Rorate Caeli

Michaelmas Sermon: Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.

Editor's  Note: From Rorate,  a wish of a very happy Michaelmas to all our readers!

Sermon for the Feast of
Saint Michael the Archangel

It was just after time was created from eternity, when even before the earth was created, in fact long before that, that heaven was created, as that place to receive those in time into eternity, Come ye blessed of my Father and inherit the Kingdom. But to create something out of nothing, this act must  entail a risk, a risk that what has been created as good, what has been created from Love itself, may turn away from love and exult in its own being as being created.  And there were only the created spirits, those later called angels, who were created to give glory to God, these were the inhabitants of this created heaven, whose purpose was the eternal praise and worship of God. And one of these created beings, one of these angels, discovered his freedom, his freedom given by God his creator, but he realized that this freedom gave him the power to say No. And so this is what he said to God: Non serviam. I will not serve you. To serve is to be a slave and I will not be the slave of God. Non serviam.  The ultimate words against the creation by Love for Love.  

 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought,  but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—

And it is Michael who personally fights against the dragon who is Lucifer, Lucifer who chose darkness instead of light, and it is Michael the Archangel who defeats Lucifer who has become a dragon, the anti-Christ, and it is Michael before the final blow that defeats the devil asks the question of Lucifer himself,  "Who is like God?"  And this question is what Michael’s name means.  And it is with this question that this great Archangel and warrior hurls Lucifer into that hell then created for those whose lives say:  Non serviam.

The Garden was perfect. There was no need to work. The only obligation was to be, to be in this paradise created for the first man and woman. This special place had been created by God for the man and woman made in his own image.  Male and female he created them.  And God loved this man and woman he had created In his own image and because he loved them he gave them free rein over everything in the garden, everything except one tree, the Tree of Knowledge, for God knew that to eat of this fruit would be the end of their innocence and bring in the power of death, that power of Lucifer.  So one day she was walking by this tree, and a serpent spoke to her.  She probably thought that it was unusual for a serpent to speak. But one has to be open to such things.  

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?”  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden;  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
You will be like God.  You will be like God. The ultimate temptation. The ultimate temptation that leads to sin and death.  But there is no champion present in this garden.  The test of the man and the woman made in the image of God must be made in the silence of freedom.  But the silence is broken by the laughter of the devil that rang through hell at this very moment in time.

It was  the seventh century and a Benedictine monk had been elected Pope by the name of Gregory.  He had to deal with the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire. The city was in terrible shape. There was no civil government that could bring order out of chaos.  So this Benedictine monk who never asked to become the bishop of Rome had to become not only the spiritual leader of the city of Rome but also its secular leader. The heart of the faith of the people was the Mass that had developed in form from the time of the Apostles, and the Mass celebrated by Pope Gregory already in the seventh century was essentially in form and substance the Mass we celebrate here today.  To make his task even more onerous a terrible plague broke out in Rome. Thousands were dying.  So Gregory organized a procession through the streets of Rome imploring God through the intercession of the martyr saints of Rome to end this terrible plague.  And as they passed the emperor Hadrian’s tomb near the Tiber, Gregory saw a vision of Saint Michael the Archangel over the tomb in which the Archangel put his sword into its sheath.  And Gregory understood that the prayers of the people had been answered and the plague ceased.  And Hadrian’s magnificent tomb was renamed Castel Sant’ Angelo, the fortress of the Holy Angel.

I knew I was dying. The illness had not been long, but at my age it took its toll. This is the time when the question of faith becomes deeply existential and real.  It is easy when one is young and healthy to mumble words in a creed about the resurrection of the dead.  It is not that one does not believe it, but it is not something urgent, of the moment. It is always in the future. But there I lay now surrounded by my family and some friends.  There was a moment of deep weakness, when I lost my sense of my surroundings, and I knew that the most important event in my life was about to happen.  The prayer to St Michael fixed itself in my brain: St Michael the Archangel defend us in battle. Yes, the ultimate battle is at death, when the fallen angel, Satan, and minions, try to claim the body and soul of one who has died.  There was war in heaven.  And now there is war as I die from time into eternity. And as a priest I remembered so vividly the words I read at every Requiem Mass at the Offertory.  

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,deliver the souls of all the faithful departedfrom the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit:deliver them from the lion's mouth,that hell swallow them not up,that they fall not into darknessbut let the standard-bearer holy Michaellead them into that holy light: Which thou didst promise of old to Abraham and to his seed.

And then I died.  I entered into a blackness, but I could hear a furious activity that sounded like beating wings.  I became frightened.  But then I saw in the distance a light that penetrated the darkness and the noise. And as the light approached I saw the Archangel Michael fighting off the powers of darkness with his sword.  And he grasped me in his arms and carried me towards the light from which he had come.  And I became aware, oh, so intensely aware, of the prayers of so many I knew speeding me on towards the light,  I heard the many Masses that were said and would be said for me like a chorus that combined the chant I knew and loved with the music of Josquin, of Ockegham, of Victoria, of Mozart, of Fauré, of Duruflé. And Michael held me and brought me to the place, or rather the state, where the residue of my sins would be scoured.  And then I understood the reality of hope and its meaning for life.  And more than this I cannot say.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla