The “Prœlium Magnum” of History

The Book of Revelation vividly describes the battle waged in Heaven between the faithful and the apostate angels. Far from ending there, this struggle has continued on earth throughout history, and has reached a climax today.

Gospel for the Feast of St. Michael, St. Gabriel
and St. Raphael, Archangels

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” 48 Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” 49 Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” 50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” 51 And He said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see Heaven opened and the Angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn 1:47-51).

I – Angels and Men: Two Closed Societies?

The feast of the three Archangels brings to our minds the splendour of the celestial spirits, their prodigious excellence and purity, as well as their incalculable strength and power. The Creator of all things was pleased to adorn the universe with myriads of Angels, in order to present it to us perfect, admirable and resplendent. Just as it is impossible to count the stars of the firmament and the grains of sand of the seashore, so it is impossible for us to calculate the vastness of the angelic militia, which surpasses all human consideration. Based on patristic tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas1 establishes the numerical superiority of Angels over men in the proportion of ninety-nine to one.

But this is only the quantitative inequality between Angles and men; much greater is the disparity between their nature and ours. When we analyse the distance existing between the angelic and the human world, we perceive the unattainable height from which the former overlooks the latter.

Harmonic superiority of the angelic world

In direct contact with the angelic world, a poor mortal who was not sustained by divine grace would feel almost annihilated; such is the supremacy of the celestial spirits. Although men are of a rational nature, the fact that their souls are united to bodies makes their nature quite modest in comparison with those diaphanous ambassadors of the Lord.

Various Old Testament episodes remind us of the holy fear that the Israelites felt at the sight of a divine messenger, thinking that, after having seen one, death was surely at hand (cf. Jgs 6:22; 13:22; Lk 1:12). And the overwhelming impact that the vision of the Angel of Peace had on the shepherd children of Fatima at the beginning of the twentieth century shows that the reasons for this feeling are just as real today.

Nevertheless, God rules everything with a gentle wisdom and, while He has established a hierarchy among His creatures, He has also harmonized these two societies, so divergent from a natural point of view, by granting the gift of grace to both Angels and men. Through it, both categories of beings enjoy the condition of divine filiation. Thus, although the pure spirits by their dazzling intelligence and indomitable will greatly transcend the poor insights and weak resolutions of the children of Adam, their common participation in the life of God makes them our brothers, closely united to us in the love of the same Father.

The role of Angels in human history

Angels have been dedicated to guarding, enlightening and governing men throughout the centuries, acting as true ministers of the Most High, in order to prevent them from going astray during their pilgrimage through this vale of tears and to help them attain eternal life. The heavenly spirits, after passing the trial to which the Sovereign King of the universe submitted them, enjoy the vision of God (cf. Mt 18:10) and remain stable as a rock in their adherence to every form of good. For this reason, like older brothers and loyal friends, they strive only to give the greatest possible glory to their Lord by leading their charges to Paradise.

The close relationship existing between these two diverse but intimately intertwined worlds is richly related in Sacred Scripture. We could recall in this regard the exploits of St. Raphael and Tobias (cf. Tb 6-12), or the apparitions of the Archangel Gabriel to certain righteous men, culminating in his sublime colloquy with the Virgin of virgins (cf. Dn 8:15-16; 9:21; Lk 1:19,26). Moreover, the Angels are responsible for the heavenly liturgy, as is described in various biblical passages (cf. Gn 28:12; Is 6:2-4; Ez 10; Dn 7:10; Rv 8:3-4). For this reason, Church Tradition considers the recitation of psalms and hymns to the glory of God as an angelic office, by means of which men unite with pure spirits in a single praise of the Creator. The role of Guardian Angels in the sanctification of their subjects also occupies a primordial place in Catholic piety, based on solid theological conclusions brought to perfection by the wisdom of St. Thomas.

