Monday, 29 September 2008

Standing with Michael and the angels before the throne of God

A fresco showing angels and the heavenly hosts in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51

When I worked as Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times, a good friend and close colleague was Michael Jansen. We shared many of her hopes and fears, values and visions while she worked in Israel and the West Bank. Later, when she moved to Cyprus and shortly before my ordination, she invited me to spend Orthodox Easter in her village on the outskirts of Nicosia.

Friends and readers alike were surprised to find Michael is a woman. Most of us presume Michael is a man’s name. Yet the name Michael (Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Mîkhā'ēl; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaíl; Arabic: ميخائيل‎, Mikhā'īl) is not gender specific. The Talmudic tradition says Michael means “who is like El (God)?” It is a popular mistake to translate the name as “One who is like God.” It is, however, meant as a question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

The name was said to have been the war-cry of the angels in the battle fought in heaven against Satan and his followers. With a name like that, is it any wonder that my friend Michael has lived up to her father’s expectations, taking a strong stand against the twin evils of oppressive violence and political corruption.

The Archangel Michael, whom we commemorate today, is one of the principal angels in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, and has a formidable place in culture in this part of the world. In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Michael commands the army of angels loyal to God against the rebel forces of Satan. One of the best known sculptures by Sir Jacob Epstein is Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil, at Coventry Cathedral. And Michael features on albums by Prefab Sprout, in numerous episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and even has a cameo role at the beginning of the movie Gangs of New York (2002).

Yet Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and in the Book of Revelation.

After a period of fasting by Daniel, Michael appears as “one of the chief princes” (Daniel 10: 13). Michael contends for Israel and is the “great prince, the protector of your (Daniel’s) people” (Daniel 10: 21, 12: 1).

In the Epistle of Jude (verse 9), Michael contends with the Devil over the body of Moses, a story also found in the Midrash. In our reading from the Book of Revelation this morning (Revelation 12: 7-12), we hear of the war that “broke out in heaven” between Michael and his angels and the dragon.

The later Christian traditions about Michael drew on Midrashic traditions and accounts in the Hebrew Apocrypha, especially the Book of Enoch, where he is the “viceroy of heaven,” “the prince of Israel,” and the angel of forbearance and mercy, who teaches clemency and justice, who presides over human virtue.

Rabbinic lore and the Midrash made Michael the special patron of Adam, the rescuer of Abraham, Lot and Jacob, the teacher of Moses, and the advocate of Israel; Michael tried to prevent Israel from being led into captivity, to save the Temple from destruction, and to protect Esther.

In the early Church, Michael was associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician associated with medicinal springs, streams and rivers. The Orthodox Church gave him the title Archistrategos, or “Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts.” Saint Basil the Great and other Greek fathers placed Michael over all the angels and so called him “archangel.”

In the Middle Ages, Michael became the patron saint of warriors, and later became the patron saint of police officers, soldiers, paratroopers, mariners, paramedics, grocers, the Ukraine, the German people, of many cities, including Brussels, Coventry and Kiev, and of Marks and Spencer.

There are legends associating Michael with Castel di S. Angelo in Rome, Mont-Saint-Michel in France and mountain chapels all over Germany, and Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, which is a World Heritage Site. Michael was also popular in the early Irish monastic tradition, and there is still a Prebendary of Saint Michael’s in the Chapter of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

More practically, Michaelmas Day became one of the regular “quarter days” in England and in Ireland. It was one of the days set aside for settling rents and accounts. And on this day too in England, and Ireland, as you know today, terms began in universities.

In the modern world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves about some Biblical and traditional values associated with Michael and the Angels. Angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Michael’s virtues – standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppressive violence and political corruption, while always valuing forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – are virtues we should always keep before us in our ministry and mission.

In the Preface to our Eucharist this morning we declare: “Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the companyof heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee ...” We will join them in that praise again when we join together in the Gloria.

And we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels to ask and to answer to the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Michaelmas Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 2008.