St Michael: The power of story and ritual

An address given at Marlborough College Chapel
Feast of St Michael and All Angels

Every year, on 29th September, the Church throughout the world celebrates the festival of St Michael and All Angels. As some of you may know, Marlborough College Chapel is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. I may be wrong, but the only reason I could find why was that it was consecrated on 29th September in the year 1886.

Michael

Now, celebrate may a big word for what is happening nowadays, but traditionally it was an important day in the year. Together with Christmas, Midsummer and Lady Day, it is one of the four so-called ‘quarter’ days, which mark the turning of the seasons. Of course, this day marking the end of the summer and the beginning of the autumn and the shortening of the days.

Traditionally, in the British Isles, a goose was eaten, which people believe would protect them against financial needs for the next year. Until Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, it was also celebrated as being the last day of harvest, instead of what we now know as Harvest Festival.

St Michael himself is known as one of the Archangels, fighting against Satan, the dragon and evil angels, as we heard in our reading this morning. As the days get colder and the nights darker at this time, the feeling was that people needed more protection against the evil forces.

But we can wonder, what is the relevance today of the stories and rituals around St Michael? Not many of us still believe that eating a goose will protect us from poverty; not many of us any longer think much about patron saints and angels protection us from evil. So why? Is there any value in these stories and rituals?

You won’t be surprised if I think there is. And there are two points I would like to make. Firstly, that there is a value in rituals, in this case religious rituals, in general. Secondly, that as with all stories and myths, however much we believe them to be true or not, there is always something to learn about our human nature, something that helps us discover who we are.

So, first rituals. I don’t think any of us lives completely without ritual, and I would suggest very few of us live without rituals that are or used to be religious. Just think for a moment about the last year or so: have you celebrated Christmas, Easter, Harvest, or Remembrance? Have you been to a Christening or Confirmation? Or a wedding or funeral, whether in Church or not? When you get home in the holidays, on the first evening, is there a particular meal you eat? When you win a rugby or hockey match, do you celebrate in a particular way? Or do you have a ritual, individually or as a team, before the match starts?

These are all examples of rituals in which many of us still participate. And I think, they are hugely important. Because they help us remembering that certain things in life are important, worth celebrating, or important to mark otherwise. It is important to remember those who gave their lives for us in the War. It is important to give thanks for the abundance we have. And it is important to mark transitions in the lives of individuals and families: birth, marriage and death.

I think that without rituals, life would lose some, if not a lot, of its meaning, and with that, something important about what it means to be human would be lost too. And for Christians, of course, what it means to be human is intimately bound up with the belief that we are made and loved by God.

But what about St Michael? This angel fighting against Satan and his angels? Isn’t that something that is a bit too far-fetched? Something that belongs to the Middle Ages and before?

However, I think that stories are incredibly important. I don’t want to argue here how literally these stories must be taken, but without stories, just like without rituals, we are at risk losing something of who we are. Who could, or would want to, imagine a world without novels, theatre, paintings, sculptures and film? All these ways of expression ourselves help us through stories to discover and realise who we are.

In the case of St Michael: think about the fact that often our mood get a bit lower when the winter sets in. We get tired a bit more easily, and those with whom we live will no doubt notice our snappiness: yes, we may need a bit more protection against evil. As Christians we do believe that we are helped in this by God, and we are not on our own in our efforts.

To sum up, maybe what I have been trying to say is that rituals and stories celebrate our importance, both in what makes us unique and what unites us as human beings. In Christian terms, it helps us to see which part we have to play in God’s story with us. It gives us an perspective on life, and a way of understanding ourselves. And that, the ability to know who we are, I think, is invaluable. Amen.

 

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