However, there is an aspect of this fruitful relationship that is not often emphasized, which consists in the coalition of the blessed Angels and faithful men in the struggle against the mystery of evil that unfolds in the course of history. This aspect is related to the sacral, combative and exorcistic cry of the Prince of the Heavenly Militia: “Quis ut Deus? – Who is like unto God?”

The Book of Revelation, in symbolic and mysterious language, portrays it thus: “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. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. […] Then the dragon was angry with the Woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the Commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (12:7-9, 17).

Because Satan was expelled by St. Michael from the presence of the Lord of hosts and cast down to earth, a new battlefield was opening.

Angels and men: just one army of the Lord

St. Michael combats the Dragon, “Les Très riches heures du Duc de Berry” – Chantilly
Castle (France)

After the terrible and fierce war waged in Celestial Paradise was won, the dispute no longer consisted of a fulminating duel between pure spirits. Men had entered the fray, seduced at first by the tempter, but helped over the centuries by divine mercy, which culminated in the work of Redemption carried out by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The curse pronounced by God the Father against the Serpent established an irreconcilable enmity between the race of the devil and the race of the Woman, unleashing a bitter and mortal conflict that will only end at the Last Judgement.

So beautiful, so profitable and so glorious is this war that the Son of God Incarnate Himself entered it as an invincible General. His principal weapon consists in His filial and loving obedience to the will of the Father, manifested in the Sacrifice of the Cross. Our Lord is the King of Heaven and earth, the Absolute Lord whom the Angels, reverent and full of awe, adore and serve. He, therefore, heads the hosts of the good, composed of the celestial spirits and righteous men. Satan, as we have seen, is the head of the demons and their followers, recruited also from among the children of Eve.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in one of the most archetypical steps of his spiritual retreat, presents the meditation on the two standards, that is, of the two armies facing each other until the consummation of the ages. As a composition of place, he proposes “to see a great field of all that region of Jerusalem, where the supreme Commander-in-chief of the good is Christ Our Lord; and another field in the region of Babylon, where the chief of the enemy is Lucifer.”2

The holy founder suggests that we picture the devil seated on a chair of fire and smoke, with a horrible and frightful figure. In contrast, he recommends that we conceive the image of the “supreme and true Captain, who is Christ Our Lord.”3 The former, with the cry “I will not serve” (Jer 2:20) and “I will make myself like the Most High” (Is 14:14), seeks to dethrone God. For His part, the Divine Knight, mounted on a white steed (cf. Rv 19:11), fights with overpowering strength to restore to the Father the glory due to Him.

How does this struggle unfold? What will be its outcome? These are timely questions that are worth clarifying on the feast of the three Archangels.

II – The Initial Radiance of a Just Soul

The Gospel chosen by Holy Church for today’s Liturgy falls at the end of the first chapter of St. John. Our Lord establishes the first contacts with His future disciples, who belong to the circle of followers of the Precursor. Nathanael stands out among them. It is of him that Jesus utters the noblest praise.

Nathanael’s primordial light

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said of him, “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.”

Our Lord’s discernment of spirits is absolute. With a penetrating and infallible gaze He knows the hearts of men most perfectly, and He perceives more than anyone else what aspect of the infinite truth, goodness and beauty of God each one is uniquely called to represent. This is why when He sees Nathanael He says: “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.”

If we consider that Jesus would say of Himself that He is the Truth, and that His fiercest battle against the Pharisees was fought because of their crass hypocrisy, how can we fail to appreciate the praise given to the new disciple, who approaches in the expectation of meeting the Saviour of Israel? It seems likely that the Redeemer intended to point out Nathanael’s primordial light in order to stimulate him on his specific path of sanctification.

A robust faith at the outset of the vocation

48 Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” 49Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.”

