St. Michael and All Angels 29 September 2019
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally, by thy mercy, obtain everlasting life; in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I can still remember the first time I heard a hymn written before the twentieth century. I remember the experience better than I can remember the actual hymn itself, but I think it might have been a middling version of Charles Wesley’s O for a thousand tongues to sing. Until that moment, as a new Christian, I had been fed a steady diet of more or less contemporary Christian music. As a musician, I thought this was interesting: taking the things I knew about modern song writing, baptizing it, and using it in the context of worship. But then I heard this hymn, with its deep theological center, with its generous use of biblical imagery, and with a tune that felt strangely ageless…well I was hooked. Later as I examined why that hymn hit me the way it did, I would learn that in churches with traditional liturgy, the hymnody is the bedrock for weekly theological formation: steadier than the priest’s attempts at sermonizing, more considered and timeless in their content than what we might read in the Christian books and blogs of the day.
Hymns are on my mind this morning because 1) we will be commissioning our music ministry for this season’s offerings and 2) we (will be singing) sang one of my top 3 favorite hymns this morning. Christ the Fair Glory, of the Holy Angels, hymn number 282, is, as hymns are concerned and in my considered opinion, a banger. And since you might be curious, the other two are Hymnal number 24, (The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended) and Hymnal number 57, (Lo, He comes with clouds descending.)
And since Christ the fair glory has a wonderful little catalog of the heavenly hosts, it seems particularly well set up to teach us something about St. Michael and the All the Angels. So, let’s actually take a few minutes to learn a few things from the hymn itself! Grab a blue 1982 Hymnal from the rack and turn to 282, if you would please.
The tune is stunning, but in this moment, I’m much more concerned with the text so don’t worry about leading your pew in song.
We begin by hymning our savior Christ, the true King, set higher than the angels. As we read in the letter to the Colossians, and in the Church’s Creeds, through him all things were made and his rule of love is meant for all nations. I love how the original author of this hymn, 9th Century French monk Rabanus Maurus, describes the life of Christian discipleship as Christ’s gift of a path to Heaven. In a hymn about heaven, it’s fitting to start with Christ the King.
The next stanza begins with the angel of the hour, Michael. Traditionally depicted as the most heavy metal of angels, he usually has a sweet spear or sword at the ready to slay dragons and the Satan. Interestingly, the mighty general of Heaven’s host is here hymned as a blessed peacemaker, one who will banish from us striving and hatred, so that the peaceful may meet prosperity. This is an important reminder that the major result of angelic defense is the promotion of peace; that hatred and discord are truly infernal and destructive to humanity. So much so that Michael is meant to defend our unity, our peace, our charity. Thanks, Michael!
Gabriel is next. In a lot of ways, Gabriel represents angels as we see them most commonly in the Bible: as heralds and messengers. In fact, the Greek word we translate as angel, aggelos, means “messenger.” We also see that word in another important word for the Church, Evangel, which literally means “good message.” Cool, huh? Gabriel, of course, was the one to bring the Annunciation to Mary and is often depicted with a sweet trumpet. Interestingly, in his stanza, we find another common Biblical role for angels: as heavenly watchers, ready to be the first line of defense against those powers that stand against goodness of God’s intention for the universe.
Then, Raphael. This is an interesting one, as we really only see Raphael named in the apocryphal book, Tobit. The Church has also supposed that He might have an uncredited appearance in the Gospel according to John as the driving force of the healings at the pool of Beth-Zatha. In any case, we do see the word “archangel” repeated in his line. This refers to his being in charge of a bunch of other angels, kind of like a rank in an army. I think it is kind of cool to consider that there is an archangel that represents God’s intention to care for and restore the sick. Not just some lowly private in the angelic hosts, mind you, but a five star general archangel.
As the hymn continues, we see a Jesus’ mother, Our Lady, Mary leading the angels and saints in intercession and aiding even us in our praising of the most high God. There is a small but important detail in there in that a human being is in charge of this holy work. Humanity that has met restoration in Christ will once again take its place in the heavenly choir, no longer having to settle for trying to imitate the celestial song. I, for one, look forward to the new heavens and new earth as being full of the most beautiful hymning of God, glorifying His Name, His beauty, His perfection, as we enjoy true communion with the Lamb on the throne.
Which is how the hymn ends, isn’t it? The final line is a powerful doxological statement, meant to glorify the fullness of God as He has been revealed in the Most Holy Trinity. I’m moved by the fact that when we join our voices with Angels, Archangels, and All the Company of Heaven, we do so with intent to lift our hearts, minds, and souls to the triune God known to us in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. For a great example to come this very morning, at the Sanctus, the thrice Holy, this part of the Eucharistic prayer is probably where we might be most aware of the ministry of angels in the life of the Church week after week.
With all of that in mind, what a great day to commission choir members and other ministers of music! They are called to help us mirror the worship of heaven here on earth, and their work in leading us in the praises of the church is meant to help evoke the grace, beauty, and splendor of that heavenly praise even as we meet here in our humble humanity, seeking our ladder to heaven in Christ Jesus. And as I close so that we can continue to enjoy the company of the Angels, I pray that the glory of the hosts of heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ, would reign in our hearts today. I pray that St. Michael would defend us in the battle against the evils we see around us, the principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of darkness and the spirit of wickedness in high places.
To God be all glory. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church