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September 24, 2017
By the Rev. Buck Close
Today we celebrate – 5 days early – the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, also known as Michaelmas. I was reminded how generally unknown this feast is in this country outside our small corner of Anglicanism by the reaction of our new parish administrator to the mention of it at her first staff meeting. She had never heard or read the word Michaelmas and, in retrospect, I don’t think the rest of the staff in that meeting went to enough trouble to explain it. Let’s face it, unless you are one of a small minority of Episcopalians or an Anglophile, you have never heard of Michaelmas. This isn’t a bad thing or a good thing. It just is a fact. We are celebrating today a feast about which 99% of our compatriots are ignorant. So that begs the question – why bother? I am going to take a stab at answering that question.
My first answer is that our tradition (both civil and religious) as Anglicans commends that feast to us. The Feast of St. Michael the Archangel dates from at least the 5th century. And it has been on or about September 29th all that time. In the British Isles, the feast is very well known indeed. It is one of the quarter days on which school terms started, and rents were due. The quarter days fell on four religious festivals roughly three months apart. Each of the quarter days fell close to a solstice or equinox. The quarter days fell on Christmas (25th), Lady Day (24th) (better known as Annunciation), St. John Day (25th), and Michaelmas (29th). So Michaelmas in the British Isles also signals the beginning of fall and, thus, became associated with harvest time. So, the celebration of Michaelmas has been central to religious and civil life in Britain and Ireland for centuries. And Anglo Catholics, here in the colonies, have continued to observe it. So we do this because it is part of our tradition.
My second answer may sound much like the first, but I think it is sufficiently different to stand alone. That answer is Calendar. It is my observation that we Anglo Catholics are more devoted to the Christian calendar than some of our peers in other parts of Christendom. We derive some joy, I think, from living through the Christian year – from Advent through Christ the King – and marking the special days with the special devotion they merit. The notion that we would de-emphasize or, God forbid, discontinue one of the established observances of the Christian year is not palatable to us. And this is totally independent of the fact that the rest of the country has no idea what in the world we are doing on Candlemas, Michaelmas or 10’s of other dates on our church calendars. We are living the Christian calendar as it has come to us over two millennia. And that is worth doing in and of itself.
Reason number three has to do with the nature of the feast. We are celebrating St. Michael and All Angels. One of the other names for this feast that we don’t use today is the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael, these being the only four angels named in the Bible. So, this is a unique sort of occasion on which we focus on things angelic. This is the time to ponder what sort of thing an angel is. The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity defines angel as a spiritual being that serves God. We often think of angels as messengers – like Gabriel – and as guardians. Our Collect for today talks about the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order and asks God that the Angels may succor and defend us on earth. This speaks to me of angels as intermediaries between God and man. This is the point in our calendar when we think about and give thanks for the angelic hosts. Unfortunately, as you all know, there is an entire industry that commercializes angels in rather tawdry ways. Let us not confuse the commercial depiction of angels with any serious consideration of angels and where they fit in God’s kingdom.
So perhaps the answer to the question “Why bother with Michaelmas?” is not so difficult to answer. We bother because our tradition includes a feast day celebrating St. Michael and all the angels and it has been part of our tradition for many centuries. We also bother because Michaelmas is part of our annual Christian journey through the calendar of the Church. And, finally, we bother because it is the one feast of the year when we think about God’s messengers – the angels.
I have another personal reason why I bother with Michaelmas. And that is precisely because other people don’t. Living the church year as opposed to the secular year is highly counter cultural and just plain fun in my opinion. I crave the opportunity to explain to a friend or family member what Michaelmas, or Candlemas, or Assumption or All Souls is. And of course, I would be happy if they were intrigued enough to join me in living the church year. But most will not. Perhaps I am a bit perverse in being so fond of not fitting in. It might be a sign of my advanced age. But regardless of the reason, this is a red-letter day for me. For this afternoon at 4PM, we will have Evensong and Benediction. So, I have been able to explain to numerous people why, on a Sunday afternoon in football season, I was going to be participating in a service that they never heard of on a feast day that they couldn’t pronounce. What fun. See you this afternoon.