September 30, 2023 - St. Michael & All Angels (Transferred)
Change and chance: words to describe the rather ordinary, unpromising circumstances leading to the events in two of today’s readings, from Genesis and the Gospel of John.
Jacob is fleeing from a family disputeHe is tired, physically and emotionally. Apart from his family, he has no shelter. He happens upon a spot with a stone as a pillow, where he sleeps in the open. Here he dreams, a dream which promises great change for Jacob.
Nathanael has been urged by his friend Philip to meet a rabbi he has come to know from Nazareth. Nazareth - that backward place from which no good thing can come. Reluctantly he goes, unconvinced that a rabbi with such an obviously unremarkable background will have anything significant to say. A chance encounter from which great change will flow.
Angels are the sign that the change and chance experienced by Jacob and Nathanael are shot through with dramatic meaning and significance.
As he sleeps, Jacob dreams of “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God … ascending and descending on it”. Nathanael is amazed as he hears the rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, declare “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.
Change and chance, shot through with dramatic meaning - this is what the references to the angels signify. Both events, then, introduce us - on this feast of St Michael and All Angels - to the presence and purpose of angels.
For Jacob, fleeing a family dispute, uncertain of his future; for Nathanael, unsure of this rabbi from Nazareth, skeptical about Him, the angels are signs of God’s abundant light and goodness, poured out and overflowing … guiding and reassuring Jacob, opening Nathanael’s eyes to behold the majesty of this Man from Nazareth.
In both readings, the same phrase occurs, “the angels of God … ascending and descending”. The implication is of numerous angels, of abundant light, pouring forth. The same idea is echoed in our psalm, with its reference to “all you his hosts.” That there are “innumerable angels” (Heb 12:22) is a theme repeated throughout Scripture. It may seem like a rather odd or unimportant detail. It is not. It points to something both significant and reassuring.
Angels are bearers of God’s light and goodness. And because God has created an innumerable host of angels, it means that they bear this light and goodness everywhere. It means that innumerable apparently ordinary experiences of change and chance are shot through with, surrounded by, filled with God’s light and presence.
Which is why we celebrate today’s feast, Michaelmas. We do so as we enter into the changes of Autumn, into darker days, as the natural world and the waning of the year remind us of our mortality. As the children and young people of our congregations begin a new school, college, or university year, with the challenges and changes this inevitably brings.
But we celebrate Michaelmas now, to remind ourselves that an innumerable company of angels surrounds us, bearing to us God’s light and presence amidst change, challenge, advancing years. In the words of the opening collect for this feast: “Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth.”
We can have reminders of this in everyday life. That sense we can have of being protected or guided in difficult contexts. When we make half-joking references to ‘our guardian angel’. When we feel a presence close to us in dark times.
In a sonnet called Michaelmas Sonnet that he has written for this day, the British religious poet and priest Malcolm Guite talks of “the hidden grace in change and chance,” the hidden grace that surrounds us, enfolds us, guides us, protects us - the hidden grace borne to us by angels and archangels.
Michaelmas is a celebration of the ministry and presence of the angels because the angels are a means of bringing us to experience the presence, light, and goodness of God in our daily lives, to sustain, guide, and protect us.
We are not cold and lonely in a dark universe, with a distant god, who stands far off, detached from our daily lives and the change and chance we experience. The ministry and presence of the angels tells us that this is not so. Innumerable angels, ascending and descending, surround us, bearing the light, love, and presence of God to us in daily life.
In the office of Compline in our Prayer Book, one of the collects reminds us of this ministry of the angels in our daily lives. It shows that what we celebrate on this feast of St Michael and All Angels is a daily reality, to comfort, reassure, and guide us amidst the change and chance of our daily lives:
“Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP, 133).