A reflection by The Revd Dr Gill Henwood, shared with the people of St. Michael’s Church, Hawkshead, Cumbria.
painting in Hawkshead Church of St Michael & All Angels | Paul Gregson
reproduced by permission
photo | Gill Henwood
Readings: Genesis 28.10-17, John 1.47-51
It’s an honour to share with you this morning as we celebrate Michaelmas, the Christian quarter day near the autumn equinox that marks the turning of the season towards winter – and towards the midwinter quarter day of Christmas. Quarter days are major transitions in the natural world: at Michaelmas the earth turns away from the sun, entering the darker half of the year. As our days shorten and nights begin to lengthen, darkness gradually takes over from the bright sunlight of midsummer. It’s a time of change, with chilly nights and cold rains, heavy dews, clouds down into our valleys and soon, the first frosts.
Michaelmas marks this transition from light to darkness in nature (of course, only in the northern hemisphere). And this year, 2020, we are entering another period of restrictions, to try to slow down the Covid19 pandemic. A transition from the summer’s easing of limits by being outside in the fresh air, to autumn’s more dangerous enclosure within homes and workplaces where the virus can thrive.
This year as we recall our church’s patronal festival, we may ask, who was St Michael and why were so many churches dedicated from the mediaeval era onwards to Michael and All Angels? Because it turns out that – in the Church of England – only St Mary, All Saints and St Peter are more popular patron saints than our own St Michael and All Angels.
The timing of Michaelmas, when sunlit summer gives way to darkening winter, speaks to us of times in our own lives when we face dark times. This year, the whole world is facing the threat of a global virus. We as a nation are trying to find ways to live protecting one another, recognising the vulnerability of many in our society. We as a parish community are trying to keep one another safe, to get through this crisis, to withstand the threats to health, livelihoods, education and even to lives.
Michaelmas recalls our longing, as people in crisis, for help. Our sense of powerlessness before a threat for which there is as yet no vaccine or cure. Our sense that once again, we are faced with the limitations of our humanity. We realise anew the real challenges: to the ingenuity of scientists and researchers, to the care of medical, nursing and caring professionals and family members, to people trying to work and live through this crisis.
When our church became a parish, our mediaeval forbears turned to Michael and All Angels as their patrons. Michael was associated with healing and later with protection. There are many stories and works of art picturing Michael as a victorious archangel in a soldier’s armour vanquishing the dangerous threat, symbolised as a serpent or dragon or demon. The iconography of Michael defeating evil may also underlie the later adoption of the Christian Roman soldier George as England’s patron saint, conquering a dragon that threatened peace and harmony.
The scriptures tell us of protecting angels of God. In the reading from Genesis, Jacob dreams of a ladder between earth and heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. The angels connect earth with heaven, humankind with God, nature seen with nature sensed-as-beyond-us. Sometimes in our dreams, sometimes in our hopes and prayers, sometimes in our fleeting glimpses of God’s presence with us and among us. Jacob dreams of the great ladder with angels connecting heaven and earth, and hears God’s promise: ‘Know I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… for I will not leave you’. When he wakes, Jacob recognises that he has encountered God in his dream, formerly unrecognised when he lay down to sleep. He is afraid, overawed, by the presence of God with him. Jacob realises – Jacob knows in his own heart – that ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
Wherever God comes to each one of us – whether in a dream or daydream, in our hopes or longings, on a fell top or in our garden, in the isolation of lockdown or the busyness of everyday – we may, like Jacob, recognise God is present with us. It may be in a very short conversation between someone we meet on a footpath, maybe in the kind word of a stranger or phone call of a friend. That moment of recognising God is present with us may be when the evening sun hits Latterbarrow and sets the autumn bracken on fire, or breaks through the clouds in a shaft of light or a rainbow. God is present with us every day, when we open our hearts to recognise that presence. It may be in the quiet of our church, open during the week for prayer, that we sense ‘this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.
And it may be when a robin sings in our garden, or in Crag Wood, a cathedral of oak trees. This too may be the gate of heaven.
Jesus knew the presence of God with him, within him, as he was out and about in the natural world of fields and trees, as well as worshipping in the synagogue. In our gospel reading he recalls to his followers Jacob’s dream of the ladder, with angels of God ascending and descending, connecting heaven with earth. Jesus promises that one day they too will recognise God’s presence with them as Jacob did, through the ladder of the Son of Man.
Through Jesus, God’s promise to Jacob is renewed and made real for them – ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see’ – you will know – we will know, as Jacob knew, that God is with us. We too can hear God’s promise throughout the ages to his people, ‘Know I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… for I will not leave you’.
We too can wake up, every day, every moment of our days, to pause and recognise that God is present with us. Jesus is God’s ladder uniting heaven with earth, reuniting divine with humanity, renewing creator with creation. We too can sense the angels of God protecting us, prompting us, surrounding us; pointing us to Jesus, the way, the truth and the life.
This Michaelmas, let us prepare for darkening days ahead by opening our hearts as Jacob did and as Jesus’ disciples did, to hear God’s voice speak within us and among us afresh. Let us open our hearts to receive God’s presence with us anew, to let God’s Holy Spirit come to us as the Comforter who assures us of God’s love given to us in Jesus. Let us open our hearts to be united in love with God in Christ through the Spirit, and so to be united with one another. May we know – that God is with us and will keep us wherever we go… for God will not leave us.