|Old Testament lesson:||Genesis 28, Vv 10-17|
|In lieu of Epistle:||Revelation 12, Vv 7-12|
|Holy Gospel:||St John 1, Vv 47 - 51|
Yesterday the church kept the Dedication of Saint Michael, Archangel, which the Prayer Book calls the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, and I though we might spend a few minutes this morning looking at this ethereal figure, whose name, Micah, in Hebrew, means, ‘Who is like God’.
Saint Michael makes only four appearances in the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, in chapter ten and at verse thirteen we may read, ‘But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia’. The Book of Daniel, written perhaps in the second century BC, is in two parts. The former, occupying the first six chapters, is an historical account of the Babylonian exile, covering the years from 587, to 538 when King Cyrus allowed his Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. In these chapters we meet Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and are regaled with such stories as their ordeal in the fiery furnace. The latter six chapters recount Daniel’s visions, some of which seem to parallel aspects of the apocalyptic writing of Saint John the Divine. In the last of these, Daniel has an awesome vision of a glorious figure, analogous to Saint John’s vision of Christ in the opening chapter of his Revelation. He is given an insight into that continual battle that rages in the spiritual realm between those protecting God’s people and those bent on their destruction. In this scriptural context Saint Michael is seen as the guardian angel of the Jewish people. The second Biblical reference is found in chapter twelve of Daniel. This book is the first in the Old Testament to speak explicitly of a personal resurrection. Verse two says, ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life’. At this time of the delivery of the people, Michael, the great prince, the protector of the people shall arise.
There are, similarly, two references to Michael in the New Testament. The first of these is in the Epistle of Jude. This is the last of the Epistles in the Bible and it comes immediately before the Revelation of Saint John. It is a short letter of just twenty-five verses and, although ascribed to a person called Jude, its exact authorship is unknown. Its date is probably quite late and it is written in excellent Greek. Its content is a strong castigation of heresy in the early church but it is too brief and too general to allow scholars to reconstruct any particular heresy. It is not addressed to any specific church but may be seen to be alerting all the churches to a general problem. In the middle of the letter there is a reference to a Jewish tradition about the death of Moses. Now, the Book called Deuteronomy clearly narrates the death of Moses. We are told that he was 125 years old and was buried in a valley in the land of Moab. The text adds that, ‘no one knows his burial place to this day’. However, it was popularly believed that Moses was bodily assumed into heaven, rather as Elijah was. Jude alludes to this ancient belief in a dispute between the Archangel Michael and Satan over the body of Moses. It was thought that Michael caused the concealment of the tomb of Moses while the Devil tried to disclose it location so as to seduce the Jewish people into hero worship, in strict contravention of God’s Commandments. It may have been some parallel misunderstanding in the Christian Church that the author of this epistle had in mind when he wrote his invective letter.
The final, and perhaps most well known, reference to Michael is in the Apocalypse, the Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, the last book in our Bible, as we have just heard in our Epistle. In chapter twelve we may read of a great battle in heaven when Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon of course alludes to the Devil, to Satan. Saint John tells us that the dragon and his angels fought back but they were defeated. The defeated Satan was thrown out of heaven and, Saint John clearly tells us, ‘he was thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him’.
The Fathers of the early church thought that Michael was to be found in other scriptural references, although his name was not mentioned. In the third chapter of the Book called Genesis, after the man and the woman had been banished from the Garden of Eden for their sin, we read that God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life. It is thought that the cherubim and the sword may be a reference to Saint Michael. He is also thought to have been the angel with a sword who met Balaam on the road on his donkey. You will remember in the book called Numbers how the angel caused much distress to Balaam, who was charged by Zippor the king of the Moabites to curse the people of Israel. First the donkey, who could see the angel even though Balaam could not, turned off into a field and then got stuck in a narrow lane where there was no room to turn. None was more surprised than Balaam when the donkey spoke to him after he had struck it with his stick. Then we read, ‘Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face’. Pretty exciting stuff, this. Another ancient tradition has it that it was Michael who struck down the Assyrians who, under Sennacherib, had besieged Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah. We may read in the Second Book of the Kings, ‘That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when the morning dawned, they were all dead bodies’. Finally, it is believed that Michael was the angel through whom God published the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, to his chosen people.
Following on from these various scriptural passages and ancient traditions, the Christian Church assigns to the Archangel Michael four offices. They are:
* to fight against Satan and the sin that he brings into the world;
* to rescue the souls of the faithful from the powers of Satan, especially the souls of the dying;
* to be the champion and defender of God’s people, the Jews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New; and
* to call us from this life to the next and thence to judgement before our heavenly Father.
Under the first of these assignments we can confidently maintain that it was angels under Saint Michael’s direction who came to Jesus’ aid and ministered to him after he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness at the end of his forty day fast.
The Fathers of the Church ranked the angels in a celestial hierarchy, in the so-called Nine Angelic Orders. We haven’t time this morning to look at all of these in detail but rest assured that our understanding of them is based on careful readings of the scriptures, from both Testaments. In increasing significance these orders comprise: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, the Orphanim, the Cherubim and the Seraphim. The only member of the list with which you might be unfamiliar is the Orphanim. They are often referred to as the Chariots of God. You will find references to them in the tenth chapter of the Prophesy of Ezekiel.
Where then does our hero, Saint Michael, fit into this divine structure? From his title you would think that he might be in the second rank, among the Archangels. The Fathers of the Greek Church, especially Saint Basil, who is still much revered in the east, placed Michael over all the angelic hosts believing him to be the Prince of the Seraphim. Thomas Aquinas had the opposite view and only accorded him a lowly place, as principal of the Angels. The Roman Church, following the Greek Fathers, called him Archistrategos, the Highest General. In the Mozarabic tradition, which originated in Spain, Saint Michael is placed even above the Twenty-four Elders, referred to in the Revelation. In our church we likewise pay him the highest honours that heaven and earth afford.
In art Saint Michael is represented by a warrior, fully armed, with helmet, sword and shield. He is often seen standing over a dragon which he has pierced with a lance. He is sometimes seen holding a pair of scales with which he weighs the souls of the departed or a book of life to indicate that he is involved with God in the judgement of the dead. His feast day, yesterday, has for centuries been a quarter-day, used for settling rents and accounts. It is a day that was once remarkable for its hospitality but, regrettably, this is no longer so. Geese that were fed and fattened on corn stubble and dropped grain, called, not surprisingly, stubble geese, were eaten on this day and in some places, for example on the Island of Skye, religious processions were held and cakes, called Saint Michael’s bannocks, were served. Michael is the patron saint of the sick, of mariners and, oddly enough, grocers and the security services.
So much then for the scripture, history and tradition that surrounds this otherworldly character. How is Saint Michael important to us today? Should we care about him? Does he have any relevance in the modern church? The answers must be: Yes and Yes. That Satan and his minions are still a real force in the world is I think evidenced by increases in the growth of prison populations, the general insecurity felt by people living in our towns and cities, the low esteem in which human life seems to be held and the ever declining numbers who believe in God or regularly attend our churches. Saint Michael and his hosts of angels are there to protect us from the onslaught of evil and sin in the world. Secondly, we are told that there are only two absolute certainties in life – death and taxes. We all have to die. We all have to pass beyond the veil of death into a new adventure beyond the grave. Part of that experience will involve us in being called to account for our life in this world. We should ask Michael and his heavenly hosts to hold us clear of temptation to sin by keeping the forces of evil at bay. Thirdly, all of the angels are God’s messengers, under the control and authority of Saint Michael. When our turns come to cross the great divide it will surely be a great comfort to us to be accompanied by one off these heavenly creatures, one who knows the way and can guide us to our new home. Finally, we must accept the words of our service here this morning and believe that, though we cannot see them, we are surrounded by hosts of angels and archangels every time we offer worship to God. We are privileged that they take time in their doubtless busy schedules to join with us in our worship. It is popularly believed, and I think rightly so, that angels stand guard wherever the Blessed Sacrament, the Body and Blood of Christ, stand upon our altars. If this is so then our altar is so surrounded, although, of course, we cannot see members of this heavenly host.
We have so much for which to thank Saint Michael and his Angles. We must surely continue to follow the traditions of the church and celebrate his special day with great rejoicings.
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