St Michael’s, O’Fallon—Genesis 28:10-17
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Those are the words of the patriarch Jacob when he wakes up from an astonishing dream in which he sees a stairway to heaven on which angels are continuously ascending and descending, and then hears the LORD tell him that he is indeed the heir of the promise made to his grandfather Abraham that his progeny would be a great nation, numerous, blessed, and chosen to be the vehicle by which God would bless all the peoples of the earth. So Jacob wakes up from that dream and he’s overcome by the experience. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
This passage from Genesis was chosen for the feast of St Michael and All Angels, no doubt, because of the reference to angels ascending and descending “Jacob’s ladder.” When we encounter angels in scripture, sometimes it’s a single angel who is responsible for delivering a message. (After all, the literal meaning of “angel” is “messenger.”) Gabriel comes to mind, as the one who delivered to the Blessed Virgin Mary the news of her vocation to be the theotokos, the God-bearer. Sometimes the angel we meet is one who acts boldly on behalf of the LORD. Here we think of Michael, who, as we read in Revelation, leads the hosts of heaven in doing battle with the minions of darkness. At other times, angels are depicted as simply worshiping and praising God, ascribing glory to God. This seems to be what the ascending and descending angels in Jacob’s dream are doing.
In each of these cases, however, the angels in question mediate the presence of God, or represent God in some way. Gabriel speaks on God’s behalf. Michael acts on God’s behalf. The angels on Jacob’s ladder point to God as the source of light and life. After encountering them, Jacob exclaims, “How awesome is this place!” This place. He associates the place with the glory that he encountered there.
You and I may not encounter angels on a regular basis (although, we perhaps do so without realizing it). But we do encounter the glory of God. We experience liminal moments, moments when the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven are separated only by an exquisitely thin tissue. I, for one, am pretty easy to impress, so a good, rollicking thunderstorm presents me with such a moment. Walking along the surf on an ocean beach does the same. Certain pieces of music and certain works of art make me feel as though I am touching the very face of God. Of course, at every celebration of the Eucharist, whether in an ancient Gothic cathedral or a humble country church, or at the bedside of a dying Christian, we consciously and formally invoke the presence of angels to join us in our inadequate offering of praise and thanksgiving: “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices and archangels and all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to the glory of your Name …”, as we then break into Holy, holy, holy …”
“How awesome is this place.” This place, literally, is a place where the Eucharist is regularly celebrated. This building, this room, housing this altar, the home of this people, is the venue of the assembly of those who regularly encounter the Living God here. How awesome is this place.
In this place, the people of God encounter the glory of God. This is our Bethel, which means simply “house of God,” and is the name Jacob gave to the place where he had his dream. This is where we have the opportunity to see the angels of God ascending and descending. In this place, the people of God receive the gifts of God. We are fed by the Word of God, both in the liturgy and in occasions outside the liturgy. We are fed in the Most Blessed Sacrament, as we together join in intimate Holy Communion with our risen Lord Jesus. In this place, we who are the branches of the vine, the members of the body, also share holy communion with one another, with those other members that are connected to the same head, with those other branches that are connected with the same root. This is where we form of the bonds of affection, the bonds of community. This is where we grow to trust one another, to love one another.
Here we encounter God’s glory. Here was receive God’s gifts. Here we become one people in Christ. Here we are made disciples. And from here we go forth as those who are sent, in apostolic mission. Indeed, how awesome is this place. This is the house of God; this is the gate of heaven. As the baptized people of God, as disciples of the risen Jesus, you and I live within that heavenly gate. As we go out, we become that gate. We extend the bounds of the kingdom of heaven to the places we go and to the people we meet in those places. We become, if you will, angels—messengers of the good news of God in Christ. The awesomeness of this place can be experienced by those who never drive into this parking lot and never walk through these doors. Such awesomeness can be encountered through the ministry of those who regularly encounter God’s glory here and receive God’s gifts here and are made disciples here and are send forth in mission from here.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were told that they would be blessed with descendants, and that those descendants would be blessed by the care and guidance of a good and gracious God, but that the vocation of those descendants would be to channel blessing to all the peoples of the earth. You and I, my brothers and sisters, are those descendants—wild Gentile olive branches grafted onto the cultivated tree of Israel. We are blessed to be a blessing. In the words of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, used by our Eastern Orthodox cousins, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith; we worship the undivided Trinity. who has saved us.”
How awesome is this place. This is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven. May Michael and all his angels guard and preserve us. Amen.