September 29th, Feast of the Archangels
Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are the only three angels mentioned by name in the Scriptures, and they all belong to the same choir of angels: The archangels.
From St. Dionysius and St. Gregory the Great, we learn that there are nine choirs of angels which are gathered into three sets of three. But where are the archangels in this list? Are they toward the top of the bottom? The answer may surprise you!
The nine choirs of angels, according to the Angelic Doctor
“We know on the authority of Scripture that there are nine orders of angels, viz., Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Throne, Cherubim and Seraphim. That there are Angels and Archangels nearly every page of the Bible tell us, and the books of the Prophets talk of Cherubim and Seraphim. St. Paul, too, writing to the Ephesians enumerates four orders when he says: 'above all Principality, and Power, and Virtue, and Domination'; and again, writing to the Colossians he says: 'whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers'. If we now join these two lists together we have five Orders, and adding Angels and Archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim, we find nine Orders of Angels.” - So, St. Gregory the Great (Homily 34, In Evang.)
St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, reconciles the theology of East and West when he unites the reasoning of St. Gregory with that of St. Denys (i.e. St. Dionysius the Areopagite). He lists the angels in three orders of three:
I. 1. Seraphim
II. 4. Dominions
III. 7. Principalities
St. Thomas points out that each angel fulfills his own proper office, but as the angels are far above our natural human knowledge, we cannot know of the distinctions among the angels by our own powers. Thus, because our knowledge of the angels is imperfect, we can only distinguish among them in a general way – and hence, we recognize the angels according to the nine choirs.
These choirs designate the offices of the angels and are only approximations to the reality. “That special distinction of orders and offices, wherein each angel has his own office and order, is hidden from us.” (ST I, q.108, a.3, ad 2)
The Angel of the Schools speaks of the archangels
It is worth noting that St. Thomas Aquinas (following both St. Gregory and St. Denys) places the archangels in the lowest sphere and at the second lowest choir of angels. The archangels are, in fact, superior only to the angels. This may be surprising to some – for it means that Raphael, Gabriel, and even Michael are not among the greatest angels.
However, if St. Michael and the other archangels are toward the bottom of the choirs, we may wonder why it is that they are called “arch”-angels. Why is St. Michael, in particular, called the “prince” if he is toward the bottom?
“The "Archangels," according to Dionysius (Coel. Hier. ix), are between the "Principalities" and the "Angels." A medium compared to one extreme seems like the other, as participating in the nature of both extremes; thus tepid seems cold compared to hot, and hot compared to cold. So the "Archangels" are called the "angel princes"; forasmuch as they are princes as regards the "Angels," and angels as regards the Principalities. But according to Gregory (Hom. xxiv in Ev.) they are called "Archangels," because they preside over the one order of the "Angels"; as it were, announcing greater things: and the "Principalities" are so called as presiding over all the heavenly "Virtues" who fulfil the Divine commands.” (ST I, q.108, a.5, ad 4)
Thus, the archangels are rightly call “arch” insofar as they are above the angels – hence, they are “arch”ANGELS and not “arch”PRINCIPALITIES or “arch”SERAPHIM. Below the others, archangels still rule over the choir of angels as princes. Further, we point out that it is primarily the angels and the archangels who are sent to men as messengers – thus, from the perspective of salvation history, the archangels are generally the greatest princes of angels whom men encounter.
St. Michael, the prince of the heavenly hosts
From the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Regarding [St. Michael’s] rank in the celestial hierarchy opinions vary; St. Basil (Hom. de angelis) and other Greek Fathers, also Salmeron, Bellarmine, etc., place St. Michael over all the angels; they say he is called "archangel" because he is the prince of the other angels; others (cf. P. Bonaventura, op. cit.) believe that he is the prince of the seraphim, the first of the nine angelic orders. But, according to St. Thomas (Summa Ia.113.3) he is the prince of the last and lowest choir, the angels. The Roman Liturgy seems to follow the Greek Fathers; it calls him "Princeps militiae coelestis quem honorificant angelorum cives". The hymn of the Mozarabic Breviary places St. Michael even above the Twenty-four Elders. The Greek Liturgy styles him Archistrategos, "highest general" (cf. Menaea, 8 Nov. and 6 Sept.).”
While the Catholic Encyclopedia seems to side against St. Thomas, we respond that it is very much possible to call St. Michael the prince of the heavenly hosts without claiming that he is in a choir above the choir of the archangels. If we recall that the heavenly hosts would probably only include the archangels and the angels (since the other choirs are directed towards higher works), then it is very much possible that Michael could be the prince of the army of heaven and yet be below the seraphim, cherubim, et alia.
Indeed, there is something of the divine plan revealed in this: The Lord constantly favors the lowly over the great. Thus, as Lucifer was from the choir of the seraphim, it is fitting that he should be defeated by one of the lowest of the ruling angels – i.e. an archangel. St. Michael defeated Satan’s pride and power through his own humility and meekness.
Even among the angels, our good God casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly!
Sts. Micheal, Gabriel, and Raphael, Pray for us!