I am writing this on September 29, the feast day of the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. They are the three angels who are named in the Bible, whom God sent to his people for specific purposes. Those purposes are revealed in the meaning of their names: Michael means “Who is like God”; Gabriel means “The Strength of God”; and Raphael means “God’s Remedy.” As his name suggests, the archangel Raphael is sent by God to heal. In the Bible, the story that exemplifies Raphael’s healing mission is told in the Book of Tobit.
Tobit begins by introducing its title character, a faithful Israelite living in captivity in Nineveh. It tells how Tobit was afflicted with blindness and the mockery of his neighbors. Meanwhile, in the distant land of Media, a young kinswoman of Tobit named Sarah was afflicted by a demon who had killed all seven of the men she had married. Both Tobit and Sarah prayed for death. Their prayers were both faith-filled and desperate. Tobit prayed, “You are righteous, Lord, and all your deeds are just . . . command that I be release from such anguish . . . for it is better for me to die than to endure so much misery” (Tobit 3:2,6). Sarah prayed, “Blessed are you, merciful God! . . . Bid me to depart from the earth . . . But if it does not please you, Lord, to take my life, look favorably upon me and have pity on me” (Tobit 3:11,13,15).
It did not please the Lord to take either of their lives. Rather, God sent the angel Raphael to heal them. Raphael presented himself to Tobit in the guise of a kinsman and accompanied Tobit’s son Tobiah on a journey to Media to claim a sum of money that Tobit had deposited. On the journey, Tobiah caught a large fish whose organs possessed healing properties. When they arrived in Media, Raphael led Tobiah to the family home of Sarah, who, Raphael informed him, Tobiah had the right to marry. Tobiah did marry Sarah and, as Raphael had instructed, he burned the liver and heart of the fish he had caught and thereby cast out the demon who had afflicted his new bride. Soon afterward, they all returned to Nineveh. Upon greeting his father, Tobiah, again at the instruction of Raphael, used to gall of the fish to anoint Tobit’s eyes, removing the scales that had blinded him.
Then Raphael revealed his identity, saying, “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). He explained to Tobit, “When you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:12) and “God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah” (Tobit 12:14).
Like Tobit and Sarah, countless people in our present time experience severe affliction and cry out to God in ways that are both faith-filled and desperate. Like Tobit and Sarah, some go so far as to pray for death. Many of them are sick and suffering people in our own neighborhoods. The story of Tobit and Sarah and the archangel Raphael reminds us that God hears those prayers and that God has a remedy.
God’s remedy includes the angels and the human beings God sends to heal. Raphael, patron saints like Saint Luke, Saint Peregrine, and Saint Catherine of Siena, as well as doctors, nurses, and other “angelic” practitioners of health care all share in that mission. God’s remedy also includes medicines and treatments that are derived from the natural world God created. Modern day equivalents of Tobiah’s fish gall are healing remedies provided by God.
The story of the Book of Tobit also shows us that it’s okay to pray to God in desperation and honestly tell God what we want and how we feel. The prayers of Tobit and Sarah demonstrate profound faith in God’s goodness and, at the same time, don’t hesitate to express raw feeling about their affliction. God heard those prayers and showed mercy. We have every reason to trust that God will hear our prayers and look favorably on us.
Finally, the healing wrought by Raphael in the Book of Tobit shows us God’s remedy, but it does not reveal God’s greatest remedy. That is revealed in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in whom God prescribes a remedy, not only for sickness and suffering, but for sin and death as well.