Michaelmas: Spiritual corrective for the modern world:
If you didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition you may have heard of “Michaelmas” but never known to what it referred. It is, of course, the day in the Christian calendar on which we celebrate “Michael and All Angels”: September 29.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that, “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (Screwtape Letters). With his usual trick of stating the profound simply, Lewis has shown us why the observance of Michaelmas is so important in this day and age. It calls our attention to the reality of the spiritual world as revealed in scripture without sensationalizing it.
God’s ambassadors among us
The collect for Michaelmas reminds us of what we know about angels: their station, and their role:
O everlasting God,
who hast ordained and constituted
the services of angels and men in a wonderful order:
Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels alway do thee service in heaven,
so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Angels are God’s creature-servants, and they have acted as his ambassadors among us. Every now and then scripture gives us a glimpse of this other layer of reality that usually exists beyond our perception. Perhaps we’re uncomfortable with this topic. Yet it cannot be denied that the Bible is filled with vignettes of angelic visitation.
Here are just a few instances that you may recall: An angel was sent by God to prepare the way for his people to enter the promised land. An angel was sent to give food and drink to Elijah when he was fleeing from the villainous Jezebel. When Daniel had been thrown into a lion’s den, an angel was sent to shut the mouths of the lions. The angel Gabriel brought to Mary the message that she would be the mother of Jesus. Angels ministered to our Lord following his temptation in the wilderness, and they were there to roll away the tombstone after his resurrection. An angel led Peter out of prison. And angels often feature in the visions of the prophets. There’s no getting around the fact that the writers of scripture believed in angels, and angels were part of the story that they knew needed to be told.
The readings appointed for this day are fascinating. Of all the passages that might have been selected, the two that are read in the BCP lectionary are these: Revelation 12:7-11 and Matthew 18:1-10.
The passage in Revelation is wonderful and powerful and I’m including it below in its entirety in the traditional language of the BCP:
There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
What a great vision of triumph! The deceiver of the world, the enemy of God’s beloved – shall be defeated by the angelic army of our Lord. It strains the imagination, though it has inspired artists and musicians for centuries.
Guardians of God’s Children
The second passage that we read is taken from Matthew’s Gospel and as it begins we may wonder why it has been selected. It is the passage in which Jesus calls to himself a little child. He tells his listeners that they must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Then he issues a warning to those who would harm such a child. And then, almost as an afterthought, we have this verse:
“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”
What’s that supposed to mean? Well, there have been numerous theories developed based on this verse which we won’t speculate on here. However it is that the “guardianship” of angels over God’s children works, this verse does tell us is that there is a special care by the Father for these little ones, and his angels are at work on their behalf. Commentator Matthew Henry put it this way:
“While the great ones of the world have honourable men for their retinue and guards, the little ones of the church are attended with glorious angels; which bespeaks not only their dignity, but the danger those run themselves upon, who despise and abuse them.”
Though the angels seem to us to be wonderful and awe-inspiring, scripture is careful to steer us away from misplaced devotion. The Revelation of John tells us of his reaction when confronted with an angel – and that angel’s response:
“Then I fell down at the angel’s feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’” (Revelation 19:10 ESV)
Astonishing as it may seem, the angels are our fellow creatures. They serve our Lord. They minister to us at his behest. They fight our common enemy. And together with them, we worship God.