Sermon given by Br. Stephen at the Juventutem London Mass,
24th October 2014 St Raphael, Archangel.
Reprinted here by kind permission of Br.Stephen
First of all, may I thank Juventutem London for inviting me yet again to participate in this your monthly High Mass – whenever I am invited, it is always the highlight of my month, so thank you – it is a great pleasure to be here. Our thanks too go to Canon Newby, the Rector of this Parish, for his usual hospitality. There will be a social after this Mass to which you are all warmly invited.
“The Lord hath sent me to heal thee, and to deliver Sara thy son’s wife from the devil. For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord.” (Tob. 12:14-15)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. The Canonical books of Sacred Scripture give us the names of three Archangels, while stating that they are seven in total, adoring before the throne of Almighty God. Michael and Gabriel appear often, and in ways that we are very familiar with – the Nativity story and the depiction of the Battle between Michael and Lucifer being the two best-known examples.
Raphael [RAH-phi-el, RAY-phee-el, or Raffle – however you wish to pronounce it], whose feast we keep today, is the holy Archangel of Healing and Protection on journeys. We know about him from the Book of Tobias (or Tobit). I wonder, have many of you read the Book of Tobias all the way through? It really is a wonderful read, and it only has 14 short chapters, so I do urge you all to read it as part of your prayers. First – a word of warning – for those of you used to the Douai-Rheims version, the book of Tobias can seem, at first reading, to be rather complicated, because both father and son are called Tobias, and both mother and mother-in-law are called Anna. The Catholic Edition of the RSV follows the convention whereby the parents of Tobias are Tobit and Anna, while Tobias’ eventual mother-in-law is called – somewhat amusingly to our ear – Edna. These differences are also explained by the fact that this book is handed down to us in a Greek version – but the Vetus Latina and Vulgate translators seem to have had access to other older sources, including some in Aramaic, and so the Old Vulgate and its translations have a few extra verses and variations. So much for the scholarship. The book of Tobias is one of my favourite books of the Old Testament, because it has so many touching and even funny moments in it. For example, old father Tobias is an honest and hardworking man, who, even in exile under the pagan Kings Salmanasar and his son Sennacherib, kept to the Law of the Lord by fasting, prayer and almsgiving, by avoiding forbidden foods, and principally by burying the Jewish dead – dangerous work, burying the bodies of his brothers who had been executed, but a corporal work of mercy and a great act of devotion. Once, he even left a wonderful dinner to get cold, while he wept and undertook this morbid duty. It was in the course of this midnight grave-digging that something very unfortunate happened to him – being defiled by touching corpses, he had to sleep outside against a wall, but some swallows above him decided to relieve themselves over the side of their nest, and the “calida stercora” (we had better leave that in Latin) fell into old Tobias’ eyes, leaving him with white films over his eyes, and rendering him blind. Rather funny to us, but he was not at all amused. Then there is Raguel whose daughter Sara is being molested by a demon named Asmodeus. This demon has killed all of Sara’s seven husbands on every one of her seven wedding nights. Her rather sceptical maid decides to lock herself away, clearly having decided that the seven men couldn’t all have died of natural causes while performing their nuptial duties, so Sara, rather like the she-spiders who are known to seduce their mates only to kill them afterwards, is therefore shamed as a murderess. Both Tobias and Sara pray to the Lord for help – and, so the Bible tells us, since their prayers went up simultaneously before the Lord, God sent his holy angel Raphael to heal them both – one of blindness and the other of a demon. The way in which the archangel does this then forms the bulk of the book of Tobias. Young Tobias is sent out on an errand from his Father, with his companion Azarias (who is actually the Archangel Raphael under the disguise of a distant relative) – and they have a dog with them – the only real example of man’s best friend, a pet dog, in the Old Testament. The archangel rescues young Tobias from an enormous fish, which they then eat – saving various internal organs for the all-important healings of Sara (from the demon) and Father Tobias (from his guano-induced