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The World Unseen
A Sermon on the Bodiless Hosts
We celebrate today the Synaxis of the Honorable Heavenly Bodiless Hosts. While each of their nine ranks has its own appointed tasks and role in the celestial realm, for us human beings they typically play one role in particular, which is reflected in the name commonly given by us to all of them alike: angels, from the Greek word angelos meaning “messenger.”
Indeed, their very existence is itself a message to us: that this world is not the only world, that this life is not the true and only life, that creation is composed of far more than merely that which can be seen and heard and felt. Their existence is also, for us, a summons to this world unseen, because the Holy Fathers teach us that the Lord God created man in order to fill the void left in heaven by the fallen angels. And on this day in particular we ought to call to remembrance this lofty and noble calling: the calling to ourselves join in this Synaxis of all the Heavenly Hosts. For truly, as we have just heard in the Epistle lesson, “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”
And in His infinite mercy and inexpressible love for mankind, the Lord God has provided every means and countless reminders for us to ever strive toward such salvation — by no means the least of which being the holy angels themselves, who ever guard us and guide us toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Though they do so invisibly — quite often unnoticed not only by the unbelieving world, but even by the very Christians to whom they minister — nevertheless their heavenly aid is far more real and substantial than the vain things of this earth, in which we so easily misplace our trust and toward which we so often misdirect our attention.
But though God has sent His holy angels to do absolutely everything in their power to bring us to salvation, in the end it is up to us: whether to accept their help or not, whether to heed their messages or not. And if we never seem to see their help or even notice their existence, then this is because we ourselves have either refused or forgotten how to see the world unseen.
How then are we, the blind and insensible ones, to go about learning how to see what cannot be seen? How are we to learn to hear the messages that cannot be heard by human ear, or even comprehended by human mind? How are we — who are but dust and ashes — possibly able to be joined today to this Synaxis of all the Heavenly Hosts?
There is only one possible way: through obedience. For obedience is nothing other than the incarnation of faith, and “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This fallen world, and the prince thereof, hate and fear nothing more than obedience, precisely because only obedience has the power to free us from their tyranny.
It was the obedience of the holy angels that preserved them against that same prince when their Supreme Leader St. Michael cried out: “Let us stand aright! Let us stand with fear! Let us attend!” But of those who then chose to reject holy obedience we hear the Lord speak in today’s Gospel passage: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
St. Michael’s cry to the hosts of heaven is the first recorded message an angel ever gave. It is a message so significant that it is repeated aloud at every Divine Liturgy. And unless we give heed to it, then we listen in vain for any other. We must stand aright, with purified lives, for it is the pure in heart who shall see God. We must stand with fear, for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We must attend, for as St. Leo of Optina said, those who live without paying attention to themselves will never be made worthy to be visited by grace.
This message of the Archangel Michael is the foundation of the angelic life, the life to which all of us are likewise called — and we must by all means obey it. But to the Archangel Gabriel was vouchsafed, in the fullness of time, another message: this time delivered not to the awesome hosts of heaven, but to a lowly girl in an insignificant province of an empire which has long since crumbled to dust. To the Archangel Gabriel was vouchsafed the message of the Incarnation of the Son of God. And the obedience of that lowly girl to this message saved not only her own soul, but also the entire race of Adam, raising our nature not only to angelic heights, but even to the very throne of God itself.
Often we forget that this obedience of the Mother of God did not consist only in belief in the impossibility of a virgin birth. Her obedience was also nothing less than a humble consent to her own death: for the laws of Israel condemned a betrothed woman who gave birth to another’s child to be put to death. In short, the Incarnation did not only lead to the Cross but also began with it: with the meek submission of an innocent sufferer to an unjust death for the sake of God. The Mother of God, at the moment of the Annunciation, accepted from the lips of the Archangel Gabriel the Word of the Cross.
And the Word of the Lord — the word spoken in every message of every angel since the beginning of time — has always been, and will always be, the Word of the Cross. As St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “The Cross is the door to mysteries.” It is the only path to the world unseen.
Let us then take up our cross and fulfill our obedience, no matter how heavy our cross and no matter how difficult our obedience. Let us follow our Savior. Let us imitate the Mother of God. Let us lift up our eyes, let us come to ourselves, let us leave this far country and make our way back to the Father’s House. The road may be long, and the path may be difficult. But the Father himself is running out to meet us, and He has made us a solemn promise:
He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
Through the heavenly aid and intercessions of all the Honorable Heavenly Bodiless Hosts, may each one of us standing here today find our way home. We do not need to have seen it. We only need to obey the directions given to us by those who have been there before. Amen.