September 29 is the Feast of the Archangels, but this day has also traditionally been called “Michaelmas,” and has a long history of religious and harvest celebrations connected to it (start looking up those Goose recipes!). The traditional story of St. Michael as the warrior angel who battled against Satan’s rebellion has long captured the imaginations of Catholics.
Of course, we have very little actual knowledge of the angels. Through divine revelation and sacred tradition, we know that God created various kinds of angels who hold distinctive ranks and have specific roles. We also know that after their creation, some of the angels rebelled against God. Finally, we know a few of the names and deeds of the angels which are revealed in Sacred Scripture.
And while we aren’t privy to many further details, there have arisen different traditional accounts for why Lucifer and some of the angels rebelled against God. One such account speculates that after God made the angels, He showed them His plan for the creation of humans and of the Incarnation of His Son. In this way, God revealed how He intended for His angels to be ministers to mankind and to His Incarnate Son.
However, some of the angels, including Lucifer, were scandalized by the idea that God should ordain the angels – pure spirits – to serve lower, material beings. Why would God decide that embodied creatures should be accorded such dignity? Surely, Lucifer thought, there must be some grave mistake!
Satan could not grasp why God would choose to “lower” Himself by taking on a bodily nature. Thus, Lucifer and his cohort refused “to bend the knee,” to humble themselves through serving as ministers to God’s material creation of mankind, and they would certainly not worship the Incarnate Son of God. While this story is speculative, it’s entirely reasonable to infer that Satan’s fall (like Adam and Eve’s subsequent fall in the Garden), occurred on account of pride.
However, the amazing paradox is that Lucifer and the angels were in fact created higher than humans in “the hierarchy of being.” It is this same mystery of divine providence that the Blessed Mother ponders in her heart and then proclaims in praise and thanksgiving through her “Magnificat.” In humble praise, Mary declares how God chooses to “scatter the proud in their conceit,” and to “raise up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55).
This leads us back to the theology of the body. Namely, it is indeed a wonderous mystery that God chose to create humans with a bodily nature. For even as God’s essence is not bodily, God still reveals something of His nature through the human body. So, what is God revealing?
Here, I suggest that God’s creation of man as an “enmattered being” communicates His desire that we learn something about the goodness of submission. Our bodies are a constant and obvious reminder of limits. Most obviously, every day, we have to submit to our bodily needs for food, water and air, etc.
It is true that in our scientific-technological age, we are constantly finding ways overcome material limits, and we tend to view ourselves as “conquerors of nature.” Thus, we don’t intuitively see the goodness of the body in its material limitations.
However, “submission,” rather than being an attack on human freedom, is the posture that allows us to experience love. That is, creation is a gift. As created in God’s image, we are given the additional gift of having the capacity to know who we are as human, both in our lowly status as bodily creatures, yet as somehow also made to participate in the life of God.
This right understanding of one’s nature and status is precisely what Satan refused to accept when he chose to rebel against God. Rather than humbly submit to God’s providential ordering of the world and obey the Lord’s role for him, Lucifer refused to trust and accept the gift of creation. In other words, Satan arrogantly thought he knew how to order creation better than God. In response, St. Michael famously admonishes him by asking: “Who is like unto God?”
While St. Michael is a great witness of a virtuous fidelity and submissiveness to God through his angelic nature, we as human persons are given the gift of our material bodies which serve as an exterior reminder of our finitude and need for God.
The very word, “humility,” comes from the Latin word, “humus,” which means “earth.” Humility then, is connected to remembering how we are “earthy” or material – that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
As material, our bodies are constantly undergoing change, growth, and eventual decay. We experience periods of sickness and health, energy and fatigue, pleasure and pain. The experiences of this constant dynamism within our bodies serves as an exterior sign that we have a certain longing for completeness, wholeness, happiness, or in other words – holiness.
While I’m sure an entire book could be written on this subject (or, say, 129 papal talks!), it suffices to say that our bodies are one of the best ways for us to recognize how we are dependent beings. In other words, our bodies are reminders that we are not God, that we are not self- sufficient or perfect.
However, in the mystery of God’s gratuitous mercy, our bodies are brought into a participation of the life of the spirit. Thus, God reveals His desire to raise up the lowly. This mystery is most radically witnessed by God the Son taking on a human nature in the Incarnation, which reveals God’s desire to bring our entire human nature – bodies included – to participate in His life.
Thus, rather than seeing our body with its limits as an enemy, John Paul II’s teaching guides us to see how God desires for us to experience divine and human love through our identity as embodied creatures. The “war between the flesh and the spirit” is not meant to result in a separation of flesh from spirit, but rather in a reintegration, a perfect unifying of the two. The body is meant to be brought into perfect submission to the spirit.
St. Michael’s admonition, ‘Who is like unto God?,’ should then remind us too of the virtue of humility hat we all must cultivate if we wish to experience the fulness of love that God desires us to receive in our created natures.
We should not then try to be “like angels,” that is, to reject the gift of our bodies or our good natural limits. Rather, we should receive the gift of our created bodily natures through a spirit of gratitude and reverence. By doing this, we might imitate the humility of Mary who in pondering the mystery of God’s providence, proclaimed: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”
Patrick Gordon works as a content creator for TOBET and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Dallas.