Until recently, The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels carried a hefty cultural weight. With its humble fifth-century beginnings and subsequent popularization across Northern Europe, September 29 has played a prominent role in the calendars of the English-speaking world: Michaelmas, as it is also known, marked the start of the fall term in academic circles and jurisprudence practice, a notable temporal horizon in the lives of ordinary people. But times have changed, and observing it today may strike some as a relic from a bygone era, a celebration a bit out of step with the Christological thrust and focus of the modern liturgical calendar. But let’s not place our attention there. Instead, let us look at how this festival allows us to take an autumnal look at God’s marvelous works of grace in the history of salvation. This year, September 29 falls on a Friday, which allows for the possibility of a transfer to those who would like to mark this special occasion and have the whole assembly take in how God has acted on our behalf (through God’s special envoys).
Encounters with divine messengers are too many to number here: the bible is chock-full of angelic interventions through which the people of God are delivered from calamity or receive a special grace or an admonition. In that sense, celebrating Michael and All Angels allows us to do something similar to what is at the heart of the Vigil of Easter: to appreciate the whole scope of God’s salvific ministrations.
Taken as a whole, the biblical accounts of these interactions range in the response they elicit. These go from fear and trembling to wonder and majesty to the most casual everyday exchanges. How do we plan for a festival like this one? We should take inspiration from the penitential canticle Kyrie Pantokrator. Following its example, we could use this ancient prayer to craft confessional language and prayers. It begins:
O Lord and Ruler of the hosts of heaven,
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
and of all their righteous offspring:
You made the heavens and the earth,
with all their vast array.
All things quake with fear at your presence;
they tremble because of your power.
Let us also consider how we, mere mortals, join the everlasting angelic song of Isaiah’s beatific vision. We could, for example, echo the words of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (ELW 425)—a hymn de rigueur for this festival—and remind ourselves of the heavenly hosts’ taxonomical richness. Check it out: angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, virtues, dominions, princedoms, and powers. As we get ready to sing the Sanctus, this enumeration can add weight to the proper preface and verve to our proclamation.
Or consider another supernal refrain as a source of inspiration, the words recorded on the island of Patmos. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.” The effervescent hymn “Blessing and Honor” (ELW 854) successfully captures the sentiment.
Speaking of the assembly’s sung proclamation, keep in mind hymns like “Rejoice, Angelic Choirs, Rejoice” (either LBW 146 or MSN1 S475), “You Are Holy” (ELW 525), “On Eagle’s Wings” (ELW 787), “Eat This Bread, Drink This Cup” (ELW 492), and “The Trumpet Sound, the Angels Sing” (ELW 531) to add variety to a celebration that could use plenty of panache.
How much panache? Allow me to illustrate. A few years ago, I had a chance to witness a solar eclipse. Marveling at the radiance, I realized that I was not looking at the Sun but only the Sun’s corona. Then I remembered the phrase ascribed to the patriarch Jacob when he awakened from his dream: “Quam terribilis est locus iste.” This memory brings me to one last hymn, ACS 1095, which poses the eponymous question: “How shall I sing that majesty which angels do admire?”