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Hallo again to all.

Michaelmas DaisiesIn the ancient collect for Michaelmas, Prayer Book Christians ask God to

Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels always do thee service in heaven, so, by thy appointment, they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

With these words, first in Latin and then in English, centuries of devout people have kept one of the four great Quarter Days of the year—along with Lady Day (25 March), the Nativity of St John Baptist (24 June) and Christmas (25 December). At these seasonal markers of the liturgical year—rooted certainly in astronomical alignments significant to pre-Christian European religions—one paid rent and finished lawsuits, slaughtered specific animals, planted or harvested specific crops, and took shared notice of the passage of time.

In mediaeval northern Europe, Michaelmas came late enough in the agricultural cycle to mark the end of the harvest season. It was the time to kill and eat the skinny, stubbly geese—the fat ones, fed on the grain from Michaelmas harvests, were for Christmastide.

Michaelmas still gives its name to academic and legal term periods, a special sort of daisy (an aster by Linnaeus), and a kind of Scottish bannock-cake. But outside of Rudolf Steiner schools and parishes named for St Michael and All Angels, the pervasive significance of the feast for religious and civil life is no longer widespread.

As ever when something falls into greater desuetude, there is a special level of delight, flavour, and attachment for the knowledgeable and devoted people who still keep a tradition. Michaelmas for Anglicans today often means a spirited procession to St Patrick's Breastplate, the recitation of the beloved old collect, and maybe—if you're lucky—Father Faber's Pilgrims of the Night set to a good tune. It's unusual though, even when those things are done eagerly and lustily, to hear a sermon about 'the ministry of men and angels in a wonderful order'. It would be hard to accuse First World Anglicans of having an over-active appreciation of the numinous such as might be indicated by a robust and over-imaginative emphasis on the place and work of angels in creation.

Michaelmas DaisiesIt needn't be so.

Our liturgy is in fact shot through with the presence of angels, even if we don't speak often of them as active in our lives. Serious students of the Book of Common Prayer will tell you that it's Michael the Archangel who presides over nearly every regular service: at the Gloria in excelsis or the prayer Keep watch, dear Lord with those who work or watch or weep this night. It changed our understanding of the Eucharist completely when we began to think with care of St Michael the Archangel leading our praises every time a priest intones

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious name, evermore praising thee, and saying:

The Sanctus became in a fresh way an angelic hymn about the reign of God in heaven and on earth, full of God's glory. It became an ever-new declaration of the ability of the powers of light to reach every earthly darkness—without exception—in our 'succour and defence'. We came to see the real and luminous power of God as sent to us through the angels, and to see it in strange places:

in the glint of light off a chalice in a remote northern Canadian parish church, on a day when the sun stayed below the horizon

in the blinking LED display of a respiration machine rented to a hospice patient in New York

in the sincere surprise of a chorister receiving an unexpected medal for distinguished musical achievement

in the wind blowing a pressed flower from a Prayer Book unopened since the reign of George VI

in the eager smiles of a baby between her painful coughs during an early-autumn cold

in the light shining through countless stained-glass windows in empty churches

in the sudden appearance in our inbox of an email from a friend whose good health had been a concern

The angels are there—are here—in all of these quotidian but enGodded* moments. They are the announcing messengers of God's presence and care in every odd place of the created world. They are God's definitive and repeated statement that we are right to look for comfort, assurance, courage, boldness, cheer, and geese in all the changes and chances of our lives.

Michaelmas comes but once a year to tell us of the angels' succour and defence. But the clear message of the Prayer Book is that we may look for God's direction of the angels as companions in everything we undertake: archiepiscopal elections, inbox conquest, painful financial decisions, the choice of a gravestone, the administration of a strong corticosteroid, the changing of a nappy, the payment of a parking penalty, the use of a ballot box.

God's light is bright enough to penetrate every space if only we will let it in.

See you next week.

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29 September 2013

*We owe the term to E.B. Pusey's 1868 Eleven Addresses during a Retreat of the Companions of the Love of Jesus.

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