The Feast of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, “Michaelmas” for Short
September 29 marks the Feast of the Archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. Only since the reform of the current liturgical calendar in 1969 were the archangels united on the same feast day. Originally September 29 marked the dedication of the Church of St. Michael in Rome, built by Constantine. It has been an older, established feast, referred as “Michaelmas” in the English-speaking world for generations. But the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael only had universal feasts since 1921, Gabriel was on March 24, the day before the Annunciation, and Raphael on October 24.
There are 26 Feasts throughout the Liturgical Year, with two being movable feasts. They are sprinkled throughout the year, with only September and December having the highest of four feasts within the months. The Archangels mark the fourth feast of the month of September.
As we apply ourselves to living the Liturgical Year, one thing I like to emphasize is that the unfolding of the year is not flat with everything being the same, like a pancake or prairie, but rather the landscape is varied, with hills and mountains with peaks and valleys. There are the Sundays, the liturgical seasons, and the feast days, with different rankings of solemnities, feasts, memorials and optional memorials, and then ferial days with no particular saint or feast celebrated. Calendarium Romanum (The Roman Calendar) from 1969 expresses this viewpoint:
Solemnities and feasts are rare and should be truly festive days, whereas a memorial is a simple remembrance of a saint on his spiritual birthday. Solemnities and feasts are held by way of exception; memorials are part of daily liturgical life.
I started to ponder why the Church honors the archangels with such a high ranking. Their role in our life is different from the saints. We pray to the saints for their intercession, but we also look to their lives for imitation and role modeling. But angels are different. The angels are spiritual creatures created by God for a particular purpose. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition (CCC 328).
Angels are spiritual creatures who glorify God without ceasing and who serve his saving plans for other creatures: “The angels work together for the benefit of us all” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 114, 3, ad 3).
The angels surround Christ their Lord. They serve him especially in the accomplishment of his saving mission to men.
The Church venerates the angels who help her on her earthly pilgrimage and protect every human being (CCC, 350-352).
Angels truly exist, but we need to push through all those cutesy “angel on my shoulder” and little cherub angels and recognize the dignity and higher order of these spiritual beings. They were created to be with God, to contemplate God in His beatific vision.
St. Augustine, as quoted by the Catechism (329), explains their essence:
The angels are spirits. When they are simply spirits, they are not angels, but when they are sent, they become angels; for ‘angel’ is the name of a function not a nature. If you inquire about the nature of such beings, you find that they are spirits, if you ask what their office is, the answer is that they are angels. In respect of what they are, such creatures are spirits; in respect of what they do, they are angels. Make a comparison of human affairs. The name of someone’s nature is ‘human being,’ the name of his job is ‘soldier’ (en. Ps. 103.1.15).
And St. Gregory the Great in one of his homilies on the Gospels (which is quoted in the Office of Readings) agrees on the nature and function of angels:
You should be aware that the word “angel” denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.
As a person, I sometimes find it difficult to completely relate to the angels. They are higher beings, and being pure spirits they are not saddled with the effects of Original Sin. While I can aim for imitation of their virtues, it’s not the same way in living the virtues with a human nature. Angels don’t change their minds. They aren’t wishy-washy like humans. They had a free will choice at the beginning of creation, which weeded out Satan and the devils. But none of them are going back or regretting their choice. Perhaps in human terms we could say the angels are single-minded and focused—never having any distractions. I can ask for help in this area, but truly it’s different when you pray to the saints who actually felt the temptations and weaknesses of the human nature.
This feast is celebrating the higher messengers of God, the three archangels that are mentioned by name in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. We have gratitude to God for the gift of these angels, and need to constantly remember and pray to them in our lives. We invoke these archangels to send us messages on how to live the right purpose of our lives, to lead us to do good, to help us live for others, and to imitate in those virtues they live as spirits (although not so easy for us).
St. Augustine proposed the angels were created on the first day of creation, indicated in Genesis 1:3-4, “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness.” That separation of light from darkness was the test and separation of the good and bad angels, the time of St. Michael’s rallying cry, “Who can be like God?” (which is the translation of his name) and drove Satan and the other devils out of heaven.
If you have brothers, sons, nephews or grandsons or teach boys, you know St. Michael through their eyes. He is an archangel depicted as a soldier in helmet and armor, with a sword (and sometimes spear), striking at Satan and is easily identified and loved by all young boys who want to physically fight against evil. My sons were not scared by the depictions of the devil because St. Michael was stomping him down triumphantly!
From St. Gregory the Great again,
Whenever some act of wondrous power must be performed, Michael is sent, so that his action and his name may make it clear that no one can do what God does by his superior power. So also our ancient foe desired in his pride to be like God, saying: “I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven; I will be like the Most High.” He will be allowed to remain in power until the end of the world when he will be destroyed in the final punishment. Then, he will fight with the archangel Michael, as we are told by John: “A battle was fought with Michael the archangel.”
