Today is the Feast of All Angels, and, by name, of one of them, the Archangel Michael.
Michael is not portrayed in the Bible singing Christmas carols (à la Luke 2:8-14) but doing battle against the forces of evil, the angels of empire (Daniel 10, 12:1) and the dragons of the devil (Revelation 12:7-9). To entertain Michael and their troops is to find oneself unawares at the heart of an apocalypse.
But if a warrior for righteousness conjures up images of uncomfortable and perhaps uncompromising judgement, there is another story of Michael, referenced by Jude, in which the archangel defends the body of Moses against the devil when Satan brings up the skeleton of Moses’ homicide back in Egypt (Jude 9[i]). Although it did not see in life the Promised Land, Moses’ body is rescued and redeemed to appear again upon the Mount of the Transfiguration, and Michael is an instrument not of its judgement but of its redemption; Michael, whether by secret burial (Deuteronomy 34:6) or by Assumption, [ii] refuses to relinquish Moses’ body to corruption, no matter what his hand had wrought in the days before he raised it over the Red Sea.
I wonder if it was because they had their hands thus full that Michael did not in that moment raise a flaming sword, but instead relied upon the judgement of God: “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9; Zechariah 3:2) Here is an image of the archangel without their armour, their arrows, their angel hordes. With the obstinate gentleness of a woman who attends the body with oil and spices, turning their back on the devil Michael chose to give instead their full attention to the funeral arrangements of God’s messenger, Moses.
Even the archangels find strength in tenderness, at times choosing restraint over rebuke, finding it more important to administer love than judgement. They are not untouched by grief.
It is not difficult, sometimes and in these days, to find or imagine myself in the maelstrom of an apocalypse, unsure which way is up or out. I can pray for the help and defence of the angels,[iii] for the example of Michael; but perhaps what I need more than a flaming sword is that moment of patience, that moment of enshrouding tenderness, to pay attention to the simplest task before me, to let love weigh down my hands, and let the Lord rebuke the rest.
Rosalind C Hughes is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, and author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing; and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence. Find a bonus blog poem on angelic appearances at rosalindchughes.com
[i] New Oxford Annotated Bible, note on Jude 9: “According to nonbiblical Jewish tradition, when the archangel Michael was about to bury the body of Moses, Satan accused Moses of being a murderer, not worthy olf an honorable burial. Michael sent Satan off with the words, ‘May the Lord rebuke you’ (Zech. 3:2).” New Oxford Annotated Bible, third edition (Oxford University Press, 2001), NT 418
[ii] See Robert Henry Charles, The Assumption of Moses: Transl. from the Latin Sixth Century Ms., the Unemended Text of which is Publ. Herewith, Together with the Text in Its Restored and Crit. Emended Form (United Kingdom: Black, 1897), Introduction, l: “Does the account of the Transfiguration point in any respect to popular belief in Moses’s Assumption?”
[iii] The Collect for Saint Michael and All Angels: “Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer, 244)
Featured image: The Death of Moses: A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Philip De Vere, under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons