A friend asked me if I ever heard of Angel Rayfield. I was distracted with other matters, and I hastily responded, “It sounds like the name of a boxer”. I didn’t bother to ask where she had heard the name or what the context was. My friend said, “It sure does sound like the name of a banter weight, but…” I rudely cut her off and said that would be bantamweight, a boxer who weighs from 115 to 118 pounds. Somewhat quizzically, she said, “No wise guy, I heard the name on an EWTN program”. I started paying close attention now. After apologizing for my snarky remark, I asked what the context was. My friend replied the show was a Mass on September 29, the Roman Catholic feast of the Archangels. The closed captioning of the program mentioned Angel Rayfield. Knowing how bad some closed captioning could be and the importance of the date on the liturgical calendar, I immediately knew who Angel Rayfield was.
The homilist was speaking about the Archangel Raphael. My friend is Catholic, but had not known about this angel, prompting her curiosity. Her lack of knowledge on this subject is not surprising in the least, given how St. Raphael has been treated throughout the centuries. The bad closed captioning was yet another in a long series of indignities St. Raphael has endured.
The first problem is where the Archangel Raphael is mentioned. Raphael is an important figure in the Book of Tobit, a relatively young Biblical text. Though probably written in Hebrew or Aramaic, it has been dated to the Second Century BCE. Consequently it is not considered canonical by the Jewish faithful. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, many Protestant denominations also do not recognize the Book of Tobit as canonical. Consequently, Raphael is usually not discussed in the latter circles because of the doctrine of sola scriptura. If it isn’t mentioned in Sacred Scripture, it usually gets short shrift in theological discussions and consequently in popular American culture. This lack of “positive press” means even observant Catholics may not know much if anything about Raphael. Archangels Michael and Gabriel are named in other canonically accepted biblical books, and have been accorded a much more impressive pedigree.
The second Biblical “appearance” of Raphael is truly an interesting story, but once again Raphael is shortchanged. John 5:1-8 recounts the healing of the lame man at Bethesda. Jesus asks the lame man if he wishes to be healed. The lame man says there is no one to carry him into the water when it was roiling. The troubled water was thought to have healing power. The first person who stepped into those waters would be healed. John 5:4 states an angel was sent to stir the waters.Tradition presumes the angel that stirred the water was Raphael,already known as a healer by that time. However, this verse was not found in some of the older manuscripts and has been removed from many Bibles, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV). In this Bible, John 1:3 is followed immediately by John 1:5 with no explanation of the missing verse anywhere! In short, the verse referring to Raphael was simply discounted as not being in the original manuscripts.
Raphae’s reputation has even suffered in Church Tradition. The Babylonian Talmud reports Raphael was one of the three angels that visited Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre. Christianity shelved this interpretation, and considered the Three Visitors to be the Holy Trinity. For example, see the famous Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham, written by Andrei Rublev. The three visitors are depicted as angels, but the setting (a chalice in the middle of the table), their posture, and their garments strongly suggest otherwise. Once again, Raphael was out of a job.
It took almost nineteen centuries for St. Raphael to warrant his own feast day in Roman Catholic circles. The Church provided October 24 as the feast day of St. Raphael in its 1929 liturgical calendar. This was to be short-lived though. In 1969, amidst the revision of the Roman Calendar after Vatican II, the feast of St. Raphael was suppressed and joined with the feast of the archangels Gabriel and Michael on September 29, a final “indignity”. At least until he was called Angel Rayfield, that is.
Where does this leave St. Raphael? He is a saint not mentioned in a universally recognized canonical book and without a unique feast day. Yet, he remains a potent symbol and agent of healing even after all these ages and slights to his honor. In the Book of Tobit, Raphael is the travelling companion of Tobias. In Tobit 6, Raphael teaches Tobias to use the gall of a large fish as medicine to cure the blindness of Tobit, his father. Later, Raphael reveals he is one of the seven archangels that presents the prayers of the saints to God. This is pretty potent stuff. Angels are indeed powerful creatures. It would do well for us to remember St. Raphael in times of our need!