Today is the day the Church commemorates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
On one level, it makes perfect sense to take time during the liturgical year to celebrate St. Michael. Like many saints, Michael demonstrates considerable devotion to God’s will during the course of his prominent, albeit fleeting, appearance in Holy Scripture. On another level, however, the inclusion of Michael in the calendar of the saints is downright bizarre. After all, St. Michael is an angel, a heavenly being appointed by God to carry a message or accomplish a specific task. “Saint” is a designation that seems as though it should be reserved for human beings who are particularly attuned to God’s will for creation. Sainthood implies a certain moral fortitude and a capacity for doing good and obeying God’s will even in the face of overwhelming difficulty. Angels don’t have a choice about doing God’s will; they are created to do so. Moreover, saints are generally held up as moral exemplars, people who share our struggles but show us that it is possible to persevere even we experience the limits of our human finitude. It is all but impossible for us to pattern our lives after angelic beings specifically created to be messengers of God.
This confusion about Michael’s presence on the calendar of our saints raises a broader question about our understanding of sainthood. While I gave a definition of “saint” in the previous paragraph, the reality is that the Church has never been settled on what a saint really is. The word comes from the Greek hagios, which literally means “holy,” i.e. set apart for God’s purposes. In the early days of Christianity, therefore, the term was applied to everyone who had been baptized into the body of Christ, since the Church was set apart from the world. The Church was, quite literally, the community of the saints. As the Church grew, however, “saint” was applied more specifically to individuals whom the community considered particularly holy and worthy of emulation, like those who had been martyred. Gradually, the Church began to regard these individuals as fundamentally different from everyone else. If you think about it, this notion that a saint is a different kind of person persists today. Most frequently, “saint” is applied to someone who is preternaturally well-behaved or long-suffering: “her husband is so hard to deal with; she’s a saint!” Given this popular assumption that saints are different from you and me, the inclusion of Michael makes perfect sense; what could be more different from a mere mortal than an ageless and deathless divine messenger?
I wonder, however, whether we are missing the point when it comes to sainthood. All of the definitions that we’ve explored assume that saints are special because of something that they have done, whether that is dying for their faith or tolerating a boorish husband. But what if sainthood is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does? What if the holiness of saints has less to do with their good behavior and more to do with their ability to be in touch with the boundless grace of God? If you think about it, there is no way you could apply the conventional definition of “saint” to some of the Church’s most celebrated holy people. St. Paul, for instance, was a judgmental, misanthropic persecutor of the Church and St. Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus. What these two pillars of the Church had in common was that they each had an experience in which they came to know the radical and transformative power of God’s grace. The saints are saints not because they are fundamentally different from normal human beings, but because they reflect and radiate the grace of God that is available to each and every one of us. Ultimately, Michael the Archangel is a saint because his example helps us to remember that God’s grace is more boundless than we can possibly imagine.