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Michaelmas - 19
29 September 2019

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels – traditionally known seasonally as Michaelmas Day.

St Michael was popular in the Middle Ages as the patron of soldiers in Europe. Michael is mentioned 5 times in the Bible: 3 in Daniel, once in Jude, and once in Revelation. More recently he became far better known as the patron saint of quality clothes and sensible underwear –as St Michael of Marks and Spencer. Sadly, St Michael’s contract with M&S came to an end a few years ago.

The name Michael means ‘who is like God?’ A Norman French version of the name gives my surname –Mitchell. So, in total, with Richard, you might like to know that I go around with a good Norman combination as a name – ‘strong ruler who is like God? Don’t forget the ?

Michaelmas is one of the ‘quarter days’ of the year and it’s interesting that they all have connections with angels. Michaelmas and St Michael and all Angels.

Christmas and the visit by angels to the shepherds announcing the birth of Christ.

The Annunciation –25 March – the angel’s visit to Mary to announce her pregnancy (9 months before Christmas), and then Midsummer –the birth of John the Baptist (24 June) announced as impending to Zechariah by an angel

Why St Michael on 29th September? I’m not sure. Perhaps because it was around the end of the medieval campaigning season in war. A time to give thanks for deliverance from the enemy – or just still being alive?

In the Old Testament, in Genesis, Jacob has his dream of a ladder leading up to heaven, with angels descending and ascending on it. What is going on?

The angels, in the translation, ascend and descend upon the ladder, but, the Hebrew could equally be translated as the angels ascending and descending upon Jacob. If we remember that Jacob is to be named Israel, then we can see here an image of the ladder and the angels linking Israel, God’s people on earth, and the new Israel in heaven. No wonder, then, that Jesus uses the image to Nathanael that he will see the angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man, Jesus himself. He is the one who has, through the incarnation as God on earth, come to link, to bind, heaven and earth in a new way. The Christmas angels in the fields are proclaiming that heaven and earth are drawn together in the Christ child, and why we’re having ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ today.

Yesterday we had our congregational gathering at Prinknash to hear Fr Mark helping us with the chapter on humility in St Benedict’s Rule of Life. Humility isn’t about us thinking of ourselves as being nothing, but about being something in God’s eyes.

This is what Benedict wrote in his introduction to that Chapter:

If we wish to reach the very highest point of humility…
we must erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream
on which angels appeared to him ascending and descending.

By that descent and ascent
we must surely understand nothing else than this,
that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.

And the ladder set up is our life in the world
which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.

On this basis, our recent parliamentary life seems to have taken a step or two down the rungs of the ladder. St Benedict is quite clear that when our own will takes precedence, along with an inability to curb the tongue, then collective responsibility and patience will be gone.

Benedict would have us pray for, and chastise this, current, unworthy human interaction as utterly lacking in humility or awareness. It’s not the way up the ladder with the angels.

Jacob had used a stone as a pillow. I often find that sleeping with your head in an awkward position gives rise to strange dreams!

In Matthew’s gospel an angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him not to set aside the marriage contract because of Mary’s pregnancy, but to take her as his wife. Later, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream, to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and then later by a similar method, he’s told to return to Israel.

The angels appear in dreams at times of stress and anxiety. Jacob has just fled from the anger of his brother Esau who had lost his birthright as eldest son.

The angels in these cases are all linked with deliverance at times of difficulty.

If we think of our own dreams – sometimes, if not often, the elements or feeling of good or bad is easier to recognise. We know whether we’ve had a pleasant dream or a bad one.

We know that real life isn’t like that – it isn’t so easy to categorise everything as good or bad. Much of the time life is full of ambivalence – elements of good and bad in the same thing. Dreams are generally more clear-cut; our subconscious telling us about our deepest longings and fears.

So, perhaps it’s not that difficult to see why angels become associated with dreams and visions.

I was in my youth in the Abba era. They had a song in which there were the lines; ’I believe in angels, something good in everything I see. I believe in angels, when I know the time is right for me’.

I mention it because, lo and behold, angels are mentioned in this song which is called, ‘I have a dream’!

I have to say that I now must forever see this song in a new light after it was sung at this week’s clergy conference by an Abba tribute band including the Very Revd Stephen Lake and retitled, ‘Where is the Dean?’

And I have here the very wig worn by the Dean in that rendition! It’s going in the Cathedral Treasury.

The image of the angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth is also a wonderful image for our worship. The elements of what we do here today, and each day, take us up and down the spiritual ladder linking heaven and earth, like the angels in the dream.

Our worship should take us to heaven in beauty, in uplifting words and music and in the mystery of the sacraments. But it is also rooted on earth as we try to apply scripture to everyday life, and bring our concerns of everyday existence and experience in prayer. Down the ladder in worship is the reality of human life shared by Christ; up the ladder in worship is the goodness and glory of the gospel of his death and resurrection.

How shall I sing that majesty which angels do admire?
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire,
Then shall I sing and take my part
With that celestial choir.                      

John Mason

Canon Richard Mitchell


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