Where I grew up, it was customary to place in children’s bedrooms near the bed a precious picture of an angel watching two little ones cross a precarious bridge over a seething water fall during a nighttime storm. I had one of those pictures hanging in my bedroom. The point of this picture was as clear as it is comforting: Guardian Angels protect each of us when we are in danger. And that is the truth. Angels are bodiless spirits who serve God by serving us. And that truth is made plain in today’s Gospel, when Jesus indicates that we should not despise little children because their Angels will protect them.
The problem with the picture that hung in my own bedroom is not the truth it proclaims, but how we adults might now read that picture. We’re tempted to see angels as good and comforting, but also as childish. They’re for children. To protect them and watch over them. But as we grow older, wiser, more mature, more self-sufficient, we believe we don’t need God’s security force as much. We think angels are only for those hard spots we can’t anticipate, or can’t get out of.
And perhaps that’s how we hear today’s Gospel, and how we see today’s feast, and how we look at St Michael. He’s good—especially for children. He’s helpful—especially back then, when he took on the devil. And he’s handy—when things get out of hand. But he doesn’t really have a day-to-day connection with us, except as a symbol of God’s protection.
If we think of it that way, we miss the impact of Our Lord’s words. And that point is very direct: It’s not that children need angels. It’s that we must return to being little children. Children of God, who look to God with the same unquestioned trust, the same intense reliance, the same undaunted conviction, the same unhesitating confidence, the same loving dependence that every little child has when it looks at its mother or father.
We must return to being little children. For little “children follow their father, love their mother, don’t know how to wish evil to their neighbors, do not care about earthly riches; they insult not, they hate not, they lie not, they believe what they are told, and take for truth what they hear” (St Hilary). And “unless we return to the innocency of childhood with the simple directness of little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (St Hilary)
What faith really looks like. That is what we see in little children. What trust really is. That’s the gift given by those simple-hearted, who lead with the heart more than with the mind. What we see in them is what we are called to be. For “when we are well rooted in childlike simplicity of heart, we shall bear in ourselves an image of the sublime simpleness of the Lord Jesus.” (St Hilary)
Yet it is not just children or the child-like who show us the faith we ought really to have. We see this also in angels. They show us what true faith looks like. And, in fact, that is their greatest strength, and why they are given by God to minister to us.
For angels are sent by God, not to protect us with a mighty hand, not to impress us with their ability to keep us safe and ward off Satan. Angels serve us by demonstrating that true faith releases our inner strength. That complete reliance frees us to be better. That unquestioned dependence on God revives in us the image of God we are designed to illustrate.
Think back to how we lost—and how we still lose so often—our image and likeness. It is by choosing to go our own way. To act as if we know better. And to prefer to gratify our own desires, to identify ourselves by our weaknesses, to indulge our passions, to claim and assert our independence. That desire to be like God, to exchange His likeness for what we like—that ran us aground, and into the ground.
How do we arise from our dust and ashes? How do we get back to what we were, to who we are supposed to be? Look at the angels. And look especially at our patron, the holy Archangel Michael.
When there was silence in heaven,
When the demonic devil waged war against God and against us,
Michael fought against Satan and his demons
Not by looking into himself for strength,
But by not loving his life,
By freely giving up his freedom,
By choosing to sacrifice his will, his desires, his ambitions.
And then was heard this loud voice in heaven: “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ.”
Because Michael and his angels became as little children, who are single-hearted, single-minded, in who they trust, and what they will do for those they love. And what little children will do is readily and quickly give over their most precious items in order to please mother or father, or whoever they trust and love.
And that’s why angels have such an affinity for children. Not because they are vulnerable. Not because they are innocent or simple-minded. But because, in children, angels always behold the face of their heavenly Father.
The goal, then, is to be transformed back into children; to become as little children who set our hearts on nothing more than being near and seeing face to face the holy angels in our Father’s kingdom.
By the prayers of our patron, holy Michael the Archangel, may we not lose our way but return to being children in faith, so that he might, one day, safely escort us into paradise.
Homily for the Patronal Feast of St Michael’s Church
1 October 2017