"Who Is Like God?" : Honoring the Archangel Michael's Humility
Reflections upon the Feast of St. Michael
September 29 has traditionally been celebrated as Michelmas, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. St. Michael, along with Sts. Raphael and Gabriel, is one of only three angels named in Scripture. Each used to be commemorated on his own feast day, but in the modern calendar, the feasts of each are combined into the feast of the archangels.
The change was perhaps an unfortunate one, for we should have more celebration of saints’ days and not fewer, and the named archangels are well worth reflecting on individually. Indeed, it has been one of the joys of historically Catholic countries that saints’ days offered so many opportunities for relaxation, leisure, and celebration.
The modern industrial world, of course, doesn’t want such things. Too many holidays and celebrations are unprofitable. They distract the workers from their labor.
Nonetheless, we should celebrate (and pray to) St. Michael, who is an ideal saint for our times. In the Old Testament, St. Michael is the protector of Israel. He defended the Maccabees in their rebellion against the heathen Seleucid dynasty, when they wanted to force the Jews to worship false gods. He came to Daniel in a vision to prepare the Jews for the end of their Babylonian captivity.
St. Michael is the warrior of God and chief of heaven’s hosts. His original position among the angels is a matter of debate among Church scholars and saints: St. Thomas Aquinas called him the prince of the lowest choir (the angels), while St. Basil and St. Robert Bellarmine placed him as the prince of all angels (“arch” meaning “highest”).
Catholics have generally followed Aquinas in thinking of him as originating from the lowest choirs of the angels or archangels. And it is a fitting that we do so. For this would give witness to the truth of exaltavit humiles, and the idea that God chooses the lowly to shame the proud. According to Thomas Aquinas, the angels fell into the following orders from highest to lowest:
When Lucifer issued his famous non serviam—“I will not serve”—and refused to bend the knee to God, it was the angel Michael who shamed the devil. Lucifer is commonly believed to have been a seraph, a member of the highest order of angels. Yet, that honor was not enough. He would not adore God; rather, he wished to become like God, the very sin to which he later tempted Adam and Eve.
But in reply to Lucifer's pride and refusal to serve, one angel knelt before God and cried, “Who is like God?” in rebuke to the devil. This is the origin and meaning of the name, “Michael.”
And so Michael, knowing himself to be nothing next to God, became the leader of heaven’s armies and drove the devil from heaven. His willingness to serve God, and to recognize that there is none other like God, is an act of obedience and humility to shame the pride of the devil. And so God allowed him to cast the devil and the rebel angels from heaven.
Ever since, throughout history, he has battled the devil and his minions, and will still do so today if we ask him. So that we would ask him, Pope Leo XIII composed a special prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. In the 1880’s, the Pope had a vision of demonic spirits gathering against Rome; according to some accounts, the devil was to be permitted 100 years to launch his strongest attack yet on the Church. What the Pope saw in that vision left him shaken and caused him to write the prayer begging St. Michael’s intercession, ordering it said after all Low Masses.
The prayer has fallen out of favor today in some more modern circles, and that is a great shame. St. Michael is a warrior angel, and the leader of heaven’s armies. In the St. Michael prayer, we ask the saint to “defend us in battle.” Military imagery is unpopular today. We often do not like the reminder that we are at war. Recognizing that we are indeed at war would force us to place ourselves on wartime footing. It would force us to sacrifice comforts, to face the realities of battle and the cost of victory. It would force us to reevaluate our lives, to train, to discipline, and to be ready to battle the enemy. For the enemy is always on the attack: St. Peter warned us that he “goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
We are in battle, and wishing it away or ignoring it will not make it go away. We ignore it at our peril. And in that battle against sin and hell and all the damage the evil spirits can do and are doing in our lives, our Church, and our world, we rightly pray:
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle…