Thursday, 29 September 2011

Feast of St. Michael, St Gabriel and St Raphael

I have already blogged about our two Archangels ( Michael and Gabriel)  (See blogs for  25th /26th August 2011) But, of course, we cannot see  Raphael with them in our icon. Sometimes in life, however,  what is not there or  what does not happen is just as important as what is there or what does happen.   And so it is today.  As we celebrate the feast of St  Michael, (right)  St Gabriel (left) and St Raphael, it is the absence of the latter from the icon that is just as significant as the presence of the other two!  Raphael is the archangel we do not see in our icon  – or perhaps he is  just the angel we cannot see.

Verrocchio's St Raphael and Tobias

St. Raphael is unique in that he is an angel who is a central character in a book  of the Bible : The Book of Tobit. The structure of the story is fascinating because in it two or three  stories are woven together to show that God sees how all things interconnect.  All things converge.   The book of Tobit weaves together several apparently unconnected   stories: the blindness of Tobit in Nineveh and Sarah in Media whose prayers 'found favour with the Lord'.  Raphael is despatched to cure - with the liver, heart and gall bladder of a fish- Tobit of his blindness and to rid Sarah of a troublesome devil (Asmodeus) who kills her husbands before their marriage can be consummated.  He then ensures that Tobias ( Tobit's son) gets to marry Sarah, deals with the devil and then they all live happily ever after.  In paintings  (as right -> ) Tobias is often portrayed as  carrying the fish whose internal organs were used to cure his father's blindness and scare off Asmodeus. 

Seeing is a central theme of the story of Tobit.  God sends Raphael to help cure Tobit ‘s blindness.  Just as his father cannot see, Tobias is also blind :  for he cannot see that Raphael is an angel,  and not just a 'Mr. Azarius' who is being paid as his guide. At the close of the story Raphael tells them that he is not really Mr. Azarius, but an angel: and not just any angel, but ' one of the seven angels who stand ever ready in the presence of the Glory of the Lord'. And, although they saw him eating, he tells them that  it was all just an illusion: then rises in the air and becomes invisible. ( But was he ever truly visible?) 

The story has been very popular with artists over the centuries.  There are numerous  pictures that  portray Tobias and Raphael on their adventures.   And,  as in the picture by Verrocchio in the National Gallery in London, (above)  we see the archangel in all his splendour , but Tobias just sees  Mr. Azarias, his paid guide and mentor.

For an icon which has been inspired by Teilhard  - who wants us to SEE the Sacred Heart in a more universal way - it is providential that we do not actually see Raphael, the healing  angel who can restore sight.  (Raphael means ‘ It is God who heals’. )    

Lippi's picture (1485) showing all three Archangels with Tobias
Like Tobias and Tobit, and Anna (Tobit's wife) and Sarah we cannot see Raphael in this icon.  But also like them, however, we need to realize  that ‘It is God who heals’.   We, like them, can only see  God in all things by the grace of God.  To see God and God’s messengers is a gift.  Great mystics – and I would say that Teilhard was one of the great mystics of the 20th century - can see Christ in all things.  But we who have not been given  this grace invariably only  see a Mr. Azarius and not ' one of the seven angels who stand ever ready in the presence of the Glory of the Lord'. ( So we know that Raphael is somewhere in this picture!) We  see an icon: a window which can help us see God more clearly.  So, the  fact that we do not see Raphael in our icon is a reminder that we must pray for the grace to see Christ with our hearts and pray that Raphael will come and heal our spiritual blindness and open our hearts to God's presence in the world and open our hearts to the ministrations of his angels, however they appear to us.  (And get rid of our personal devils!) 

My guess is that if St Raphael is anywhere on the icon he is nearby the fish and the flowing water * wondering what he can do with their liver, heart and gall bladder!  So watch out  fish,  Raphael is about! 

*It is  Raphael  who is traditionally supposed to move the waters  and heal the sick at the sheep pool at Bathesda mentioned in John (5: 1-4) .

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