"Who is like God -- Who is like God?"
Were today not Sunday, we would be celebrating the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. And, next month, along with our Lady's Rosary, the month of October is dedicated to all of God's holy angels. Like all of the angels whose names we know, Michael's name ends in "E-L" which is the Hebrew word for God. We know that Raphael means "medicine of God," and Gabriel means "strength of God." Michael's name is just a little different, in that it can be interpreted in two ways; one a question, the other a statement. We may think of the Archangel as one "who is like God"; or we may think of him challenging those who think of themselves as gods: "who can possibly be like God?"
Remember that the angels were the first beings of God's creation. They were utterly fine -- pure spirits -- very much like God Himself. The were possessed of great beauty, enormous intellects, and were unencumbered by the limitations of a physical body. They knew God directly, without any intermediary; suffered no pain or sickness or death, and could be anywhere they desired whenever they desired it. In a very real sense, one could describe each and every angel as one "who is like God." Yet, we know that some of them fell from grace.
Perhaps the best way to explain the problem of the fallen angels is that some of them perceived themselves to be too much like God. They allowed their great charm and strength and beauty, to go, so to speak, to their heads. Like all of God's creatures, they were created to "show forth His goodness"; as a demonstration of His omnipotence. But, not surprisingly, a creature who sees little or no difference between himself and his Creator is unlikely to feel the need to pay Him special honors. One "who is like God" very often expects to be treated himself like God.
In itself, this near perfection in the angels, might not have brought about their rebellion and fall. Even the most perfect angel -- the one we refer to today as "Lucifer" -- could see God's superiority to himself. Even if only grudgingly, the angels would all have to admit their dependence on the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We are not sure of the exact sequence of events in the fall of the angels, but we can conjecture. What seems to have made the situation unbearable to some of the angels, came about when they learned of God's plan for creating the material world ... and filling that world with living material things ... and making a material being with a spiritual soul. Some of them were horrified God would take a spiritual being somewhat like themselves -- having at least a tiny intellect and a free will -- and make that immortal spirit inform a material body. In other words, the seeds at least, of angelic rebellion, may have come with the creation of man.
And not only was there to be man -- but there was also to be a similar creature called woman -- both of them hybrids of body and soul, intellect and free will. And if all of this wasn't bad enough, God would give these two the ability to reproduce their kind -- soon they would be all over! And curiously enough, God would place Himself at their service, cooperating in the conception of their young at times of their own choosing rather than of His own. The angels, you see, never have offspring, and couldn't dream of a lesser creature than themselves making such demands on God.
But, perhaps, the final factor, was the knowledge that man would fall from God's grace, and God Himself would become man to bring about the redemption of this lowly creature. To many of the angels, this was more than they could take -- in their splendid, god-like, eternal glory, they would have to pay homage to the Son of God in the inferior nature of a material being -- angels would have to worship man -- unthinkable!
Unthinkable, of course, to all those angels swollen with pride -- unthinkable to all those who felt they knew God's business better than God did -- unthinkable to those who were like God, and who felt that they should be gods.
We are told that the battle cry of the ensuing angelic rebellion was this phrase, "Who is like God?" But it was voiced not as a compliment to Lucifer and his cohort -- it was voiced, rather, in scorn: "Who is like God? -- just who do you think you are to think you are like God." We are told that a great battle took place in heaven, with Michael the Archangel leading the legions of angels faithful to God, as he will do again near the end of time.1
No doubt, the pain of loss to Lucifer and his associates was extreme, for they have lost more than others will ever know. But even worse, they were faced with the indignity that some of those material creatures, those men and women, would some day have the heavenly happiness that they had forfeit. It is bad enough for a clever person to be unsuccessful -- but intolerable to him when he sees a simple person succeed in his place. So, throughout history, the devil and the fallen angels would attempt to foil God's plans for the salvation of men and women.
And, usually, the temptation is about the same -- an attempt to convince man that he is more than he really is; to convince man that he needs simply to act against God to be as god. "Go ahead, Eve, eat of the forbidden fruit -- God told you not to eat from that tree only because He "knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God...."2 It is not always so blatant or so direct, but in any number of ways the fallen angels try to put it in our heads that God is depriving us of something that we should rightfully have, and it is up to us to take it -- that we don't need God to tell us what to do, because we can act for ourselves.
