Monday, 29 September 2014

How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?

Cattle grazing on Coe Fen in the late summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 29 September 2014

Saint Michael and All Angels

5 p.m., The Eucharist

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

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

Earlier this month, during a week of intense study and work, I took a much-needed break one afternoon and went for a walk across Coe Fen, a large expanse of meadowland on the east bank of the River Cam, in the heart of Cambridge.

Coe Fen means “Cows’ Fen.” Cows are grazing on the grassland, and so you must be careful where you step. I was only a few steps away from the Fitzwilliam Museum and many of the colleges, and still out of earshot of the tourists and the punts. The neighbouring piece of meadow on the other side of the river is known as Sheep’s Green.

It was easy to imagine I was in rural England, in the Fens of East Anglia.

Perhaps because of that remote feeling, one of the bridges and one of the islets on this stretch of the river are known as Crusoe Bridge and Crusoe Island.

Robinson Crusoe Island is a tiny islet in Cambridge where the River Cam splits between Coe Fen and Sheep’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Another small bridge links Coe Fen with the Leys School, where the music master was once Kenneth Naylor (1931-1991), who wrote the tune for our hymn this evening, How shall I sing that majesty? (Irish Church Hymnal 468, New English Hymnal, 373).

Naylor called this tune Coe Fen. And as I strolled across Coe Fen that sunny, sun-kissed afternoon, lifted up by the splendour of God’s creation, I realised why he had chosen the name Coe Fen for his setting for a hymn that praises God for the wonders of God’s creation – in which we are lifted up by the beauty of God’s creation and join the “celestial choir” in praising God.

Because of Naylor’s setting, this hymn became No 1 in the ‘Top 5 Hymns’ listed in the Church Times/RSCM survey.

The hymn, by John Mason (1645-1694), is based in part on today’s psalm, Psalm 103. The writer contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our inadequacies and frailties, and reminds us how, when we attempt to sing of God’s glory, all our human efforts appear feeble and pathetic.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How do you imagine, envisage, that “celestial choir”? What is your image of an angel?

Is an angel a fluffy little cherub with white wings and pudgy cheeks, floating above the earth on white fluffy clouds?

Is an angel some “new age” figure, easily dismissed because of those angel books on the “Mind and Spirit” shelves in bookshops?

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 is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael, depicted, for example, by Jacob Epstein’s bronze sculpture, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry, and John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ in Coventry Cathedral, inviting you to reflect on our values today, to enter into the triumph of good over evil, to join Christ in Glory?

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Where the Archangel Michael is mentioned by name in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Saint Jude and the Book of Revelation, he represents relying on the strength of God and the triumph of good over evil.

Saint Michael’s traditional 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 seeking forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – virtues we must keep before us in ministry and mission as messengers of God.

His name Michael (Hebrew, מִיכָאֵל; Greek, Μιχαήλ) asks the question: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?”

In today’s world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, we need a reminder that angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news, who invite us to join in the triumph of good over evil and to enter into and become wrapped up in God’s glory:

ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?


“Who am I?” It is a question we all ask ourselves when we first hear God’s call to mission and ministry.

But we do not struggle alone, like some Robinson Crusoe stranded on his own tiny island. Even when we feel alone and vulnerable, we are part of the great heavenly host of archangels and angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, martyrs and missionaries.

I may not feel as powerful and agile as the Archangel Michael in battling for the world and confronting evil. But we do this in the company of the great heavenly host, 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 the story of the Archangel Michael, whose name asks: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?” invites me and invites you this afternoon to consider who we are as we stand before the throne of God the Creator, in all his majesty and glory, now and for ever more.

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

Collect:

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.

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.

Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael’s in Lichfield … what does this story say to you today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How shall I sing that majesty (ICH, 468; NEH, 373)

1 How shall I sing that majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

2 Thy brightness unto them appears,
while I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing, because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heav’n is but once begun,
there alleluias be.

3 Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
inflame it with love’s fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

4 How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, 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 2014.

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