Vol. XII, April 2006
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!” (Is 14:12
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
The next text, taken for our meditation on the angels in the prophet Isaiah, describes the fall of an earthly king, the king of Babylon, just as, similarly, the prophet Ezekiel describes the fall of the king of Tyre (cf. Ez 28:12-18).
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit.” (Is 14:12-15).
The Vulgata translated “O Day Star, son of Dawn” as Lucifer, which then was considered the name of the first angel who fell. Certainly, the name alone is not enough for such an interpretation. What did the prophet say that we should find here a description of the fall of the angels?
1. What happened?
The prophet speaks of a terrible time for the people, time of “unrelenting persecution”, which the Lord ended: “The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing” (Is 14:6-7). The following text then described what happened to their threatening king.
a) “You are brought down to Sheol”
The one “who laid the nations low” ended in deepest weakness, his “pomp is brought down to Sheol” (verses 8-12):
The cypresses rejoice at you, the cedars of Lebanon, saying, “Since you were laid low, no hewer comes up against us.” … It raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: “You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!” Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering. “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” … Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms?’” (vv. 8,10-12,16).
Is it an astonishing exclamation or a wondering question? The following verses reveal the reason for this catastrophic end. It is first of all pride with which he thought to achieve the glory of making himself “like the Most High,” like God: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; … I will make myself like the Most High’” (vv. 13-14). But he was “brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit” (v. 15), he who exalted himself, was humbled.
b) It “has to be understood here the prince of the demons”.
The description of this story, unfortunately, can be applied to many human leaders, as the history shows till our days (cf. the list in the Commentary of Cornelius Lapide). One of these for example is the king Herod. Right after his initiative against the first Pope, St. Peter, we read in the Acts of the Apostles: “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and made an oration to them. And the people shouted, ‘The voice of a god, and not of man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:21-23).
The text of Isaiah seems to refer to the king of Babylon. Yet, Cornelius a Lapide establishes also a possible link to Christ Crucified, or to Lucifer, and to the Antichrist. But he also says: “All Fathers and interpreters teach that with luciferum has to be understood here the prince of the demons.” So did St. Bernhard in his first Advent-sermon (cf. Sermo I, 3-4; PL 183, 36-37), and St. Thomas Aquinas said “Isaiah,” was “speaking of the devil under the symbol (sub figura) of the King of Babylon…” (Summa Theologiae, I, 63, 5). And similarly we read in our time: “Tradition saw in this a reference to the fall of the most beautiful and perfect angel” (Renzo Lavatori, Satana. Un Caso serio. Studio di demonologia cristiana, Bologna, 1995, 70). Our text and Ezekiel 28:12-18 are considered “the classic text” for the fall of the angels (ibid., 219 and 246).
2. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”
When we apply this text to the devil, then, of course, the text gains new meaning and actual significance. Not all can be reconciled with the fall of the first angel, like the fall of other kings before this one, or the reference to them is seen as relation between the first and the others who followed him.
a) The past lasts till the presence.
Before the fall, the devil is characterized by pride, trying to become “like the Most High” (cf. also 1 Thess 3:6). His terrible pride hindered him to bow down and serve: “For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’” (Jer 2:20; cf. John Paul II, Catechesis on the angels, July 23, 1986, n.5). This pride is combined with deep contempt and scorn towards all the others. It seems that proud persons can convince themselves of their self-given greatness only by the humiliation and ill-treatment of the others. He might have them influenced and seduced to their denial of God’s will too.
After his fall, and the condemnation by God he is consumed or eaten up by envy like by worms. But still, as he never can die, he reacts to his loss, full of deep anger and hunger for vengeance: “The first sin in an angel can only have been pride… after the sin of pride he fell also into theevil of envy, detesting the wellbeing of mankind” (cf. ST I, 63, 2).
His story therefore continues in the announced consequences, and affects all of us. “From the serpent's root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying serpent” (Is 14:29). The devil is our tempter (cf. 1 Thess 3:5) and accuser till the end of time and before the judgment of God (cf. Rev 12:10).
Jesus might have referred to this description of Isaiah when He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk 10:18). Here on earth, the devil continues his seductive work against God and man. He started already in the Paradise, seducing Adam and Eve. He said to them: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gn 3:5; cf. CCC 392, 394, 397-8, 2848-9).
b) The “greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Already in her earliest years, Our Lady expressed her awareness of this battle: God “has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Lk 1:51-52). The devil had lost against the Son of God and His Immaculate mother (cf. Gn 3:15). That is the reason while “the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring” (Rev 12:17), a war, a ”dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day” (GS 37; CCC 409). Apparently the devil has success, for “The whole earth followed the beast with wonder. Men worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’” (Rev 13:3-4). But Our Lord repeated constantly: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12). This becomes true with every man as it became true with the angels. Whoever, therefore, joins the devil and his pride, has no communion with Christ, and, if he does not convert, will be cast down to join the fallen angels.
3. “Satan demanded to have you.”
This affects us priests too. The Lord called us out of the people and has given us the holy angels as helpers (cf. Hb 5:1 and Rev 19:10). He told us through St. Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:31-32).
a) “The old serpent will tempt thee and give thee trouble...”
The Imitation of Christ reminds even all Christians: “The old serpent will tempt thee and give thee trouble...” (III, 12). If we are sincere with ourselves, we have to confess, that the enemy has sometimes an easy job with us. On the one hand, is given us much freedom throughout the entire day: we can decide by ourselves, what we do and where we go and with whom we meet etc.; on the other hand, it is prescribed to us very clearly how much we have to pray and how we have to celebrate the holy Mass, and what is the truth we have to preach. It is easy, in this opposition, to fall on one or the other side, to do all according our own will or to take noinitiative at all.
Or, if we think of the position we are placed in, to stand always before the people, to orientate them from the pulpit and even to judge them in the Confessional, … how easily we may fall into the temptation to consider us better and, in consequence, “look down” to the laity or even humble them.
b) “...but by prayer [the serpent] shall be put to flight.”
The Imitation of Christ continues the quoted phrase, saying: “but by prayer [the serpent] shall be put to flight”. If we are faithful to our prayer-life, we will remain aware that all is grace (cf. 2 Cor 12:9), and without Jesus we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). “St. Gregory of Nazianzus, as a very young priest, exclaimed: ‘We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed,… be sanctified,... I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God's greatness and man's weakness, but also His potential’” (CCC 1589).
The Church recalls this tremendous fact of the angelic fall, which had so many consequences. In the Catechism she warns, dealing very practically about prayer, our daily bread and respiration, and says, as if she would look at the destiny of the fallen spirits: “The greater the height, the harder the fall” (CCC 2733).
4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
Our priesthood is so high, that we cannot trust in ourselves. The heights of the Priesthood is also the Cross: we are exposed to all forms of tempests and lightening, threats and temptations, attractions and seductions, so that the “lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart” leads into great danger, and only “the humble are not surprised by their distress; it leads them to trust more, to hold fast in constancy” (CCC 2733). May the fall of the angels serve us as “a thorn” (cf. 2 Cor 12:7), as a constant reminder of our weakness and as a call to trust alone in the Lord.