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Making Angels Out of Men
A Sermon on the Bodiless Hosts
We celebrate today the Synaxis of the Bodiless Powers, the feast-day of all the holy angels, from their Chief Commanders Michael and Gabriel to each of the guardian angels whom the Lord God appointed to watch over every one of us — throughout all our lives — at Holy Baptism. Today should therefore be a day of great joy and profound gratitude for every Christian, no less than our namesday on which we celebrate our patron saint for whom we are named. For though (due to our general sense of entitlement and our immense spiritual insensibility) we often do not take any notice, nevertheless I am sure that if any of us takes but a few moments to ponder, we all without fail will recall countless times in our lives when our guardian angel must certainly have stepped in to protect and invisibly shield us from various grave and perhaps even mortal dangers, whether of the body or of the soul. And indeed, even this same spiritual insensibility itself has no doubt often been dispelled by the bodiless voice of our angel whispering to us to remember God, to turn once again to prayer, to stop for even a single moment during the hustle and bustle of our daily lives to recall the name of the Sweetest Lord Jesus to our lips. Truly, we all owe to the holy angels far more than we can possibly know.
But at the same time, we also have far more to learn from them than most of us realize. Shortly after my tonsure into the little schema, I was talking to Fr. Paisios and mentioned that Fr. Seraphim had suggested I ask Bp. George (our abbot at that time) to give me the name of Isaac in monasticism, in honor of St. Isaac the Syrian. I had replied to Fr. Seraphim that St. Isaac the Syrian is far too lofty a saint for someone like me to be named after. Fr. Paisios, hearing my story, looked at me askance and said: “So you asked for the Archangel Gabriel instead?”
As Fr. Paisios wryly pointed out, there was a hidden assumption in my heart that the life of the holy angels is somehow categorically different than our own Christian life, that the sanctity of the angels is something far removed and perhaps even intrinsically unattainable for mortal men. A rather foolish assumption, for Christ Himself tells us in the Gospels that in the resurrection we will all be made “like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). And an even more foolish assumption for a monk, since monasticism itself is nothing other than the imitation of the angelic life here on earth. We might well wonder how such a thing can be possible. But it is as St. John Chrysostom proclaims in his homilies on I Corinthians: the Cross of Christ has made angels out of men.
Herein a great mystery is revealed to us concerning the angelic powers. For what is the essential attribute, so to speak, of the angels of God? What is their defining characteristic? Most of us likely assume that it is their nature and power as incorporeal, noetic beings; and of course our humanity will never be changed into such a nature, for even in the resurrection our transfigured material bodies will once again be united with our souls. But the noetic nature of the angels is not by any means sufficient to define the entirety of their being, for there are indeed many who share in such a nature and yet are no longer numbered among their ranks. Of course, I refer to the demons — and it is interesting to note that the Gospel passage appointed for this feast concerns the fallen spirits, rather than the holy angels whom we are honoring on this day. As the passage reads: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” Through their haughty pride and rebellious disobedience, the demons exiled themselves from the heavenly realm and tore themselves asunder from their angelic brethren. And in this terrifying tragedy we can clearly see that the true essence of the angelic order is not their bodiless nature, not their noetic power, but rather their union with one another in divine love. An angel cannot be an angel without being united with the other angels in the divine love of God.
And, my brothers and sisters, the same is true for us: a Christian cannot be a Christian without being united with our fellow Christians in the divine love of God. As the Russian proverb tells us: “the only thing we can do alone is perish.” St. Silouan the Athonite was not in any way exaggerating when he said: “My brother is my life,” and as the great father of cenobitic monasticism St. Anthony the Great himself tells us: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor.” If we need any further proof of the gravity of this great truth, we need only hear the terrible warning of St. John Chrysostom that “the sin of schism is not washed away even by the blood of martyrdom.” And above all else, there is the Holy Apostle Paul telling us:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3)
All the noetic splendor and awesome power possessed by the heavenly hosts, which the mind of man cannot even begin to fathom, proved insufficient to keep Satan and his followers from utter perdition and the furthest depths of hell — because they turned their backs on love, they turned their backs on one another and on the Lord God Himself. And likewise, there exists no wreath of virtues nor crown of asceticism that can possibly save us ourselves from sharing in their fate if we also turn our backs on love, if we also turn our backs on one another.
The monastic order is an imitation of the angelic order. How so? Yes, we imitate them by striving to live already the life of the age to come, forsaking marriage, forsaking worldly possessions and pleasures, forsaking all manner of cares and distractions in order to abide (so far as is possible) in unceasing prayer and worship of the Lord of Hosts. Yet above all else the monastic order imitates the angelic order through holy obedience, which the Holy Fathers tell us is higher even than prayer itself. Why is this so? Because it is through holy obedience — and only through holy obedience — that it is possible to acquire the perfect unity in divine love which is itself the Kingdom of Heaven, and for which Christ prayed His Heavenly Father as He Himself “became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross” (Philippians 2:8) in going to His Voluntary and Life-Giving Passion:
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. (John 17:21-23)
We do not practice obedience in order to somehow prove ourselves by jumping through arbitrary and meaningless hoops. We do not even practice obedience simply in order to cut off our own passions, to subdue our own sinful will. No, we practice holy obedience so that we all might become like the ranks of the heavenly hosts: perfectly united with one another, having all of us together a single will, a single mind, a single heart. As the Psalmist says:
Behold now, what is so good or so pleasant as for brethren to dwell together in unity? It is like the oil of myrrh upon the head, that runneth down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, that runneth down to the fringe of his garment. As the dew of Aermon, that descendeth upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded His blessing, even life for evermore. (Psalm 132)
Obedience is eternal life, because obedience is perfect love. The Lord Himself said: “He that hath My commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me: and he that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21). Perhaps our inner disposition is to hear this saying of Christ as some sort of test, as some sort of condition which the Lord has put on His love. But this is not so. The Lord is not setting us a requirement for obtaining His love; rather, He is showing us what love truly is, He is showing us Who He Himself truly is. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “The commandments of God are greater than all the treasures of the world. And he who acquires the commandments finds God in them.”
For indeed, holy obedience is not only angelic; it is also divine. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich boldly yet beautifully writes:
Oh, how ready perfect love is to show perfect obedience! This perfect love can express itself perfectly in no way except in perfect obedience. Love is always alert, with desire and readiness, to obey the beloved. And from perfect obedience there comes, like a stream of milk and honey, perfect joy, that makes love a thing of beauty.
The Father has perfect love for the Son and the Spirit; the Son has perfect love for the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit has perfect love for the Father and the Son. Because of this perfect love, the Father is the Son’s and the Spirit’s readiest Servant, as the Son is to the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit to the Father and the Son. Perfect love makes the Father a perfect servant of the Son and the Spirit; as it does the Son of the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit of the Father and the Son. As no sort of love in the created world can be compared with the mutual love of the divine Persons, so no obedience can equal their mutual obedience.
This world and its prince hate nothing more than obedience, so much so that they are willing even to exchange Heaven for Hell in their flight from it. And just as “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), so too he strives constantly and with all his wiles to transform obedience into an image of ugliness, oppression, trauma, and misery.
But let us not set our gaze on the fallen spirits, nor on the false wisdom of this world. Let us rather lift up our eyes to the holy angels and behold, as an example for us, the unutterable and heavenly joy with which they obediently serve one another, and thus serve the Holy Trinity. And let us ourselves seek after nothing less than the perfect and divine love which — through holy obedience — binds the holy angels not only to one another, but even to us sinners here on earth as well. On this day let us not content ourselves merely to honor their names and praise their deeds, but let us also seize this great and holy opportunity we are being given to take up anew the obedience of the Cross of Christ — the Cross that has indeed made angels out of men.
Through the prayers of the Holy Archangels Michael and Gabriel and all the Heavenly Bodiless Hosts, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.