I know that for most people in America, today is the day we finally find out what happens to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the series finale of Breaking Bad, but in the Cathedral’s liturgical life, today is “Cathedral Day” because on September 29, 1907, the Bishop of Washington, the Cathedral Chapter, the canons, and a host of supporters and well-wishers laid the foundation stone of Washington National Cathedral. If you’re a church junkie, you know that September 29 is also the feast of St. Michael and All Angeles, called “Michaelmas” by the English and Anglophile Americans. This holiday is unique. Most feast days celebrate something that has already happened or someone who has already lived. St. Michael and All Angels differs from other holidays in that it celebrates something that hasn’t happened yet—God’s final victory over the forces of evil. Cathedral Day commemorates a historical event—the laying of a foundation stone—that has ongoing consequences. St. Michael and All Angels is observed not in memory but in hope—proclaiming, in the language of today’s reading from the Book of Revelation, something to which we look forward:
Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down… (Rev. 12:10)
Revelation is a weird book, and sometimes its language gets in our way. But today it describes a reality with which we’re all too familiar. When we hear the first words of today’s Epistle—“War broke out in heaven”—we’re in a territory we know something about. As fanciful as this language about angels and dragons might sound, it nevertheless depicts a conflict that you and I know we are caught up in ourselves—the ongoing lifelong conflict between good and evil.
War breaks out in heaven. The good angels take on the bad angels. This is mythological language, but it describes a deep truth: there is a fundamental opposition in the cosmos between God and the forces that resist God. Because you and I are in the real world and not some fairy tale universe, that cosmic conflict between good and evil cannot help but catch us up into it. One way to think of evil is as that which resists or rejects the good. Evil always results in the suffering of the innocent, and—whether it’s accidents or cancer or war or human enmity or lust for power or just plain selfishness—the persistence of evil in the cosmos means that God’s victory over evil has not quite happened yet. We know and believe that all will be well and that God will prevail, but not yet. Hence the need to celebrate St. Michael and All Angels as a hopeful and not triumphal observance.
War has broken out in heaven. War has broken out on earth. I cannot hear these words from Revelation without thinking about current events in our common life. Almost two weeks ago 12 people were shot to death at the Washington Navy Yard. Just last week, terrorists killed 62 people in a siege at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall. The United States Congress is right now arguing about whether to defund universal health care and supplemental nutritional assistance for the poor. The United Nations study released this week described a growing and deepening crisis of global warming and changing weather patterns, all brought on by human beings. The list could go on and on, but I’m not sure we have the stomach to hear much more of it. So you get the idea.
We live in the real world and not in some fairy tale universe. The Scriptures we read describe that real world and its connection to the divine. In today’s Old Testament reading Jacob dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth on which the angels of God ascend and descend constantly (Gen. 28:12). In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Because we know that the world we live in is the real world, we know very well that this world is caught up in the struggle between good and evil. And because we know that the world the Scriptures describe is the real world too, when we hear all this angel language, at least some of us pause. So what’s the deal with all these angels?
Our popular culture is crawling with angels—TV shows such as Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, movies such as Angels in the Outfield, Angels in the Infield, and (my favorite), Angels in the Endzone. (I guess angels really like sports.) There’s everybody’s favorite angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention the angels in I Married an Angel, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Heaven Can Wait. If you watch TV or movies with any regularity, you’ve seen these angels: cheerful, benign, heavenly beings who come into our reality from the outside and make everything right. But as cute and cuddly as these angels are, they don’t seem to be the same kind of beings our Scriptures describe. TV and movie angels solve your problems and help you get a base hit. Bible angels are concerned with ultimate questions of good and evil. Whom are we to believe?
I am not entirely sure what I think about the angels so present in our popular culture. But I am certain that I know something about the angels the Scriptures describe. In biblical Greek, the world angelos means “messenger, envoy, one who is sent, a messenger from God.” Another way to think of a biblical angel is as a “manifestation” of God. An angel is someone who represents God, someone who speaks God’s message and tells God’s truth. In terms of today’s reading from Revelation, an angel is someone who takes God’s side in the ongoing battle between good and evil.
War has broken out in heaven. War has broken out on earth. As we gather this morning to celebrate Cathedral Day, let us rededicate ourselves to becoming the only kind of angels our Scriptures know: a community of people who speak God’s message and tell God’s truth. Even as a lifelong baseball fan, I have to tell you that God does not care who wins the World Series. But as someone caught up, as you are, in the personal, social, and cosmic struggle between good and evil, I know that God cares very deeply about who prevails in the earthly struggle between God’s values and those who oppose them. God cares about the victims of violence. God cares about the hungry and poor. God cares about the planet we seem to be hell-bent on destroying.
War has broken out in heaven, and war has broken out on earth. Following Jesus is about becoming an angel of God, stepping into that struggle and taking a stand on God’s side. The only angels our Scriptures know about are the vulnerable, fallible, fragile likes of you and me. And the God we manifest on earth will only prevail in that cosmic conflict as you and I take our parts in that earthly struggle we know in our personal and civic lives.
The founders of Washington National Cathedral laid its foundation stone 106 years ago today. As we renew our commitment to being, in the language of that day, a great “church for national purposes,” let us take our place on God’s side in the battle between good and evil. Let us stand for peace, for healing. Let us stand with the hungry and poor. Let us stand up for the planet and all its creatures. Every time we think of St. Michael and All Angels, let us remember that we, together, are the angels in that title, the ones who are God’s true agents in the world. If we are faithful in standing with God and for God’s values we will, as Jesus promises Nathanael, “see greater things than these.” Amen.