My sons are now older. They are not donning armor and the swords stay permanently sheathed in the closet. St. Gregory makes St. Michael relatable to us in the present moment. We still need his strength, valor and protection. St. Michael is the spiritual armor and sword when we have to fight evil. And perhaps St. Michael’s latest work of the present time is just sending us messages to recognize the evil in the world. Lately there is such denial of the existence of sin and the devil. We need St. Michael’s “wondrous power” to help us become a champion and overcome any fear we might have. St. Michael can cut down our mediocrity and help us to be brave and always ready to fight.
Gabriel means “Strength of God.” The Archangel Gabriel is familiar to children who attend the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atria as they work even as youngest children with the Scriptures of the Annunciation. Yesterday I asked my Level II children, and they were immediately reminded of that moment in the Gospel. They love contemplating that intimate moment of the Incarnation.
I love how St. Gregory points out the elevated nature of that role of Gabriel:
And so it was that not merely an angel but the archangel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin Mary. It was only fitting that the highest angel should come to announce the greatest of all messages.
We also met Gabriel at the scene where he appears to Zechariah. The high priest doubts the authenticity of his message. After all, he and Elizabeth are too old to be parents!
Don’t you wish you could hear the tone of voice in the archangel’s reply?
I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk* until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time (Luke 1:19-20).
I kind of read between the lines: “Sigh. Stupid, slow-witted, doubting man! That will teach you to doubt God! And you, a high priest!”
But of course, that’s my human response. No angel is going to think uncharitably like me.
The Church traditionally holds that St. Gabriel also appeared to Joseph in his dreams, appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem, and also comforted Jesus in His agony in the garden.
St. Michael is the armor and soldier of God, but Gabriel provides the strength or fortitude. Michael is in the front lines, while Gabriel is in the every day work, our daily struggle.
Raphael is mentioned in the deutero-canonical Book of Tobit. His name means “God’s healer” or “Healer from God” since he cured Tobit’s blindness and “cured” or exorcised Sarah of her evil spirits.
St. Gregory says:
Raphael means, as I have said, God’s remedy, for when he touched Tobit’s eyes in order to cure him, he banished the darkness of his blindness. Thus, since he is to heal, he is rightly called God’s remedy.
St. Raphael is invoked for his healing power, and not just from physical healing. We live in a time of darkness, with much of us dealing with high anxiety and worry. We are plagued with spiritual blindness and selfishness. St. Raphael can heal us of our blindness, and be the messenger of remedy to enlighten us to our faults and how to work on them and make changes.
Despite the other two archangels added to this liturgical feast, the name “Michaelmas” still sticks. The English tradition of shortening the name or nickname of feast day and combining with “Mass” leads to the names of Christmas, Candlemas (Presentation), Ladymas (Annunciation), Martinmas (Martin of Tours), etc.
This is one of the “quarter days” for business. The year is naturally divided into the different seasons by the solstices and equinoxes. There was a merging of both the seasonal and liturgical and it bled into daily life, including business. Feast days that fell near these quarter points of the year became the quarter days: Michaelmas for the Fall Equinox, Christmas for the Winter Solstice, Lady Day/Ladymas (Annunciation) for Spring Equinox and Midsummer Day (Birth of St. John the Baptist) for Summer Solstice.
Michaelmas is a traditional Catholic feast of Thanksgiving in many countries. The goose served was nicknamed “stubble-goose” because it would eat the stubble in the field after harvest.
There are other special foods or traditions on this day, such as the Scotch “Michaelmas bannock,” made from a mixture of barley, oats and rye. Cracking nuts became a Michaelmas Eve tradition. And bringing the devil into the picture, this would be the last day to eat blackberries, as the devil makes them “unsuitable” to eat after this date.
So many of the festivities point to similar celebrations we have for US and Canadian Thanksgivings.
It’s at home with the families that we want to help our children realize the role angels and archangels in our lives, and to invoke them often. And this can translate into fun ways, like eating Devil’s Food Cake and stabbing it with plastic cocktail swords, or play “Pin Sword on the Devil” (“Pin the Tail on the Donkey”), or make a dragon or devil piñata and strike it down.
Art study or creating art is also a wonderful way of bringing this feast home. I have a friend who shared on her Etsy shop some Michaelmas Icons she created in stickers and prints, which evoke some of the autumnal and traditional symbolism of the feast.
The Feast of the Archangels on first glance seems so different from the usual saint days, but it is a reminder to always recognize the angels in our life, and to invoke the most powerful messengers for our spiritual battles, for our strength and for our healing.
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