blindness). Young Tobias and his heavenly companion reach the house of Raguel, and Tobias is to marry Sara. Unaware that his daughter Sara is to be delivered from the attack of the demon, Raguel has an attack of nerves, and thinks that maybe young Tobias – after all, he’s Sara’s eighth husband – will die on his marriage bed too… so, in spite of the bliss of the wedding celebrations, he goes outside and begins to dig a grave for him! Of course, the Archangel’s help is forthcoming, the demon is conquered, and Tobias and Sara live, praying together devoutly before they consummate their marriage. When they return to father Tobias – who himself has almost despaired of their safety – it is the archangel once again – still disguised as a travelling companion – who heals him of his blindness. Finally, it is only when young Tobias suggests that he and his father pay his travelling companion, and take him aside to try and persuade him to take some gift from them, that Raphael reveals himself, as we heard sung in the Epistle. He is an angel, “one of the Seven” that stand before the Lord. They of course are terrified, and bow down before him, but he says “Peace be to you, fear not. For when I was with you, I was there by the will of God. Bless ye him, and sing praises to him.” Unlike Michael and Gabriel, whose roles are played out in the great battle of good and evil, and in the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, our Archangel today shows us the great companionship that the Angels show to us men. We too are exiles from our promised land, on a dangerous journey from earth to heaven – and we have need of the Angels to guide us in the narrow path of salvation. We too are blinded by the original sin of our first parents, and though we may do good and praise God as best we can, we are nonetheless weak, and grope in the darkness, in need of heavenly vision. The healing grace of God, through the Sacraments, and through the protecting help of his Angels, comes to deliver us and to save us. We are not alone – just as God is not alone. He is surrounded by the whole hosts of heaven, Angels and Saints, and principal among those are the Seven Archangels – mentioned first in the book of Tobias, and then in chapter 8 of the Book of Revelation. God is not alone – he made creatures – both angels and men – to return love to Him who loves them so much. He made man in his own image, and then took on our human flesh, raising our humanity to untold dignity, a wonder before which even the Angels and Archangels bow. More than that, God gives us the angels as our helpers and guides; they are not only his messengers of grace, they are also our defenders against the devil and his fallen angels; and they offer us inspirations and sight, for when we find ourselves in darkness and blindness. The Archangel St Raphael personifies that healing power of God. That is why the Gospel passage we heard at this Mass, the trembling of the waters of the Pool of Bethsaida, is sung on this day. Our Blessed Lord himself goes up to Jerusalem – God Incarnate enters the Temple made for Him by human hands, the Temple of Jerusalem – and yet the Angel (traditionally always seen as St Raphael) still comes, as always, to heal the first sick person to be dipped into the pool when the waters are trembled. God still acts through his angels – they are how he chooses to act. The way we are healed is also prefigured by the fish guts and water – these are types of the Sacramentals now dispensed by Christ’s Church – water and oil, used of course in the Sacraments of Baptism and Extreme Unction, but also for blessings and for devotional use. God provides these things for our use – and, when we use them, they are channels of grace for us. We do something angelic when we avail ourselves of Sacramentals, such as Holy Water, blessed objects, blessed oil – we honour the healing power of God when we use them well, as the Church directs us. The Holy Mass itself puts before us the holy Angels in several places, to remind us of their closeness to us and to God. In the Preface and the Sanctus, we are reminded that, in the eternal liturgy of Heaven, the Lord God of Hosts, “Dominus Deus Sabaoth” is continually praised by the Cherubim, the Seraphim, the Virtues, Powers, Dominations, and the whole chorus of Angels as they sing their “Sanctus” before the Throne of the Lamb who was Slain. In the Confiteor, we confess our sins not only to God and to his Blessed Mother, but also to Blessed Michael the Archangel – he who did battle with Satan is on our side when we do battle against evil; and so, whenever we fall into sin, we become deserters in Michael’s army, and we need to ask him to pray for our pardon, and