Nathanael felt profoundly understood. No one had ever explained the depths of his virtuous personality so concisely and clearly. Yes, he was in fact an upright person, and only Our Lord had sensed this so accurately, without even directly knowing him. Jesus had seen him from a distance, supernaturally, while the future Apostle was under the fig tree praying or reflecting on private matters, never revealed to others. Perhaps Nathanael was thinking of the falsehood of the Pharisees and the evil of hypocrisy, deeply troubled as he contemplated the crisis of the Hebrew elites.

What is certain is that discovering that the Master knew and loved him in this way opened the disciple’s heart to the grace of faith, which he received with exceptional intensity: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” St. Peter would make such a confession later, after having witnessed resounding miracles and heard wonderful doctrines; Nathanael, however, on first contact soared to the divinity of the Lord and proclaimed it with conviction.

The reward of those who believe

50 Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.”

It is difficult to imagine the consolation Nathanael experienced on hearing these words from the Master. The Almighty never lets Himself be outdone in generosity! Our Lord praises the promptness of Nathanael’s faith, who proclaims Him Son of God and King of Israel only because he has experienced the depth and the extraordinary character of His discernment, and He promises him: “You will see greater things than this.”

Indeed, the Lord gives Himself entirely to those who give themselves entirely to Him. The disciple’s magnanimity and confidence were rewarded with unexpected largesse: the promise of Heaven, of the direct vision of God, which on earth we can already possess in some way through the virtue of hope.

The King of Angels

51And He said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see Heaven opened and the Angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Christ with Seraphim, by Lorenzo Monaco – Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Our Lord makes a clear allusion to the patriarch Jacob’s dream at Bethel (cf. Gn 28:10-19). During his evening rest, Jacob saw a ladder resting on the ground that reached up to Heaven. Angels were ascending and descending it, while Yahweh stood above, from where He solemnly renewed the promises made to Abraham. Jacob was greatly impressed by the vision and called that place “the house of God” and “the gate of Heaven”.

This supernatural manifestation emphasized the absolute sovereignty of the Divine Artist over all creation, including the heavenly spirits. By applying the Patriarch’s vision to Himself, the Saviour points to the splendour of His divinity, identical to that of the Father. Jesus is also Lord of the Angels, in all things superior to them, as St. Paul will teach in the famous passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “[He is] as much superior to Angels as the name He has obtained is more excellent than theirs. For to what Angel did God ever say, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten Thee’? Or again, ‘I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son’? And again, when He brings the first-born into the world, He says, ‘Let all God’s Angels worship Him” (1:4-6).

Jesus wants to reinforce Nathanael’s faith and, to this end, promises him that he will witness the clear, grand and supreme revelation of His divine personality. He is one with the Father and therefore Lord of the universe. This ascendancy of Christ over the Holy Angels explains the fact that He accompanied the prœlium magnum of Heaven, even before the Incarnation took place. Thus the Gospel of St. Luke confirms: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!’ And Jesus said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven’” (10:17-18).

Our Lord, as the eternal and uncreated Word of God, not only witnessed Lucifer’s downfall, but, as Supreme Judge, condemned him forever along with the band of rebellious angels defeated by St. Michael and his magnificent cohorts. The glorious outcome of the prœlium magnum was determined definitively by His infinite power. Nevertheless, the devil’s defeat did not stop him from acting altogether. In Heaven there was no longer room for him, it is true, but, as we have considered previously, a new prœlium magnum was beginning on earth, with the human race as its protagonist.

The Church, although victorious and sharing in the glory of the Resurrection of her Head, as St. John prophesies in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rv 21:9-27), would be persecuted, harassed and cruelly infiltrated by the snares of the devil and his followers down the centuries. But she would manifest the strength of her Founder’ divinity by purging, attacking and resisting the assaults waged by the legions of iniquity.

III – Angels and Men United by Sacred Bonds

“St. Michael and St. Bartholomew”, by Giovanni di Marco – Fine Arts Museum, Dijon (France)

The Apostle of the Gentiles compares the Christian to a soldier: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus […] Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him” (2 Tm 2:1, 3-4). It appears logical, therefore, that every baptized person should seek to know what his own role is in the fight against evil and what spiritual weapons should be used. On the other hand, we should also have a detailed knowledge of the role of the extraordinary allies Heaven has given us: “For He will give His Angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways” (Ps 91:11).

