Saturday 5th June 2021
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!’
Although there are three Anglican churches within a couple of miles of each other dedicated to St. Michael in Oxford, I’d never really thought much about who he was. He only appears in two other books of the BIble – that other great piece of apocalyptic literature, Daniel, and in the letter of Jude. Roman Catholic thinkers have developed a sophisticated picture of Michael’s role, while Protestants, including Luther, have seen Michael as a form of fore-runner to Christ. I’ve been pondering those ideas but I’m not finding them very useful.
On the other hand, if you were given this passage without attribution you might question whether it was from the Bible or from a novel by J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman or C. S. Lewis, as the style is so novelistic, and the idea of war in heaven is so shocking. And depictions like the memorable Jacob Epstein sculpture on the wall of the new Coventry cathedral (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Michael%27s_Victory_over_the_Devil ) reinforce the rather fantastical nature of this story. So perhaps we should read this passage in a similar way to the way we might read the Creation myths – a way of making sense of the existence of evil, and a promise of the perfection of heaven.
I suspect a number of us will find the martial depiction of Michael leading a squadron of fighting angels somewhat hard to relate to – unlike the characters in the Epstein sculpture, it’s not always obvious in our lives whether we are the angel or the demon in a particular context, and looking at conflicts across the world, it’s often the case that we can see why both sides are aggrieved. So we may hesitate to see fighting as the best way to further the Kingdom of Heaven.
We give thanks for the promise of eternal life, and pray in the words of the hymn:
Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,
from the castle of darkness the power of the truth. Amen.
(When a knight won his spurs, ‘Jan Struther’, Rejoice and Sing 556).