29 September 2018

Thinking of blackberries
and poems on the feast of
Saint Michael and All Angels

Saint Michael (centre) with Saint Gabriel (right) and Saint Raphael (left) in stained-glass windows in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels [29 September]. The Readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted in the Church of Ireland are: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.

Some parishes have transferred the commemoration of Saint Michael and All Angels to tomorrow (30 September 2018).

Churches dedicated to Saint Michael in the Dioceses of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert include Saint Michael’s, Pery Square, Limerick, Saint Michael’s Church, Killorglin, and Saint Michael and All Angels, Waterville, and the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks was dedicated to Saint Michael. In the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Saint Michael’s Church, Miloremoy, is in Ballina, Co Mayo.

There are few references to Saint Michael in the Bible (Daniel 10: 13, 21, 12: 1; Jude 9; Revelation 12: 7-9; see also Revelation 20: 1-3). Yet Saint Michael has inspired great works in our culture, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost to Jacob Epstein’s powerful sculpture at Coventry Cathedral and poems by Philip Larkin and John Betjeman.

In all our imagery, in all our poetry, in stained glass windows throughout these islands, Saint Michael is depicted and seen as crushing or slaying Satan, often Satan as a dragon.

Culturally, today’s feast day of Saint Michael and All Angels has been an important day for the Church: the beginning of terms, the end of the harvest season, the settling of accounts.

It is the beginning of autumn, and as children in West Waterford we were told that Michaelmas Day is the last day for picking blackberries. As I grew up, I realised that this is a superstition shared across the islands, from Achill to Lichfield, from Wexford to Essex and Cambridge.

In his poem ‘Trebetherick,’ the late John Betjeman seems to link ripening blackberries and the closing in of the autumn days with old age and the approach of death:

Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light,
Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote,
The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night,
And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat

Betjeman had spent much of his childhood there, and he died in Trebetherick on 19 May 1984, at the age of 77. But the former poet laureate had a more benign view of blackberries on a visit to the Isle of Man, when he described ‘wandering down your late-September lanes when dew-hung cobwebs glisten in the gorse and blackberries shine, waiting to be picked.’

In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep,’ first drafted on this day 72 years ago [29 September 1946], the poet Philip Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

A beehive hut at Saint Michael’s Well in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, associated with monastic settlement on the Skellig Rocks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This is a day to allow the mind to wander back to childhood memories, and a time for contemplation and unstructured prayers, giving thanks for the beauty of creation. September is the beginning of the Church Year in the Orthodox tradition, so this too is a day to think about and to give thanks for beginnings and ends, for starting and ending, for openings and closings, for memories and even for forgetfulness.

When I worked as Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times, Michael Jansen was a good friend and close colleague. 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 lived up to her father’s expectations, taking a strong stand against the twin evils of oppressive violence and political corruption.

Saint Michael depicted in a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Killorglin, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Archangel Michael is one of the principal angels in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. 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.

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 the Book of Revelation (Revelation 12: 7-12), we read of the war that ‘broke out in heaven’ between Michael and his angels and the dragon.

The later Christian traditions about Michael draw 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 course, 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 with Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, which is a World Heritage Site. Saint Michael was also popular in the early Irish monastic tradition.

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. Traditionally, in England and Ireland, university terms and court terms began on Michaelmas.

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 Saint Michael and the Angels. Angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Saint Michael in a window in Saint Cronan’s Roman Catholic parish church in Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint 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.

There is no special preface in the Book of Common Prayer for Michaelmas because in the Preface to the Eucharist, we already declare: ‘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 and saying ...’

We should always be prepared, like Saint Michael and the angels to ask and to answer to the question: ‘Who is like the Lord God?’

The ruins of Ballinskelligs Priory, Co Kerry, founded by the monks from Skellig Michael (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

John 1: 47-51

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The Church of Saint Michael and All Angels in Waterville, Co Kerry, reopened on Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, with an ecumenical service (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical colour: White


Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Woe is me, for I am lost;
I am a person of unclean lips.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your guilt is taken away,
And your sin is forgiven.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Saint Michael depicted in a stained glass window in Holy Cross Church, Charleville, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The 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.

Introduction to the Peace:

Hear again the song of angels:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. (Luke 2: 14)

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.


The God of all creation
guard you by his angels,
and grant you the citizenship of heaven:

The beach at Saint Finian’s Bay, near Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, with Skellig Michael in the distance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for today in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Genesis 28: 10-17:

561, Beneath the cross of Jesus
562, Blessèd assurance, Jesus is mine
330, God is here, As we his people
331, God reveals his presence
67, God, who made the earth and heaven
656, Nearer, my God, to thee

Psalm 103: 19-22:

682, All created things, bless the Lord
250, All hail the power of Jesus’ name
453, Come to us, creative Spirit
465, Hark, hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling
321, Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty
708, O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height
366, Praise, my soul, the King of heaven
709, Praise the Lord! You heavens, adore him
376, Ye holy angels bright

Revelation 12: 7-12:

269, Hark ten thousand voices sounding
487, Soldiers of Christ, arise
112, There is a Redeemer
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

John 1: 47-51:

460, For all your saints in glory, for all your saints at rest (verses 1, 2n, 3)
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

Other hymns that are also suitable include:

346, Angel voices ever singing
316, Bright the vision that delighted
332, Come, let us join our cheerful songs
696, God, we praise you! God, we bless you!
476, Ye watchers and ye holy ones

Legends associate Saint Michael with Castel di S. Angelo in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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