Often the devil will appeal to the same vice in us that cost him his eternal reward -- he appeals to our pride. He can either try to convince us that we can be like gods -- or he can convince us that we are superior to most of the people around us, and therefore deserve to have whatever we want. "You are better than your neighbor, a more noble person; why shouldn't you have his money? his wife? or even his life?
For most of history and in most cases, this sort of temptation was on an individual basis -- the devil would tempt someone, and they would sin or not. For the most part, even pagan societies did not allow the idea that trying to be God was something to be generally encouraged. Certainly, in Christian nations, it was society's duty to control or moderate the sinner, and not to encourage him. The idea that man could usurp God's position was seen for what it is, blasphemy. Most of the things that Christians knew to be seriously sinful were also considered to be criminal in the civil order.
But a few hundred years ago things began to change. In the period that called itself the "Enlightenment," whole societies began to adopt the idea that man was free of God; or that, indeed, man was his own "god." The temptation of individuals was now wholesaled by the devil. At first it was restricted to civil society, but the devil took his temptation, also, to the Church. The false philosophies of the "Enlightenment" claimed that it was man and not God who decided what is true and what is false; man who decided what is right and what is wrong. Entire societies were corrupted with the notion that public truth and morality were to be determined by public discussion ("dialogue" to use the trendy phrase) and the reaching of consensus -- ultimately the Gallop Poll would replace the Ten Commandments as the moral standard. Today we refer to this false philosophy as Modernism.
For some, the "God" of the "Enlightenment" was one who created the universe and walked away leaving man on his own -- for others "God" was just an invention of mankind. The claim was made that all life in the universe was the result of random chance; that evolution brought about the higher animals and finally man; a few fools even went so far as to claim that man was continuing to evolve, and would one day become "god." But in all of these ideas, it is always man's place to act as though he were God.
Now, the holy Popes of a hundred years ago perceived this false philosophy being introduced even into the Church of God by the devil. Priests and even bishops were beginning to like the idea of changing doctrine and morality around so as to make the Church "fit in" better in the modern world. They were adjusting to the diabolical changes already at work in civil society. Pope Pius IX issued a condemnation of Modernism -- largely political and economic usurpations in his time -- and called an ecumenical council to consolidate the Church's position, but it was interrupted by war. Pope Pius X issued a brilliant exposé of Modernism's underlying philosophy. Leo XIII before him and Pius XI after him both issued detailed encyclicals as to how the Church ought to deal with the problems of the modern world -- but in a Catholic way.
Of all of these holy Popes, however, it is Leo XIII who stands out for his invocation of the traditional patrons of mankind and the Church against the devil. All of these men were devoted to the Blessed Virgin -- that goes without saying. But Leo, recognizing that Modernism is directly related to the fallen angels, took our case to the leader of God's angelic host, Saint Michael the Archangel. The operative question in confronting Modernism is that ancient battle cry, "Who is like God? -- just who do you think you are to think you are like God."
In Pope Leo's time (1884) the Church added a few prayers at the end of most Low Masses. In addition to the three Hail Marys, there is a general prayer for the Church, and then one specifically directed to Saint Michael. It clearly acknowledges that the troubles of the modern world are ultimately caused by the "malice and snares," the "wiles and wickedness of the devil." These troubles may manifest themselves as war, or famine, or illiteracy, or political tyranny, but at their root they are actually battles in that angelic war that began at creation and will continue until the last days.
At the end of Mass today we will recite a slightly more elaborate prayer to Saint Michael, issued by Pope Leo XIII a few year later. Take it home with you and recite it often. Notice, carefully, that the prayer calls for expulsion of the devils who have infiltrated the Church and the rest of society. Make that part of your prayer as well.
Let me close with one parting observation: In many ways, we, like the angels, are like God. We are made in His "image and likeness." Through the holy mysteries we are called to "become partakers of His divinity, who humbled Himself to become partaker of our humanity." Good angels and good men and women understand this exaltation of creatures, and the humility of the Creator, and together we glorify Him all the more for it. Bad men and bad angels seek to exalt themselves at God's expense -- all they can hope for is their own eternal humiliation. Call upon Saint Michael and all of the holy angels frequently, so that in the end we may be numbered with good and not with the bad.
1. Apocalypse xii.