Creation was yet in its beginning, and the Angels were in a state of trial. Overflowing with love for these works of His hands, God had decided, as is the widely held opinion among renowned theologians, to reveal to them the plans of His heart: the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and the election of a most perfect human creature for His Mother, who would be Queen not only of men – who were yet to be created – but of the whole universe, including angelic beings. The sublime revelation was a factor of division among the pure spirits: some accepted, while others rejected it.1 The rebels were led by the greatest of the Angels: Lucifer. The latter, unwilling to submit to a nature inferior to his own, vociferated: “Non serviam! – I will not serve!”
St. Michael, by Fra Angelico – San Marco Museum, Florence (Italy)
His words had scarcely ceased to echo through Heaven, when St. Michael answered the affront with a cry a thousand times more powerful: “Quis ut Deus? – Who is like unto God?” At the voice of the Prince of the Heavenly Militia, the good Angels gathered under his command to expel from Paradise those who dared to raise themselves up against the designs of the Creator. The victory was resounding.
Illustrious theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas2 situate this great confrontation on the first day of creation, narrated in Genesis: “And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). However, we need only to continue reading this Sacred Book to understand that the war was just beginning…
Lucifer and his followers would not surrender easily. They wanted revenge and they would make use of the human race – so bound to the very cause of their revolt – to carry it out. In fact, victory would no longer depend only on the angelic spirits and their strength of action, but on how human weakness would respond to it. And the disastrous consequence of the initial attack inflicted by the evil angels was the sin that brought malediction upon all of humanity.
Over the course of history, the devil’s onslaughts against the fulfilment of the divine plans only intensified. Having won the consent of so many souls to the infernal solicitations, the enemy boasted of the vices and sins into which, instigated by him, men were sinking.
During all this time, however, St. Michael did not remain inert.
Archangel of Israel… and of the “New Israel”
He, the “great prince” (Dn 12:1), had the mission of guarding the chosen nation. This excellent patron was the sustenance of the patriarchs, the inspiration of the prophets, the consolation of the just, in short, the defence of the children of Israel. What a privilege, even for an Angel, to have the task of guarding the people from whom Mary Most Holy would be born, and from Her, the “First-born of all creation” (Col 1:15)!
Yes, what a privilege and, forgive us St. Michael, what woe… How to fathom that from the same chosen nation would emerge the assassins of the Messiah? For the unthinkable happened: the Archangel saw his Lord crucified and killed by those of whom he was the guardian. At this height of wickedness, the Patron of Israel was still there, inspiring sorrow and repentance in those hardened hearts.
Darkness fell during broad daylight; there were terrible earthquakes and the veil of the Temple was rent in two. Why should we not also see in these events St. Michael’s indignation against the infamous sin of deicide? Such calamities seemed to be an echo on this earth of that cry which resounded in the heavenly realm and struck fear into the rebellious angels, precipitating the once “light-bearing” spirit, Lucifer, into the abyss. For it was now the unfaithful Jews who, imitating the attitude of the leader of the demons, cried out: “I will not serve” (Jer 2:20). Like the revolted angel, the authorities of the deicidal people would lose the honour of radiating the light of Divine Revelation to the world, and would be cast into the darkness of error, for “a veil lies over their minds” (2 Cor 3:15).
Nevertheless, at the moment when blood and water gushed forth from the open side of the Saviour, the people of the Eternal Covenant was born, the “New Israel”: the Holy Roman Catholic Church, of which St. Michael became the protector.
Zealous defender of Holy Church
A unique figure by the name of Hermas, a former Greek slave and brother of Pope Pius I, wrote one of the earliest works of Christian literature, called The Shepherd.
St. Michael presents souls to St. Peter, by Miguel Alcañiz-
Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon (France)
This book, highly appreciated – one might even say venerated – by the faithful of early Christianity, is full of accounts of mystical experiences, in one of which the very close relationship between St. Michael and the Holy Church, still in its infancy, is clearly outlined: “Michael is the great and glorious Angel, who has power over this people and governs it. It is he who gives the law and sets it in the hearts of those who believe.”3
Without a doubt, the Mystical Body of Christ needed a powerful guardian in order not to abandon the Divine Law in the face of future battles. The devil, driven by his implacable hatred against Christianity, would not lose an instant and would seek to suffocate it from its very first years of life.
In ancient times, the Church was forced to hide in the catacombs; to be a Christian was considered an abominable crime. So said the Romans, whose amusement it was to throw innocent people to the beasts or condemn them to the cruellest forms of torture, while a feverish assembly enjoyed the atrocious spectacle.
Immersed in such terrible persecution, it was hard to believe that the Church would endure for long… The devil was about to sing victory when an unexpected angelic intervention thwarted his plans.
“By this sign you shall conquer!”
It was the year 312. The throne of the Roman Empire hung in the balance between two men: Constantine and Maxentius. Although both were pagans, the former was born of a Christian woman: St. Helena. He decided to advance against Rome in order to take the throne from his rival.
After several days of forced march, his small army of forty thousand men was not in the most favourable conditions to launch the attack against an adversary that was numerically far superior.
Unsure, Helena’s son decided to turn to help from above: he prayed to the God of his mother. When he finished his prayer, he beheld an immense luminous cross in the sky, on which was written this sentence in Greek: “By this sign you shall conquer.” The following night, the vision was repeated in a dream and Constantine, realizing that a supernatural event was afoot, ordered a banner to be made in the shape of a cross to head the ranks of his army.
