Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Feast of St Raphael the Archangel

St Michael is mentioned three times in the book of Daniel, once in the Apocalypse, and once in the Epistle of St Jude, but each time, more or less in passing; the Church’s devotion to him, which is universal and very ancient, derives in no small measure from his appearances in some very popular apocryphal works. St Gabriel is mentioned twice in Daniel, and the second time, gives a speech which prophesies the time of the Messiah’s coming; he also appears very prominently in the first chapter of St Luke, but only there. The only other angel who is given a name in the Bible, St Raphael, appears in only one place, the book of Tobias, but he plays a very much more prominent role within it than the other two do in their Biblical appearances.

The Three Archangels and Tobias, by Francesco Botticini, 1470
The largest part of the book’s narration, from the fifth chapter to the twelfth, tells how the Archangel, disguising himself as a man, accompanies the younger Tobias on a journey to recover a debt owed to his father; delivers him from various dangers, including a demon; and arranges for him to marry a kinsman’s daughter, which makes the boy very rich. Upon returning home, the boy heals his father’s blindness, following the instructions of the angel, who then reveals himself to them, saying “I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord. … Peace be to you, fear not. For when I was with you, I was there by the will of God: bless ye him, and sing praises to him. I seemed indeed to eat and to drink with you: but I use an invisible meat and drink, which cannot be seen by men.”

The reference to St Michael in the Epistle of St Jude is actually in a quotation from a very well known apocryphal work, the Book of Enoch, in which St Raphael also figures very prominently. As in the book of Tobias, he “binds” a demon and casts it into the desert (10, 6), and he “presides over every suffering and every affliction of the sons of men” (40, 9); this latter also refers to the meaning of his name, “God heals.” His words in the book of Tobias, “I am … one of the seven, who stand before the Lord”, gave rise to a Byzantine custom of depicting seven Archangels standing together around the Lord enthroned. Along with the three Biblical Archangels, many icons of this motif give names to the remaining four, taken from various apocryphal sources; one is called Uriel, who is also mentioned several times in the Book of Enoch. The names of the remaining three vary; in the 19th century Russian icon seen below, they are given as Jegudiel, Selaphiel and Barachiel.


Despite all this, liturgical devotion to St Raphael is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Byzantine Rite keeps a feast of all the Angels on November 8th; its formal title is “The Synaxis of the Great Commanders (ἀρχιστρατήγων) Michael and Gabriel, and the rest of the Bodiless Powers”, but its liturgical texts make no reference to St Raphael, and he has no feast of his own. (As in the Roman Rite, St Michael has a secondary feast, commemorating one of his apparitions, and St Gabriel has two feasts of his own.)

In the West, a votive Mass in his honor seems to have been fairly popular, and is found in many Missals of the later 15th and early 16th centuries, but I have never see his feast on the calendar of any liturgical book from the same period. In the Missals of Sarum, Utrecht and elsewhere, this Mass is found together with those of several other healer Saints, Sebastian, Genevieve, Erasmus, Christopher, Anthony the Abbot, and Roch. The following rubric is regularly given before the Introit. “The following Mass of the Archangel Raphael can be celebrated for pilgrims and travelers; so that, just as he led and brought Tobias back safe and sound, he may also bring them back. It can also be celebrated for all those who are sick or possessed by a demon, since he is a healing angel; for he restored sight to (the elder) Tobias, and freed Sarah, the wife of his son, from a demon.”

By the middle of the 19th century, his Mass and Office were usually included in Missals and Breviaries in the supplement “for certain places.” His feast is assigned to October 24th, for no readily discernible reason. Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, took a particular interest in devotion to the Angels. At the end of 1917, he raised the feast of St Michael to the highest grade, double of the first class, along with the March 19 feast of St Joseph. In 1921, he added the feasts of Ss Gabriel and Raphael to the general Calendar, the former on the day before the Annunciation.

The first part of the Litany of the Saints, from the Echternach Sacramentary, written at the very end of the 9th century; in the first column on the left, the three Biblical Archangels are named right after the Virgin Mary, with Raphael before Gabriel. They are followed by several Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, then Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors and Virgins as usual. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9433; folio 13r, cropped)
The Gospel of his feast day is the beginning of chapter 5 of St John. “At that time, there was a festival day of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem a pond, called Probatica, which in Hebrew is named Bethsaida, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick, of blind, of lame, of withered; * waiting for the moving of the water. And an angel of the Lord descended at certain times into the pond; and the water was moved. And he that went down first into the pond after the motion of the water, was made whole, of whatsoever infirmity he lay under.”

In its article on St Raphael, the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “many commentators … identify Raphael with the ‘angel of the Lord’ mentioned in (this passage)”. A modern note to the same effect is the first search result that the Patrologia Latina gives for the word “Raphael”, and the Blessed Schuster states in The Sacramentary that “the angel who stirred the pool is often identified with St Raphael by the Fathers of the Church.” However, none of these three give any specific citations for this assertion, and the Patrologia gives no results if one searches for “Raphael” in conjunction with a citation of John 5, or any of the keywords of that passage, such as the name of the pool. There is no mention of him in the commentaries on this chapter by Ss John Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria or Bede, nor in St Thomas’ Catena Aurea, or the two most important medieval Biblical commentaries, the Glossa Ordinaria and Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla; John 5 is not cited in the commentaries on the book of Tobias by Ss Ambrose and Bede. Furthermore, the Byzantine Rite has a special Sunday of the Easter season dedicated to the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethsaida, with a proper liturgical office, which makes no reference to St Raphael.

The Healing of the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethsaida, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82), 1667-70. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
I suspect that the real reasons for the choice of the Gospel lies elsewhere. One would be that John 5, 4 is the only place in any of the Gospels where an angel is mentioned in connection with a miracle of healing. [See note below] The other is that this same text is read in a very ancient votive Mass of the Angels, composed by Blessed Alcuin of York in the days of the Emperor Charlemagne. Prior to the Tridentine Reform, this votive Mass was not included in the Roman Missal, but was found in the majority of other medieval Uses, and the Gospel seems to have carried over from it into the votive Mass of St Raphael.

[In the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel, the end of verse 3 and all of verse 4, the part noted with a red star above, are missing from many of the most important ancient manuscripts, and are therefore marked as an interpolation in modern critical editions of the New Testament. They have nevertheless been received by the tradition of the Church, and are used liturgically in both the East and West.]

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