29 September 2009

Messengers of God and bringers of good news

The Archangel Michael ... a contemporary icon

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday 29 September 2009, Saint Michael and All Angels, 8.30 a.m., Holy Communion: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.


Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

May I speak to you in the name of +the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have to confess I am a cathedral buff. On city breaks, I love visiting cathedrals, not just for their liturgy, worship and music, but for their architecture and art too.

For my generation, when it comes to art and architecture, Coventry Cathedral is one of the most influential cathedrals in the Church of England. I was overpowered when I first visited Saint Michael’s Cathedral in 1970.

Basil Spence’s cathedral symbolises new life and hope in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Its community, life and values, centred on the Cross of Nails, influenced many like me in the 1960s and 1970s.

And Coventry’s art and architecture have had a profound and lasting influence too: even my old school chapel was a mini-replica of Coventry. Many of us are familiar with images of Jacob Epstein’s sculptures; Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry; the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane framed by his crown of thorns; the Chapel of Unity; the unusual aisle windows; or the Coventry Cross of Nails.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral

Even before you enter the cathedral, Saint Michael features prominently. As you approach the building, you are overlooked – overwhelmed – by Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall.

When Basil Spence commissioned Jacob Epstein, some members of the rebuilding committee objected. They claimed some of his earlier works were controversial. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected that he was a Jew – to which Spence retorted: “So was Jesus Christ.”

The Screen of Saints and Angels by John Hutton at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral

The new cathedral is entered through the “West Wall” or “Screen of Saints and Angels.” This glass screen, 70 ft high and 45 ft wide, with panels by John Hutton, was inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, inspired in turn by his vision of a new church rising through a screen of angels and saints, linking the old and the new.

Gazing at this screen, especially on a sunny day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you also see a vivid reflection of the old ruins in the glass.

Graham Sutherland’s tapestry showing Christ in Glory ...on the right, between Saint John and Saint Mark, Saint Michael is hurling down the devil

Inside, Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry shows Christ in Glory surrounded by four figures from the Book of Revelation, the four evangelists. Beneath Christ’s feet is a chalice with a dragon, referring to our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation: “Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon … But they have conquered him by the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 12: 3, 11).

On the right, between Saint John and Saint Mark, you can pick out Saint Michael hurling down the devil. This refers to the verses: “And war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon … The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth” (Revelation 12: 7-9).

What is your image of an angel? Is it fluffy little cherubs with white wings and pudgy cheeks, floating above the earth on white fluffy clouds?

Or is an angel for you someone like the angels in the screen that is the West Wall of Coventry, inviting you into the Communion of Saints, into a Church that is built on the past but looking anew to the future?

Is an angel some “new age” figure, easily dismissed because of the weird views of the authors of all those angel books on the popular “Mind and Spirit” shelves of our bookshops?

Or is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael depicted by Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland, inviting you into the triumph of good over evil, to join Christ in Glory?

Is Saint Michael the patron saint of shoppers at Marks and Spencer and all others who have made the shopping malls their earthly cathedrals? Or, like the Michael of Coventry Cathedral, does he challenge you to reflect on our values today? For the name Michael (Hebrew, מִיכָאֵל; Greek, Μιχαήλ) asks the question: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?”

In the Bible, Michael is mentioned by name only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. But he represents reliance on the strength of God and the triumph of good over evil.

Facing the world ... the Gethsemane Chapel in Coventry Cathedral

In today’s world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves that angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

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

In our first hymn this morning, Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal 376), Richard Baxter invites each of us to join with the angels, the saints above and the saints on earth in praising God. We join in that praise in the Gloria, and it is an invitation that is repeated again in the Great Thanksgiving: “And so with all your people, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you ...”

How shall I sing that majesty ... Coe Fen in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Our second hymn, How shall I sing that majesty (Irish Church Hymnal 468), contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our own inadequacies and frailties. It emphasises the truth that when we attempt to sing of God’s glory, all our human efforts appear feeble and pathetic.

As I sing that hymn to one of my favourite tunes, Kenneth Naylor’s Coe Fen, I am forced to ask: “Who am I?” – the question we all ask when we first hear God’s call to mission and ministry.

I may not feel as powerful and agile as Michael when it comes to battling for the world and confronting evil. But we do this in the company of the great heavenly host of archangels and angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, strengthened by God alone. For we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels, to ask and to answer the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

And so may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 2009

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