29 September 2019

‘You will see heaven opened
and the angels of God
ascending and descending’

‘Michael and his angels fought against the dragon’ (Revelation 12: 7) … Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of ‘Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil’ at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 September 2019

Saint Michael and All Angels

(The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, Trinity XV)

11 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Joint Group Service

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

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

An icon of the Archangel Michael in the Church of Saint George in Aghios Georgios in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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

What does your name mean to you?

Did your parents call you after a favourite family member, a grandparent, uncle or aunt, good neighbour?

Did they think your name would secure your place in the family?

Or did they think it would make you seem sophisticated, elegant, strong, beautiful, proud?

How do you feel when someone forgets your name, especially someone who should matter to you? Or calls you by the wrong name?

It irritates me that one particular person gets my surname wrong in minutes at meetings. And when I try to correct it, he gets it wrong again, and invariably mispronounces it.

It is not a very difficult name to remember or spell. So, I constantly feel that he does not think me or my opinion matter, and would not care whether or not I was at those meetings.

The meaning of names is important to identity. My name places me in time and space, connects me with my family and the places they have lived. Getting my name wrong denies that.

The other option for the Gospel reading this morning (Luke: 16 19-31) tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

Dives knows Lazarus by name. He never acknowledges him while he is alive and begging at his gate, covered in sores. But when he dies, he looks up and recognises Lazarus, and knows his name.

Although he passed him by and ignored him every day, he knew who he was and knew his name.

But Dives is not actually named in that Gospel story, despite how we have inherited its telling. Dives is simply the Latin word for a rich man, used in the Vulgate translations of the Bible.

I once heard a sermon by Archbishop Rowan Williams in which he said Dives had lost his actual name because he had lost his humanity. We are known to God by name. By separating himself so severely from God Dives has lost his humanity, his name that identifies his humanity and gives him his place in the human family.

When I worked at The Irish Times, Michael Jansen was a friend and colleague. We shared many of her hopes and fears, values and visions while she worked in the Middle East. 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) 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 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. 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?

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.

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. It is a superstition shared across the islands, from Achill to Lichfield, from Wexford to Essex and Cambridge.

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.

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.

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.

In later Jewish and Christian traditions, Michael 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 protector 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, he is 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 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, and, of course, of Marks and Spencer.

Saint Michael was popular in the early Irish monastic tradition, and legends associate him with Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast.

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’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 ...’

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.

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

‘There was a ladder … reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it’ (Genesis 28: 12) … ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ (John 1: 51) … ascending and descending angels on a frosted-glass door in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.’

A statue of Saint Michael vanquishing the devil remains in front of the former Convent of Mercy in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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.

The Collect of the Day (Saint Michael and All Angels):

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.

The Collect of the Day (Trinity XV):

who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
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 Post-Communion Prayer (Trinity XV):

Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of 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 in a fresco in a church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)


346, Angel voices, ever singing (CD 21)
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim (CD 28)
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.

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)

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