The battle took place on October 28 and, despite the unfavourable odds, Constantine crushed Maxentius’ troops.
A year later, in 313, as a sign of gratitude for the miraculous victory, the sovereign signed the Edict of Milan, by which he put an end to persecution of the Church and granted freedom of worship to Christians. At last, the true Religion could breathe a different air from that of the catacombs.
It was not until 314, however, that Constantine fully understood the cause of his success. In a dream, a figure enveloped in light appeared to him and said: “I am the Archangel Michael, commander of the heavenly militia, protector of the Faith of Christians. It was I who, while you were fighting against the wicked tyrants, made your weapons victorious.”4
Battle of the Milvian Bridge, by Giulio Romano – The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (Maryland)
A Woman clothed with the sun
There are yet countless examples of the unfailing action of the Archangel throughout history, but it is impossible to enumerate them all here. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit has given us an admirable compendium in this respect, in a scene described in the Book of Revelation.
At the beginning of chapter twelve, St. John relates a momentous vision: a Woman appears in the firmament, clothed with the sun, crowned with twelve stars and having the moon under her feet. She is expecting a child and is groaning in labour pains. Then another great sign appears: a dragon, the colour of fire, stands before the Woman, in order to devour her child as soon as it is born. She flees into the desert, where God has prepared a refuge for her. Immediately following this description, the Virgin Apostle adds: “Now war arose in Heaven, Michael and his Angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven” (12:7-8).
These are enigmatic scenes – as, indeed, is the whole Book of Revelation – but it is remarkable that St. John narrates them together. The dragon pursuing the Woman is the same one defeated by St. Michael, and the battle between them takes place on her account: the former attacks while the latter defends her.
Who is this mysterious Woman? The Virgin Mary herself? Many affirm this, and it is a traditional and beautiful application, but not the only one. Some Church Fathers and ecclesiastical authors had reason to add another interpretation: that which identifies the Woman with the Holy Church.5
Just as the Lady of the Apocalypse was persecuted by the dragon, the Church is attacked by the devil and his followers. And, just as St. Michael defeated the monster that threatened the Woman, he also demonstrates great zeal when it comes to the protection of the Mystical Bride of Christ, especially in the moments of greatest danger.
Final victory of St. Michael
St. Michael defeats the demon – St. Michael’s Church, Ghent (Belgium)
When will the last battle take place? How will that happy day be, when the dragon is cast definitively into the abyss?
With regard to the when, there is nothing to say; the future belongs to God… But as for the how, many private revelations give us some idea.
In this regard, statements made by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a great mystic of the 19th century, are very enlightening. Beneath the symbolic veils of which the narration is replete, we can discern some outlines of the final conflict:
“Again I saw St. Peter’s with its lofty copola on whose top stood Michael shining with light. He wore a blood-red robe, a great banner in his hand. A desperate struggle was going on below. […] The Church was all red like the Angel, and I was told that it would be bathed in blood. The longer the combat lasted, the paler grew the colour of the church, the more transparent it became.”6
Almost three years later, Anne Catherine Emmerich described a new revelation, in which she provided more details about this purification of the Church in the midst of the battle:
“I saw St. Peter’s utterly demolished, all except the choir and main altar. St. Michael, girt and armed, descended into the church and with his sword repulsed several bad pastors who were trying to enter. He drove them into a corner […]. The part of the church that had been demolished in a few instants was surrounded by a light wicker-work so that divine service could be perfectly celebrated. Then from all parts of the world came priests and laics, who built up the walls of stone, for the enemy had not been able to shake the firm foundation.”7
The fall of the rebellious angels, by Neri di Bicci – Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam (Netherlands)
At the time of the Roman persecutions, the enemies of Holy Church sought to destroy it by force, by arms and by open persecution. In our days, however, their methods seem more intelligent: they know they cannot kill her, and so they seek to disfigure her as much as they can.
But she has nothing to fear, for at her side is one whose mere presence fills the enemies of the Most High with dread. The Archangel St. Michael, who vanquished the devil in the prœlium magnum in Heaven and defeated him countless times on earth, will also work the final victory. ◊
1 Cf. MAYNARD, Michel-Ulysse. La Sainte Vierge. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1877, p.352.
2 Cf. ST. AUGUSTINE. De civitate Dei. L.XI, c.19. In: Obras. Madrid: BAC, 1958, t.XVI, p.746; ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ. I, q.63, a.5, ad 2.
3 HERMAS. Le Pasteur, c.69, n.3: SC 53, 266-269.
4 BERNET, Anne. Enquête sur les Anges. Paris: Perrin, 1997, p.137. Perhaps this is the reason that led the emperor to build the oldest shrine in Constantinople dedicated to St. Michael, as well as consecrating the entire empire to the Archangel.
5 Cf. BARTINA, SJ, Sebastián. Apocalipsis de San Juan. In: NICOLAU, SJ, Miguel et al. La Sagrada Escritura. Nuevo Testamento. Madrid: BAC, 1962, v.III, p.711-713.
6 BLESSED ANNE CATHERINE EMMERICH. Life and Revelations. Rockford (IL): TAN, 1967, v.I, 566-657.
7 Idem, v.II, p.294.