restore us to the ranks of the blessed. We also see Michael as the angel in the Book of Revelation standing at the right of the Altar of incense, with a golden censer in his hand, adding to the incense the prayers of the whole Church, rising like smoke before the presence of God. The prayers the priest says at the offertory incensations make this clear to us. Just as we prefigure here on earth that worship of God in heaven, so we follow the example of the Angels who never cease to worship God, presenting our prayers to the Most High. And finally, we have that supremely moving moment in the Canon where the priest bows down and asks that an Angel might take this sacrifice to the Altar of God on high, into the sight of his Divine Majesty, so that as we receive from our participation at this Altar the Sacred Body and Blood of His Son, we might be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing. The Angels are with us tonight at this holy Mass. The Seven who stand before the Throne of God are here with us tonight. Look at the sanctuary – look at the gaps between the pillars, the empty spaces… Look at the gaps in the pews around you… They are NOT empty spaces. Every inch of this holy place is filled with Angels. Our own Guardian Angels are here with us, delighted to see us honouring God, praying for forgiveness, grace and blessing, happy to inspire us to even greater fervour. When we sing our Sanctus tonight, we are only joining our little voices in chorus with a countless number of heavenly spirits. This is true even at a Low Mass celebrated by a priest on his own in a dusty corner of an empty Church… The Angels and Saints are there. High Mass is meant to make us even more aware of this fact. We are surrounded by the heavenly host. Are we aware of it? Do we remind ourselves of it? We should, I think! It is a great comfort, and it should also spur us on to give God the very best worship we can. The angels offer him worship, but nothing comes near to the worship of the Mass, which we offer to the Father together with Christ, through his priest, each time we come to the Altar. When we receive communion, St John Mary Vianney used to say, the angels envy us with a holy awe – for while they gaze upon the face of the Almighty forever, they do not have bodies in which to receive His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. How they marvel to see us come to the communion rail and be filled, healed and touched by the most Sacred Body of our Saviour! Just as our angels are pleased to see us make a good holy communion, how they must be saddened and ashamed of us when we make a bad communion, a rushed thanksgiving, a thoughtless communion, a communion by rote rather than by devotion! Like Raphael, they would say to us: “When I was with you, I was there by the will of God! Bless ye him, and sing praises to him! Bless ye God, and publish all his wonderful works.” Let us then praise the Archangel whose feast we celebrate tonight. Let us ask him to pray for us to God, and obtain for us that companionship and healing which he once gave to Tobit, Tobias and Sara.
We know that our sins wound us and wound the Body of Christ, the Church. Let us ask God to heal us. Let us beseech Christ our Redeemer to heal the wounds of our sins, to “patch up” the tears we have made to the Body of Christ, the Church, and to bring healing and peace to our souls, bruised and scarred as they are by our sins. May the Seven Archangels come to our aid and direct our thoughts and prayers up to the Throne of the Lamb. May the prayers of the healing Archangel Raphael assist us. May he come down to us at this Mass, stir the still waters of our lukewarm souls, heal our weaknesses, and raise our minds up to the vision of heavenly glory that awaits us at the end of our journey. Then we shall indeed follow his command, and sing the praises of God in the words of Tobias: “Thou art great, O Lord, forever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages. For thou scourgest and thou savest; thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again, and there is none that can escape thy hand… As for me, I will praise him in the land of my captivity: because he hath shewn his majesty toward a sinful nation… My soul, bless thou the Lord, because the Lord our God hath delivered Jerusalem his city from all her troubles. The gates of Jerusalem shall be built of sapphire and of emerald, and all the walls thereof round about of precious stones. All its streets shall be paved with white and clean stones, and Alleluia shall be sung in its streets. Blessed be the Lord, who hath exalted it, and may he reign over it for ever and ever. Amen.”
St Raphael the Archangel, Pray for us.