Rorate Caeli

Courage and Virtue: St. Michael the Archangel

 From the Alleluia for the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel:

Holy Archangel Michael, defend us in battle: that we may not perish in the dreadful judgment. Alleluia. 

Michaelmass;  just the sound of the word evokes images, thoughts, echoes.  The first time I ever heard the term was when I arrived in Oxford as a student now many years ago and was told that in a few days the Michaelmas Term would begin.  I was charmed and delighted to think that a university would name its terms in specifically Christian terms:  Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity, the three terms of the academic year. But this was part of the paradox of a place like Oxford where the cloud of secularism has penetrated the very stones of which the colleges are built and still the term Michaelmas is used, a term that evokes a time, a time when Catholic culture and faith infused the life of a university.  And there are Michaelmas daisies, something like our mums, flowers that herald the time of autumn, of falling leaves, but also of the fall towards winter, the time of quiet and cold, of remembering, of hoping, the time when the light fades fast, but also the time when the celebration of the true Light that came into the world is taken up with such fervor in a world that denies the Light.  One could go on further about what Michaelmas meant in the time of Catholic culture.  But this would not be good to do, for nostalgia is deadly to true religion.

We must remember, or rather call to remembrance, on this Solemnity, the feast of the warrior angel, “he who is like God”, he who leads the charge against the forces of evil, he, who with the heavenly host still fight that war, even if silently, silently at least from our point of view. This is the time to remember that there is a war—no, not the wars that constantly rage in the world and have no end.  We live in the time of in -between, the time of the Church on earth, of the not -yet, of the incomplete, the time when the real effects of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ are transforming the creation bit by bit, inevitably, but whose consummation is not yet, not yet. And even if we do not see the angels waging this war in our behalf. we do see around us the signs of what this war is about.  The war is against those real and powerful forces in the world that not only deny the truth of the living God but also militate against that truth in so many ways.  This is surely a religious war but it is a spiritual war. It is not a matter of jihad. It is much more subtle and dangerous.  For the forces of the religion of secularism, a secularism that tolerates religious faith only in a closed off individualistic way, does not so much as  to deny the existence of God but rather to banish Him from the discourse of the world.  These forces are determined to conquer, and if one looks with realistic eyes, they have won important cultural battles that have weakened the real presence of the Christian faith in today’s culture.

All this image of war. Can this be congruent with the religion of peace?  Of course it can and it must. Jesus said:  “ I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”  Conflict is part of being a follower of Jesus Christ, part of what it means to be a Christian.  To deny this is to deny the Gospel and Church history.  Charles Williams, a strange literary figure, Anglican by persuasion, says something in his idiosyncratic history of the Church to the effect that when the dogma of infallibility of the Pope was defined in that famous thunderstorm in Rome in 1870 by Blessed Pio Nono: he says that the Church regained her manhood.  A wonderful phrase: her manhood. For what we are talking about here is virtus, a Latin word that is often translated only as “virtue” and thereby made harmless by the virus of moralism.  But the root meaning of this word virtus is vir, the man as hero.  On the feast of the Warrior Angel, the Prince of the heavenly host, we remember, or we should remember, that we are all called as Christians to show courage, which is the second meaning of virtus, that we are all called to be men and women of virtue, which is the third meaning of virtus:  all three meanings bound to each other, all necessary for the task of the evangelization of the world. 

To be a Christian is not for wimps, is not for religious couch potatoes who confuse Christian faith with Brady Bunch Catholicism. No.  What is called for today is manly men who are faithful husbands and fathers. What is called for today are manly men who are faithful priests who have the courage to make the Cross of Christ as the center of their lives.  What is called for today are women who have the true virtus of Mary, the Mother of God, of St. Catherine of Siena, of St. Teresa of Avila, of St. Birgitta, of Mother Cabrini.  

Oxford spires are beautiful. Daises are lovely. But they have little to do with the saint we celebrate at this Mass today, Saint Michael, the Archangel, who is fighting the battle against the prince of darkness on our behalf.  And for this we are grateful and for this we sing his praises. But we must remember that it is we, you and I, who must also join this battle, a battle that will be won by the love of God for us shone in the Cross of Jesus Christ.  And the first step is what we do here today. In this Mass we remember and commemorate and there is made present that event that is the sign of the sure outcome of the triumph of God: the battle that was fought on the Tree of Life.  And every time Mass is offered we strike a blow in the words:  Hoc est enim corpus meum.  These words make the powers of the world tremble, for these words do what they say, are what they say, and by their transformative power advance the battle for goodness, truth and beauty every time they are said.  For they make present from eternity in this our time the love of the infinite God who loved us so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die so that we may live. 

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla