The many-splendoured thing
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
29 September 2013, 10:30 (ST MICHAEL and ALL ANGELS)Do you know what a miquelot is?
Well, I didn’t until a few years ago.
A miquelot is a pilgrim journeying to Mont St Michel in Normandy.
Now, Mont St Michel and Euro Disney are by far and away the most popular tourist attractions in France.
At the beginning of this 21st century, the shrine of the Archangel Michael has few genuine pilgrims or miquelots but millions of tourists.
Back in the Middle Ages, pilgrims were religious tourists, but nowadays tourists are almost entirely secular ranging from serious culture vultures to hedonistic pleasure-seekers.
In many ways, the Mont St Michel experience today is no different from a visit to Alton Towers, the Tate Modern or Chatham Historic Dockyard.
Yet, in spite of the crowds and the commercialisation, there is, I believe, still a difference.
Ruth and I have holidayed in Normandy for a number of years, and never has the outline of Mont St Michel ever failed to excite and inspire us.
The place has a power, an aura, a beauty and a magnetism.
Its setting is extraordinary, in a bay which experiences the biggest tides in Europe – the coefficient is sometimes 53 feet or more and the sea withdraws for many miles, and at times the tide flows as fast as a horse can gallop.
And then there is the remarkable interplay of sun, sky, sand and sea, of fire, air, earth and water. The outcrop of the rock in the sea and its ethereal church and little township floats like a vision.
There are places on this earth where it appears at least to some people that the veil between heaven and earth is thin.
Places like Iona and Lindisfarne in our own land, and certainly Mont St Michel in France.
The hand of civilisation and commerce can easily distract us, and often the most powerful experiences of the spiritual breaking in powerfully and movingly into a place or landscape occur in remote and wild settings.
Certainly, Mont St Michel has not only been partially created by human intervention but the exorbitantly priced speciality fluffy omelettes and tacky souvenirs are also signs of our baser needs.
Far worse is the terrible manmade causeway that joins the Mont to the mainland even at the highest spring tide and is causing the bay to silt up.
Fortunately, it is now being replaced by a bridge and railway, which will rid the extraordinary beauty of the setting and the buildings from the scourge of thousands of cars and coaches that litter the approach to the Mont.
Now, why am I telling you all this?
Well, at the very top of the rock stands the Abbey Church over five hundred feet above the waters, and the tower of the Abbey is capped by a slender neo-gothic spire topped by a golden statue of St Michael, the Archangel, brandishing his lance as he slays the dragon.
The architecture of the place is breathtaking and all because of St Michael.
The early hermits that inhabited this granite rock were to be given a church, when in 708 the Bishop of Avranches, Aubert, saw St Michael in a dream.
It took three visits and a hole poked in his skull for him to do anything about it, but needless to say, the church was built and miraculously, a freshwater spring appeared on the Mont – and its glorious and colourful history as a place of prayer and pilgrimage began.
So today, September 29th, the Church keeps the Feast of St Michael and All Angels.
Surely, in our modern technological society, people just cannot believe in angels?
They lie in the same category as fairies and Father Christmas.
More people, I suspect, would say they believe in UFO’s than angels.
So what are we doing today?
What are these angels and archangels?
Can’t we get along without them?
Aren’t they just Biblical and mediaeval baggage?
It would be easy to dismiss this feast and write it off as an incredible – and perhaps even unhelpful – piece of religious exotica.
However, first of all, the Church does not ask us to believe in those effeminate, sentimental and feathery men that swoop about in Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings and adorn many a Christmas card.
But it does ask us to keep our minds and hearts open to the realm of mystery and love which we can blank out and pave over in our quest and lust for security, certitude, power, gain and control.
Every one of us knows deep down that we don’t know everything – but that isn’t the way we live our lives, and we make all kinds of decisions and judgements with a confidence and surety in our own selves and knowledge.
As Hamlet powerfully says:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Angels are written about in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as messengers of God – intelligences that interact between the creation and the eternal.
They are a kind of theological poetry which joins the visible and the invisible, linking our limited sight and understanding with the glory of the courts of heaven.
The problem is that in our part of the world, we live in an anthropocentric society in which we see everything from the perspective of ourselves as the centre of everything and the ultimate meaning and value of life.
Other people and ages have been theocentric and seen humankind in relationship to God, transcendence and eternity.
Seemingly we want proof of everything and we don’t want to let go of our ego and so we too quickly reject God in his elusiveness to our human powers and standards.
God just can’t be bottled, priced, mapped, contained or switched on or off.
And He can’t be measured, bought and certainly not predicted in the way that we might selfishly want.
Francis Thompson’s famous poem, The Kingdom of God, ‘In no strange land’ (which is printed in full at the back of your service book) opens:
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
That’s what God is like.
And into this dimension of paradox and contradiction, the message of eternal love is carried by messengers, or angels.
There is another world. And on this Feast of St Michael and All Angels, the Church reminds the world that the unknown breaks in to the known, messages are carried, and meaning is revealed.
Yes, revelation is a part of creation.
And creation is a process in which we not only find ourselves but we are also found, claimed and redeemed by the Creator.
Jacob’s dream in Genesis is not a fantasy or an entertainment; neither is it a neurosis or a delusion.
God is calling Jacob to a new life, of hope and forgiveness.
And when Jacob awoke from his sleep he said:
Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!
And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
Genesis 28: 16 – 17
Nowadays, the word awesome, an import from North America I think, is a commonplace description of anything from a sporting performance to an ice cream flavour.
We are in danger of losing it!
Awe is reverential fear and wonder.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And because Nathanael recognises Jesus as the Son of God and King of Israel, then he is promised so much more: a vision of eternity and heaven opening with the angels of the divine glory.
But it is not only a question of can we see that we must ask of ourselves and our world today, but dare we see?
Because we not only must see the power and glory of the divine vision but recognise the darkness and glamour of evil and spiritual wickedness.
Surely, we don’t have to think too hard and long to own the prevalence of greed, cruelty and moral corruption and depravity in the world around us.
Violence, murder, torture and terror are the daily fare of our news reports.
Over recent days, Christians have been massacred in Pakistan and persecuted in parts of the Middle East and Africa; terrorists have killed innocent men, women and children in Nairobi in the name of an implacable Allah.
In every age it seems that God is used as an excuse for wickedness and war.
And to this truth of how things are in our world, the strange and disturbing Revelation of St John the Divine speaks.
War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.
The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any
place for them in heaven.
The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan,
the deceiver of the whole world... Revelation 12: 7 – 9
But for us who are still caught up in time and history, evil and fear are not eradicated and they usurp and invade regimes, systems, institutions and personalities.
We are all susceptible and we are all involved and tainted in our human condition.
As we struggle to do right and to let peace and justice prevail, may we never forget the claims and sovereignty of God.
That is the message of the angels and archangels and it is urgent and desperately needs to be accepted anew in our world today.
Miquelots, pilgrims to the shrine of the archangel Michael, remind us that we travel through this life not as tourists and sight-seers but as people created in the image of God and given vision, friendship and grace through Jesus Christ.
On this Michaelmas Day may we pray to see beyond ourselves and the allurements of our comfort and importance, to recognise God’s truth and priorities:
The angels keep their ancient places; -
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.