Wednesday, 29 September 2021

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

Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil, the 1958 bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels,

Wednesday 29 September 2021


11 am.: Festal Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

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

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

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

Saint Michael is closely associated with churches in these dioceses, including churches in Pery Square, Limerick, Killorglin and Waterville in Co Kerry, and, of course, the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks, one of the most popular tourist sites in this part of Ireland.

Culturally, the 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,’ 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
.

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 75 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.

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 also 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.

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 (Daniel 10: 13, 21, 12: 1; Jude 9; Revelation 12: 7-9; see also Revelation 20: 1-3).

In Jewish tradition, Rabbinic lore and the Midrash made Michael the special patron of Adam, the rescuer of Abraham, Lot and Jacob, the teacher of Moses; Michael tried to prevent Israel from being led into captivity, to save the Temple from destruction, and to protect Esther, whose story we heard about on Sunday (26 September 2021).

In the early Church, Michael was associated with the care of the sick, an angelic healer and heavenly physician. Saint Basil the Great and other Greek fathers placed Michael over all the angels and so called him ‘archangel.’ The Orthodox Church gave him the title of ‘Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts’ (ἀρχιστράτηγος, archistrategos).

In all our imagery, in all our poetry, Saint Michael is seen as crushing or slaying Satan, often Satan as a dragon.

Our ideas of dragons are also culturally conditioned. For the Chinese, dragons symbolise gift and blessing, and represent the majesty of the imperial household.

In most European languages, the word for a dragon is derived from the same Greek word used for a serpent. In European folklore and mythology, legendary dragons have symbolised danger and evil. We are warned in the Greek classics against sowing dragon’s teeth.

Most of us know that throughout life we are going to meet our own dragons, and how they are going to ensnare us if we do not face them and slay them.

During the Blitz in World War II, the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) spent some of his late teen and early adult years with his father’s family, close to Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield, where generations of the Larkin family are buried. There, on the north wall of the church, in a large, looming sculpted image, Saint Michael is crushing the dragon under his feet.

Memories of this image and this churchyard may have inspired the imagery in at least two poems written by Larkin some years later. In his poem ‘At the chiming of light upon sleep’, first drafted on this day 75 years ago [29 September 1946], Larkin links Michaelmas and a lost paradise with chances and opportunities he failed to take in his youth.

In his poem ‘To Failure,’ written a year before he moved to Belfast, Larkin realises that failure does not come ‘dramatically, with dragons / that rear up with my life between their paws.’ Failure comes with more subtlety in those wasted opportunities and lost chances.

Throughout life, we find we have your own dragons to slay. We must learn to know our dragons. And we need to pay heed to the opportunities in life that pass far too quickly, to take the opportunities we are presented with, like Nathanael in our Gospel reading, waiting beneath the fig tree, preparing for the next stage in life, the call to follow Christ.

There may be few dramatic conflicts with our inner dragons in daily life. But in time, we may regret not paying attention to the little opportunities, the minor details of life. Then we do not notice the changes, the days passing more quickly, and the years passing by.

Philip Larkin writes:

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Install you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I’m
Aware the days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind
They look like ruin. (You have been here some time.)


Sitting under his tree, Nathanael was aware of the opportunities and did not allow them to pass him by. And when we seize these opportunities, we may find ourselves prepared to ‘see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’ (John 1: 51).

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

In the Palace of Saint Michael and Saint George in Corfu (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.’

‘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)

Liturgical colour: White

Penitential Kyries:

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:

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.

Blessing:

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

Saint Michael slaying the Dragon, an image at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield … may have inspired at least one poem by Philip Larkin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

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