St Michael’s Day Genesis 28:10-17, Psalm 103, Revelation 12:7-12, John 1:47-51
Today is September 29th, the Feast of Holy Michael and and All Angels, traditionally called Michaelmas. Our Prayer book gives us a number of feasts which we are asked to celebrate each year, which have to do with the events leading up to Christ’s birth: The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the birth, circumcision, Epiphany, and Presentation of Christ in the Temple and to do with his Passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. We are also asked to celebrate the feasts of the Apostles, Evangelists (the writers of the four Gospels), and a few other disciples of Jesus whose stories are found within the Gospels or New Testament.
These feasts, which are called Principle Feasts or Red-Letter Days, are given to us so that we can give thanks to God for his working out of salvation in history and so that we can be inspired by the examples of the saints who have gone before us. Through these moments in time, and the lives of particular saints, God’s glory is made more wonderful to us and the effects of his saving help can be more clearly seen.
But ultimately we celebrate a feast because it makes memory of people who have existed and things which have happened.
It is St John who gives us the longest account of the work and ministry of Michael the Archangel, in his version of the Nativity story found in Revelation 12, co-produced apparently by J.J. Abrams.
See, when John tells us about the birth of Jesus Christ he doesn’t introduce us to a teenage girl in a town called Nazareth. He introduces us to a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet wearing a crown of twelve stars, who is pregnant with a child who is to be the ruler of all nations. But out of the unseen realm, the heavenly place, emerges the enemy of this woman and her child: The red dragon who would seek to devour the child as soon as he is born.
This act of aggression against God’s saving purposes is met with the strongest resistance, as Michael the commander of the hosts of heaven wages war against the devil, the Accuser who Accuses human beings before God day and night. Satan is cast out of heaven by the angelic host, those unseen forces which submit to Christ’s rightful ruling of the cosmos. The old order is passing away, and the new order is coming to be, first in heaven and then on earth.
Why would John tell us about the coming of Christ in these dramatic terms? What good does it do to imagine the Nativity of Christ from the vantage of unseen things? What is John accomplishing by telling this story?
One way of understanding the answer to that question is to compare it with the other Nativity accounts in the Gospels. Matthew tells us of the drama of Christ’s coming into this world from a more temporal perspective. A young girl is pregnant from the power of the Holy Spirit, but her betrothed is tempted to abandon her as he believes that she has become pregnant by another man. And in the second chapter a vile enemy is revealed, Herod the king who finds out about this pretender to his throne, and he plots to murder the child, but the angel of God appears to Joseph, who rather than abandoning Mary has taken responsibility for her and the infant Jesus and takes them to safety in Egypt.
This story taken alone might cause the reader to conceive of the enemies of God to be particular persons, or a particular ethnicity, in a particular time, doing particularly evil things. But John in his Apocalyptic vision sets the particularity of Mary, Joseph, and Herod within the context of an unseen war between God and the Devil, whereas what is seen is Herod breathing out murderous threats against the child Jesus, but what is unseen is the rage of the ancient enemy of all people enflamed against God’s saving work through his Son.
Herod then becomes in the Christian imagination not an evildoer in his own right, but rather a servant of the losing side, the last desperate attempt of the Old Order to stop God’s intention to rescue his people, and Joseph through his faith in the word which came to him from God through the Angel, becomes a warrior against the ancient evil, fighting alongside the armies of God. But why would that matter to John’s first readers somewhere near the end of the First Century after Christ’s birth?
This was an era of significant persecution for the Christian Church, and not just from the Jews but now the Romans too. The world appeared to be set against the Christians. The Church had departed ways from the Temple in Jerusalem, but now the Gentiles too had found their way of love to be a threat to their ordering of the world and sought to stamp out Christianity from their empire. in the midst of this persecution it might appear the most rational course of action to flee into enclaves and closed communities where the saints of God can live quiet lives of peace, safely hidden from the cruelty of the Romans. But this telling of Jesus’ birth, and the account of the heavenly war waged by Michael against the Devil, tells the reader a necessary truth about themselves and the world.
These Romans, like Herod, are not the true enemy of God’s purposes. No matter how cruel and depraved their manner of life, their theology, their politics, no matter how brutal their treatment of outsiders and the poor, these people are not the enemies of God. For God’s saving work is not for only particular tribes or castes or nationalities but is for all people, and so the true enemy is not a nation or system but rather an unseen adversary who roams the earth and claims an illegitimate authority over those who have not yet heard the Gospel and come to know and serve God.
