29 September 2011

How shall I sing that majesty?

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 29 September 2011,
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.

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

Last month, at the end one of my regular retreats in Lichfield, I had an hour or two to spare before catching a flight back to Dublin. And so I took time out to visit Coventry Cathedral.

For my generation, when it comes to church art and church architecture, Coventry Cathedral is one of the most influential Anglican cathedrals.

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

Basil Spence’s cathedral symbolises new life and new hope in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. It had profound and lasting influences. My old school chapel in Gormanston is a mini-replica of Coventry. Jacob Epstein’s sculptures, Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry, the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane framed by the crown of thorns, the Chapel of Unity, the unusual aisle windows, or the Coventry Cross of Nails, all had influences on spirituality, art and architecture that lasted for generations.

Even before you enter the cathedral, Saint Michael features prominently. As I approached the cathedral that Sunday afternoon, I was overlooked – overwhelmed again – 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 said some of his earlier works were controversial. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected, saying Epstein was a Jew. To this, Spence retorted: “So was Jesus Christ.”

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The cathedral is entered through John Hutton’s “Screen of Saints and Angels,” with tall glass panels inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, and 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 summer’s day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you see a vivid reflection in the glass of the ruins of the old bombed cathedral behind you.

Inside, Graham Sutherland’s giant 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 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, the Archangel Michael is hurling down the devil. (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 in Coventry Cathedral, inviting you into the Communion of Saints, into a Church built on the past but looking anew to the future?

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

Or is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael, depicted by Epstein and 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)?”

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

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.

Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael’s in Lichfield … what does this story say to you today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

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.

In his hymn Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal 376), Richard Baxter invites us to join the angels, the saints above and the saints on earth in praising God. We joined in that praise earlier in the Gloria, and that invitation 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)

The hymn, How shall I sing that majesty? (Irish Church Hymnal 468), contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our 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 the Archangel Michael in 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, martyrs and missionaries, 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.


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.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, 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 2011.

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