The Trinity, icon by Andrei Rublev, 15th c.
St. Michael and All Angels
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Today we celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Such a day brings up two rather important questions: first, how can angels be saints? The word “saint” is a rather confusing one, because the Church uses it in three different senses. The first (and perhaps most important) definition, and the biblical definition, is quite simply a Christian. Many letters of the Bible are addressed to the saints, and this doesn’t mean those who are already dead! All Christians are saints of the Church.
The second definition is a bit more particular. It was the medieval definition and requires a belief in Purgatory, a place where, after death, a person’s soul is purged of their sin. A saint in this sense is someone who, by living a life wholly dedicated to Christ, does not have to go to Purgatory. Their soul is already pure, and they are, at the time of death, already in the presence of God.
The third definition is actually the one that the Church, as a whole, uses most often. Here, a saint is someone who has lived a holy and godly life. We revere such a person because she or he has shown us so much of what it means to be a Christian. Angels, then, can be saints according to this definition, though only three angels (Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael) are considered to be saints.
These definitions lead, however, to a question: how can we revere a saint when the only being worthy of worship is God. There is a difference, though, between “revere” and “worship.” To worship something (be it God or something else) is to give oneself wholly to it. We are ultimately loyal to that thing, whatever it may be, and we draw our identity from it. This is why the Bible is so insistent that we do not worship false idols, and that we cannot worship God and something else (that is, we cannot serve two masters).
“Reverence”, however, is different. We revere many things, from saints to sports stars to national heroes. I may revere an author or musician that I enjoy, or I may even revere my parents or mentors. I do not give them my all, but instead I give them my respect and look up to them. It is the same for saints. We revere the saint by remembering them, celebrating their lives, and asking them to pray for us.
For Christians, we revere the angels because of their service to humanity as protectors and as messengers of God. Our Christian lives, indeed the lives of all humanity, is connected to all of Creation, be that the material world or the spiritual one. We are part and parcel to it, and on days like today we remember those spiritual beings who, during biblical times and into our own, continue to work for the glory of God.