Knowing the true identity of the enemy also then shapes how the people of God respond. It might have been tempting to find common cause with the tribes and sects within and outside of the Roman empire for security, to wage an earthly war against them, to claim some piece of land where a Christian nation could be established. But the allies of the Church are the heavenly host who serve God day and night, and it is with them we have thrown our lot, and it is from them that our help comes. For the Church does not fight the Romans or the Judeans, but the Devil and all the invisible forces which serve his purposes. If the Church in John’s day are looking for an ally, they should look to Michael who is shown to be the one who God has equipped to defeat their real enemy.
Michael and all the angels who serve with him also express our hope in the certainty of the vanquishing of Satan, the enemy of all people. For as Satan was cast out of heaven by God’s servants, so too might we consider ourselves servants of God sharing this mission of casting Satan out of this world, liberating all of creation from his grasp. And indeed John makes this explicit by telling his readers “woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
If it was the role of the angels to rid the heavenly realm of the ancient evil one, whose role is it to rid the earth of the same?
Though the Church in the tumultuous times of the Roman empire might have been tempted to respond by withdrawing, John impresses upon his readers that they have joined in with a struggle not against flesh and blood, but with spiritual forces which seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and in light of the great danger this poses they must find the courage to bear the name of Jesus such that the victory which was began in the heavenly realm may be completed here on earth.
This feast of Michael and All Angels might be especially needful in a day and age where the tendency is to think that only material objects posses existence. Yet both Christians and Pagans have understood that there are unseen powers which do have an existence and an influence in our world. We might think of the power inherent in relationships, in ideas, in political orderings, in philosophy or ethics. To name the unseen realm and to see it as a battle of a sort can warn us that the means by which we serve God, or indeed serve the enemy of God, is not just with the matter of our flesh and bone, but also in the life of our minds and spirits, and that there may be ideas we hold, or rather ideas that have a hold over us, which come to us not from God and his ways, but rather oppose the will of God to save the world. It could be the case that with the best of intentions an ordering of society grows up which actually opposes God’s ways, and so falls under the thrall of Satan.
Equally it can be the case that with God’s help we might win a great victory for God’s reign on earth in the policy documents of an organization we administer, or in how we shape the culture of our workplaces and homes, for even without words we have further banished Satan from his illegitimate hold over our world. For we who are Christians are called to confess that we believe in a God who has made all things, visible and invisible. We are trained today to speak of that which is invisible as basically nonexistent, but our faith challenges us to acknowledge the spiritual nature of the unseen forces which shape our social, intellectual, ethical, and political experience. But from these unseen things Satan has already been cast out, and so the first victory gained for the Kingdom of God is in the realm of the unseen and spiritual. Let us today rejoice in that victory and anticipate the victory of the Gospel in this mortal and created realm as well.
Holy Michael the Archangel is often considered a patron of those in uniformed services, the Police, fire fighters, paramedics, and the military. This does not need to be thought of as a superstition, though it certainly can become that, but rather Michael as a creature under orders and in command of others is found to be a source of consolation to those who also serve under orders and in command of others. I would go so far as to suggest that based on what we have discussed today about the true nature of things, the unseen realm in which the Christian’s true battle is fought, it is those who wear uniforms and fight in this visible plane who are often at the most risk of being miseld in their thinking, and mistaking the struggles in which they find themselves as the spiritual struggle for which sake they have been redeemed.
What I mean is this: that when one is trained to follow orders by a temporal power, and indeed has sworn oaths to uphold that order, they may be more vulnerable and exposed to following orders which do not further the Kingdom of God, but actually serve the purposes of our true enemy. May this never be, and may God surround them with Holy Michael and all his angels such that their souls would be kept safe in the midst of the battles they are called to face. But today as we remember the heavenly ordering of Angels and Archangels, let us commit to pray sincerely and persistently for those who serve in uniform, that they would be protected from that which could harm their souls and that they would always remember that the true enemy, the enemy of all people, is the Devil and that true victory will come with God’s help as those who are ensnared in his ways are made free by the Gospel to serve the kingdom of Heaven.
And indeed may we all remember that at the Lord’s Table we stand with the angels and archangels, with whom we have found an ally, together ushering in the Kingdom of God, sharing in the liberation of captives, rejoicing that our God is saving all of creation, and comforted that though we may suffer many setbacks, still we have access to heavenly assistance, who have banished the Devil from the heavenly realm, and will serve with us as we work to banish him from our hearts and our world too.
When we pray today and each day that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, let us draw courage that God has already prepared and intended this to be the case, and let us feast in our hearts in thanksgiving that the work is not ours to face alone.
Many of our uniformed brothers and sisters in Christ will carry prayer cards or wear emblems which say “Holy Michael defend us in battle”. It is not a vain request, but it is a sure promise. We who have been baptized have joined a fight for the salvation of all things. But be encouraged, God is going to win.