Happy Michaelmas! On this day (September 29) the Church traditionally celebrates the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. We thought it'd be neat to dive a little bit into what the Scriptures say about Michael, to learn more about this amazing saint and what he teaches us about ourselves and God.
Did you know that already before the coming of Christ, the Jewish people venerated St. Michael as their special protector, and would pray to him for help in times of need? It’s still the case today that many Jews invoke Michael and the other archangels in their traditional prayers before sleep. This is just one of so many aspects of our faith that Christians receive from Judaism. In particular, Michael’s title as guardian of the Church can be traced back to the book of Daniel, where we hear about “Michael, the great prince standing guard over your people,” Israel (Dan 12:1).
If the idea of St. Michael as a warrior defending God’s chosen people is already there in the Old Testament, it becomes especially clear in the New. In the book of Revelation, we are told that “war arose in heaven, with Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon” (Rev 12:7). And elsewhere in the New Testament Michael is explicitly called an “archangel” (chief or prince of angels) who “contends with the devil” (Jud 1:9).
What is this war between Michael and Satan all about? One way of trying to get to the heart of the matter is by considering their respective “battle cries.”
Tradition holds that Lucifer’s battle standard was “I will not serve” (non serviam; cf. Jer 2:20). This expresses his absolute refusal to be a creature under God.
Satan doesn’t want to depend on another, to be from another. He hates the fact that he is not his own maker, the absolute ruler and goal of his own life. He does not want to find his center and happiness and self in God, but only in himself. He’s convinced himself, in fact, that this is what it means to be God: to be a kind of autonomous tyrant, lording it over others. Yet in attempting to be other and “higher” than he actually is, he falls:
Satan, “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44), has willfully chosen to deny the truth of who he is. He’s persuaded himself that creatureliness, relation to God (and within this, relation to others), is a form of slavery. He thinks divinity means absolute autonomy, cutting oneself free of all ties, ruling rather than serving. He does not know the mystery of God, for whom absolute power is love, and absolute self-standing—being the source of all that is, needing nothing—is being-for-another (the Father for the Son, the Son wholly from and for the Father, in the communion of the Holy Spirit).
St. Michael is the opposite of Satan. Tradition has it that his standard, his “battle cry,” is summed up in his Hebrew name, mîḵā'ēl: mî meaning ‘who?’ (interrogative pronoun), kî meaning ‘like,’ and ’ēl meaning ‘God.’ So the name “Michael” literally means “who is like God.” Note, though: this is not a statement claiming that Michael himself is like God, but rather a rhetorical question: who is like God? The answer is clear: no one! “Who is God but the Lord?” (Ps 18:31). Satan wanted to be God. Michael declares that God alone is God.
This implies that Michael’s strength comes from his humility, a humility grounded in the truth of who and what he is. He knows he is not God, that he’s a creature, and that this is “very good.” Unlike Satan, he does not wish to separate himself from God (the very word for the devil in Greek, diabolos, means separation or division), but rather leans into his being “from” and “for” the Father. This is what gives him the strength to fight: he receives power and strength from the all-powerful Source, “the Father of lights” who is above, from whom every good gift comes (Jam 1:17).
So Michael’s name and “battle cry” is a question, not a statement: “who is like God?” It’s a question because we have to continually recall the fact that we are creatures, that we are not the source of ourselves. Paradoxically, though, Michael’s “living out” of this question in humility makes him like God.
The whole wonderful mystery of Christianity is that in Christ God himself has shown his strength in weakness, has conquered sin and death, not through pride and self-standing, but through humility and the laying down of his life in love (cf. Phil 2:5-11). Indeed, Christ’s death on the cross reveals something of the very heart of God. It shows us, not simply how much God loves the world, but that God himself is love, a communion of divine persons who exist from, for, and with one another.
In Christ, and in his faithful servant St. Michael, we see that only he who lays down his life will gain it, while he who strives to grasp at his life will lose it. Declaring his “non serviam” and trying to ascend (wrongly), Satan fell, while St. Michael, humbling himself, rose victorious in God.