were represented by statues, steles, memorial stones, animals and sacred trees. In their eyes, man remained a distant and insignificant being, created to offer them sacrifices, and was often victim to their whims.
The God of Israel was completely different: he did not want to be represented by images because he communicated directly with man. Aware of this truth, the pious Israelite exclaimed emotionally: “For in truth, is there a nation as great as ours, whose gods are as near to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” (Dt 4:7).
The God of Israel wanted sky and earth closely united. The ladder planted on the ground and leaning against the sky is the sign of the bond between God and man and the possibility of permanent exchange between the two worlds.
Man can convey to the Lord his call, and the Lord may come down to visit man on earth. God and man do not live isolated, indeed, they cannot live one without the other. Since he created man, the Lord cannot be happy alone.
Who are the angels going up and down the ladder? They would have remained wrapped in mystery if Jesus had not spoken of them. To Nathanael, the true Israelite in whom there was no guile, he revealed: “Truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51).
The reference was to the dream of Jacob, but with one change: the ladder was gone, replaced by a new character, the Son of Man, Jesus himself.
Now we understand: he is the ladder that God has sent down to us and that allows us to climb up to heaven (Jn 3:13). He is the only mediator between heaven and earth (1 Tim 2:4).
Who the angels are also becomes clear: they are all those that are on the ladder that is Christ and that, united to him, they bring the divine in the world, and people to God.
These angels that bridge the gap between God and man, when they burst into our lives, they are never soft and sweet. They disturb and provoke disturbances because their mission is to change the hearts and tune them with the projects and dreams of God.
It is not difficult to recognize them when they pass us by, when they take us by the hand. They have the appearance of the only angel of God—Christ. They have his own look and his concern for the poor, his attention for the hungry, his message of hope for those who did wrong, his passion for justice and peace, his words of forgiveness, his announcement of a Father God who is only love.
Paul, who has spent his life proclaiming Christ, was conscious of being one of these angels sent from heaven. In writing to the Galatians he said: “You received me as an angel of God” (Gal 4:14).
The word of God that has been proposed in this celebration wants to remind everyone that every true disciple of Christ is an angel for his brothers and sisters.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos