Sunday 29 September 2019: St Michael and All Angels
St Michael: warrior patron
By Alison Fulford
Priest in Charge of the United Benefice of Baddiley, Wrenbury and Burleydam.
Context: small rural church celebrating its Patronal Festival for the first time in many years
Aim: to explain the role of angels, particularly St Michael, in the Christian life
Who can see a depiction of a warrior angel here in the church? In our east end window, we can see a beautiful illustration of our patron: St Michael. He is dressed for battle but kneeling in prayer, his wings folded back and his sword at his side. By tradition he is one of the chief angels, a so-called archangel. Today we are going to consider the place of angels, particularly our war-like St Michael, in our Christian pilgrimage towards God.
Cute little cherubs?
Let me refresh your memory about how we understand angels in the Christian tradition. What we believe is a little different from what you might think angels are all about if you gleaned your angel theology (angelology!) from a gift shop. Images of angels are highly popular: gorgeous creatures with wings, shown on teacups, posters, trays, cards, memes, the lot. Many people find these images inspiring, even consoling. As I take funerals I have heard many people say that their loved one is now an angel. But let’s just pause a minute.
It is true, that many of these images have been copied from great artists of the past who were working within the Christian tradition. The way that they are often used now, however, has floated free from its original moorings.
We need to remember that angels are creatures but in a different manner from us humans. Just as we are certain that we are human and not cats and will never become a cat, so we can be certain that we are human now and in the life to come. We will not change species and become an angel. The difference is this: we humans are body and spirit, but angels are just spirit. Just as we have the vocation to praise and love God in the midst of our human lives, so angels too have the responsibility to serve God, to act as God’s messengers and to love and praise God.
God’s creatures of power and might
In our reading today we see a brief description of St Michael, warrior angel, living out his vocation to serve God. The writer of the book of Revelation, John, sees a war open up in heaven, with a being described as a ‘dragon’ stirring up rebellion against God. John can’t find enough negatives to describe this enemy. As well as being a dragon, he is called the serpent, an accuser and a liar. You have the sense of a great energy of malevolence. And yet, St Michael and his angels prove themselves the stronger in battle. The dragon is defeated in heaven and thrown down to earth, where he is allowed to continue to make trouble for a limited time.
The writer John had to struggle with the experience of exile and persecution. If he is asking the question ‘why are we suffering?’ then our reading is part of his answer: because the devil has been allowed to maltreat believers on earth. This is not the whole truth, however. Inspired by the book of Daniel, where St Michael appears to challenge evil and help God’s people, John represents the archangel as an agent of God, offering God’s own mighty protection and assistance for struggling communities.
St Michael points us to God
We live in a different place and time from John the Revelator, as he is called in the famous Blues song. So, what can the figure of St Michael – our patron – say to us today? It seems to me that the key to making good sense of angels is to focus on how they help us understand and worship God. Angels do not want to be the point; their job is to point to God. When we ask, ‘why is St Michael important to us?’ the answer needs to point to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Look at the illustration of St Michael in our window once more, glowing in the morning light. Let’s allow each part of him to help us apprehend our loving God. He has the gift of speedy swooping wings, reminding us that the Spirit is never far from us, and always close. He has the gift of chainmail, helmet and sword, reminding us that the battle against sin and evil has been won in Jesus Christ. Lastly, his gift of prayer reminds us that our heavenly Father promises to provide all we need and calls us to petition for it.
Patrons past and present
In the past, this church benefitted from the gifts of the powerful local family, the Mainwarings. They were our ancestors’ human patrons. But we also have a powerful spiritual patron in St Michael. The Mainwarings may have paid for the timber, the glass and the priest, but the heavenly general St Michael can keep us focused on the life of the Triune God. His names translates as ‘who is like God?’ No created being, that is for sure! But in God’s graciousness, we can catch a glimpse of some aspects of God as we consider the angels.
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