The fact is that the power of the heavenly spirits is far superior to human strength. One of them was enough to execute every first-born in Egypt without exception (cf. Ex 12:30; Heb 11:28). Another, during the reign of Hezekiah, slew one hundred and eighty-five thousand of Sennacherib’s soldiers in one night (cf. 2 Kgs 19:35). A third Angel protected the three young men whom Nebuchadnezzar had condemned to be burned alive in the fiery furnace (cf. Dn 3:49-50). St. Peter was also freed from the hands of Herod by the intervention of an Angel, who loosened his chains and miraculously opened the doors of the prison where he was being held (cf. Acts 12:7-10). There are countless similar and no less extraordinary events in Sacred Scripture and in the lives of the Saints.

God, in His wisdom, having given permission to the demons to tempt, infest and assail the children of light, sent the angelic spirits to wage war for the Holy Church, so as to cooperate with humanity in establishing the Kingdom of God. In this way, the prœlium magnum on earth will conclude with a resounding victory of the army of the good, which fights under the orders of the Divine General.

In our spiritual battles, let us fight with the Angels!

An episode from the Old Testament can help us to understand how beneficial and inspiring the presence of the Angels can be for the Lord’s holy militia. It took place during a battle of the Maccabees against Lysias, a relative of King Antiochus, who wanted to conquer Jerusalem in order to desecrate it by leading an imposing and frightening army against it.

The Jews, with tears and supplications, obtained that God send them a heavenly knight to accompany the soldiers in battle. The result was impressive: “Maccabeus himself was the first to take up arms, and he urged the others to risk their lives with him to aid their brethren. Then they eagerly rushed off together. And there, while they were still near Jerusalem, a horseman appeared at their head, clothed in white and brandishing weapons of gold. And they all together praised the merciful God, and were strengthened in heart, ready to assail not only men but the wildest beasts or walls of iron. They advanced in battle order, having their heavenly ally, for the Lord had mercy on them. They hurled themselves like lions against the enemy, and slew eleven thousand of them and sixteen hundred horsemen, and forced all the rest to flee. Most of them got away stripped and wounded, and Lysias himself escaped by disgraceful flight” (2 Mc 11:7-12).

The victory of St. Michael in Siponto over the invaders, by Luís Borrassà – Art Museum of Girona (Spain)

The feast of the glorious Archangels St. Michael, St. Gabriel and St. Raphael is therefore an opportune occasion for every soldier of Christ, in union with Holy Mother Church, to have recourse to the aid of the heavenly militia. Encouraged by the angelic action and united under the standard of the Cross, the army of the good – fearless, courageous and full of faith – will face the arrogant forces of the adversary who, like a new Goliath, will succumb in tremendous humiliation.

The angelic chivalry will fight together with the hosts of the just. Thus, Angels and men, strengthening the sacred bonds that unite them, will strike the most terrible blow in history against the infernal enemy, who extends his offensive over the whole earth, like an enormous and sinister web. With God made Man as King and General, who will be able to defeat this blessed army in which the celestial spirits and the children of light fight side by side against the devil and his cohorts?

The triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary prophesied in Fatima will be the most beautiful victory obtained in the combat between good and evil. Let us implore the help of the Angels, asking the princes of the heavenly militia to descend with their legions to fight in our favour. In this way we will be able to offer our Queen the crown of greatest splendour, the most resounding glory and the long-awaited reconquest. 

 

Notes


1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Super Matthæum, c.XVIII, lect.2; Catena Aurea. In Lucam, c.XV, v.1-7.

2 ST. IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA. Exercícios espirituais, n.138.

3 Idem, n.143.

 

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