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When explorers roamed what was to them a "new world," they sent back to Europe descriptions of strange vegetation and wildlife, using familiar images to describe the unfamiliar. Spaniards in Peru reported that the llama was an animal with the body of a large sheep, the neck of a camel and the head of a deer.
In retrospect, these descriptions were pretty good, but only because all material creatures are analogous to each other in one way or another. This is not so in the case of purely immaterial and perfectly intelligent beings.
There are ranks of them, the most extraordinary of which are called cherubim and seraphim, and by the fact of their unlikeness to anything in time and space, some descriptions of them in the Bible can strike us as outrageous, e.g., giant wheels the size of the universe covered with unblinking eyes.
In their ranks, those who are called angels and archangels — meaning messengers of God — get involved in human events. They can show up in our daily commerce while we are unaware (Hebrews 13:2).
Limited human art strains to portray their appearance when they choose to become visible. Fra Angelico did this sublimely.
But then there was the school of the master stylist Bouguereau who made choirs of angels look like the Folies Bergère.
Although they have no need of them, angels are often depicted anthropomorphically with wings, because material creatures like us cannot fly without them.
Sorry, liar. You ain't God.
But this has its limits, like the mythological Icarus who failed in his flight from Crete because the wax that stuck the feathers to his arms melted.
Powerful icons of ageless angels frequently suffered the indignity of being replaced by images of chubby Raphaelite infants. When angels have appeared in time and space, and most importantly to Our Lady, they have had to calm humans down.
One cannot imagine a pink and white baby cherub in a state of neglected dress having to say, "Fear not."
In 1857, our church was dedicated to the patronage of St. Michael the Archangel, who was of supernatural help during the Civil War draft riots and the burgeoning crime rate. Not for nothing was our neighborhood nicknamed "Hell's Kitchen."
This year, our streets have been under attack during the maliciously orchestrated and funded riots. The holy angels strengthen the classical virtue of "sophrosyne," which is moral sanity based on reason and temperance; it is the opposite of riotous demagoguery.
We have the privilege of transferring the Feast of St. Michael to this Sunday, lighting candles before his statue — whose recently gold-leafed sword, too heavy for chuckling cherubs to wield, points at Satan.
That prince of pride and ventriloquist of anarchists boasted: "I will be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:14). But St. Michael declares "Quis ut Deus," which, freely translated from the tongues of angels into the vernacular of men, means, "Sorry, liar. You ain't God."