Modern battle typically begin with an assault by air: bombs from above to prepare the way for ground advance, troops airlifted in to seize positions behind the lines, rockets launched to destroy enemy infrastructure. Air supremacy is counted as a key component in military victory, since the one who has control of the air can take aim without fear of reprisal. In Desert Storm, over thirty years ago, they called this battle in the air “shock and awe.” In our own time, in Ukraine, resistance to invasion has been effective because of Russian failure to seize the sky.
Our second reading, from Revelation, gives us another version of aerial combat, drawn not from our earthly history, but from a vision glimpsed centuries before. “War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon” (Rev. 12:7), it says in the reading. The Greek word for “heaven” in the text is the same as the word for “sky”: one word doing duty for both. The Greeks and Hebrews had a notion that there was an eternal and unchangeable heaven above the earth, a “heaven of heavens” (Deut. 10:14) if you will; but also a median space between the two that was “heavenly,” a sort of no-man’s land of storm, thunder, and clouds, where spiritual warfare took place. Think of the devastation of Hurricane Ian this week. There’s a reason our spiritual forbearers saw the sky as a place of contestation.
In the vision, the heavenly contest between the archangel Michael and the dragon happens in this median space, this neutral ground of the sky. The dragon is Satan, the rebel angel, the one who brings lies and accusations against the human race. In our reading, the Devil is called “the ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9), summoning up the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the fall of the human race. The dragon is described as a “deceiver” and an “accuser,” much like the serpent in the story. Michael and his angels, in the no man’s land of the sky, are providing air cover for the human race. There’s a reason that Michael is most often depicted in the armor of a man of war. The militant dream of modern terror from the sky mirrors the ancient vision of our reading.
There’s a key difference in the vision from Revelation this morning, however, and that’s the chief take-away for us on this feast of St. Michael and All Angels. In the vision from Revelation, aerial combat takes place after the main action has already been won. The contest between Michael and the Serpent is not the first act of the battle but practically the last. This is hard to get because the narrative of the book repeats itself: the visions are not necessarily sequential; or maybe even better, they form a series of sequences that repeat themselves. The Serpent’s fall to earth is not the beginning of the struggle but the sign that the end is drawing near.
Revelation proclaims a victory that has already been won. Our reading uses the language of conquest, of overcoming: a military metaphor in its origins. But it then points us immediately to the cause of the victory. “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:11). The source of Michael’s power is Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead. “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah” (Rev. 12:10). The serpent has been overthrown by the crucified Lord, the very antithesis of our ideas of power. In Revelation, the battle has already been won on the ground, and the combat in the air is just the rounding up of the prisoners.
St. Paul uses the same language of conquest in the Letter to the Romans. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?… In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 37-39). For Paul, and for Revelation, the victory has already been won.
Still, the devil has come down to earth, most dangerous in spite of his defeat or maybe because of it: as it says in our reading, the devil has come down with wrath “because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12). A key issue for Revelation is the suffering of the church, even though the victory has been won. Christ’s victory demands “the endurance of the saints” (Rev. 14:12), as it says elsewhere in Revelation. Our faith will be tested, and our patience required, as Christ lives out his victory in us.
Today the church gathers to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death, and to remember that we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. Our celebration of confirmation reminds us that we are all called to the renunciation of evil, and the repentance of sin. We are all called to recommit ourselves to following Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. Christ has won the victory, and he sends Michael and his angels to defend us.