Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Being prepared, like Saint Michael,
to ponder ‘Who is like the Lord God?’

Saint Michael with the whales in a window depicting the story of Saint Brendan in Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Saint Michael and All Angels

11 a.m.:
The Festal Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

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

Skellig Michael seen from Valentia Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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

The name Michael (Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Mîkhā'ēl; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaíl) means ‘who is like El (God)?’ It is meant to be 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.

There are few references to Saint Michael by name in the Bible (Daniel 10: 13, 21, 12: 1; Jude 9; Revelation 12: 7-9; see also Revelation 20: 1-3). Yet he 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.

As we went picking blackberries around Ballysteen in recent days, I was reminded how, as children in West Waterford, we were told that Michaelmas Day is the last day for picking blackberries. It is a superstition shared across the islands, from Achill to Lichfield, from Wexford to Essex and Cambridge.

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. It is a day to think about and to give thanks for beginnings and endings, for starting and finishing, for openings and closings, for memories and even for forgetfulness.

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

In the early Church, Saint Michael is associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician associated with medicinal springs, streams and rivers.

In the Middle Ages, he became the patron of warriors, and later the patron of police officers, soldiers, paratroopers, mariners, paramedics, grocers, the Ukraine, the German people, of many cities, including Brussels, Coventry and Kiev. It was only later that he became identified with Marks and Spencer.

Saint Michael was popular in the early Irish monastic tradition, and legends in Co Kerry – as I found out during my travels this summer – associate him with Skellig Michael and with guarding Saint Brendan during his sea voyages.

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’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.

There is no special preface in the Book of Common Prayer for the Eucharist at 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 ...’

In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep,’ first drafted on Saint Michael’s Day 1946, the poet Philip Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

We should always be prepared, like Saint Michael and the angels to ask and to answer the question: ‘Who is like the Lord God?’ and to join the whole company of heaven in proclaiming God’s great and glorious name.

In a world that is increasingly filled with hatred and injustice, in a world witnessing the rise of political populism and right-wing racism, we are called once again to follow Saint Michael’s example, to took stock, even to take the opportunity to believe that things can be ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

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

‘You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ (John 1: 51) … an angel in stucco work on shop façade in Sneem, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

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.’

An image of Saint Michael vanquishing the devil in stained-glass window in a church in Clonmel, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Liturgical colour: White

Penitence:

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.

The Collect of the Day:

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)

The Post-Communion Prayer (Saint Michael):

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 Blessing:

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

Saint Michael’s Church, Waterville, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Hymns:

346, Angel voices, ever singing (CD 21)
332, Come let us join our cheerful song (CD 20)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Picking blackberries in Ballysteen, near Askeaton, before Saint Michael’s Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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