Merry Michelmas (or, what do angels have to do with work?)

Merry Michelmas (or, what do angels have to do with work?) September 30, 2014

angel

Posted on  by Laura Merzig Fabrycky at the Washington Institute blog, Missio.

As one of the defining features of Missio,the editors of and contributors to this blog have sought to be mindful of the rhythms of the church calendar while writing about vocation. This has not always been an easy task, nor at first glance an altogether intuitive one, but the discipline has proven to be a fascinating lens on the nexus of faith, vocation, and culture.

Take yesterday’s feast – the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas as it is often called. It’s considered a great feast within ecclesial tradition, but what vocational meaning might be drawn from this day? Because of its proximity to the fall equinox, it functioned as a sort of liturgical gateway to autumn. Therefore it became associated with the harvest and, for what it’s worth, the settling of husbandry accounts for those who work on manor farms (thank you, Wikipedia). I recall stumbling on the word Michaelmas a few months ago while reading Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night; it was used there to denote an academic term at a university.

Maybe Michaelmas seems just a bit arcane for the task of a lens, especially for the fulsome terrain of vocation and spiritual formation in everyday life. But what if Michaelmas seems arcane because the Feast has suffered from these cultural correlations? Perhaps the traditions surrounding the cult of St. Michael the Archangel drew too much from these other seasons, rather than from the lively landscape of Scripture.

What does the Bible have to say about Michael? Michael, “the great angel-prince” as Peterson’sThe Message calls him, is mentioned four times in Scripture: twice in the Book of Daniel, once is Jude–where he is called an “archangel”–and finally, in Revelation.

Fine; he’s mentioned in the Bible. Even so, a name scattered fairly scarcely across the Bible’s apocalyptic literature still seems very far removed from our work or our lives, too unearthly, too irrelevant.

And yet, the created reality of Michael and heavenly angel warriors who carry out God’s orders, unseen to most of humankind, is worth pausing on, at least once a year. One resource I read said that the Feast is a day to give thanks for God’s loving protection over us, and to be “reminded that the richness and variety of God’s creation far exceeds our knowledge of it.” As a people who take knowing seriously, and tend to find confidence and assurance in our knowing, it’s worth being reminded too that our knowledge has real limits. We do not know what we do not know.

Even the meaning of the name Michael–Hebrew for “Who is like God?”–points to human finitude. So, who among us is like God? In a way, we can answer both in the affirmative and the negative.Who is like God? Absolutely no one and absolutely nothing. Amidst the many paltry idols our hearts are capable of fashioning out of nearly anything in earthly existence–this person, that job; a recognition here, an accomplishment there–the question that the name Michael bears can act like a signpost to God’s utter, holy, awesome otherness. There is no other entity like him, and we are restless and enslaved until our hearts center on and orbit him in worship.

The positive is true as well. Who is like God? Well, in many ways, all humans are: you are, and I am. All divine image-bearers are like him. Of all the fantastic elements of the created order, only humans bear God’s image. The nearly otherworldly potency of human beings’ image-bearing is what C.S. Lewis tries to capture, and does so ably, in the essay “The Weight of Glory“:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in light of this that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. There are noordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

You have likely never talked to an angelic being either; likely you have never seen one. I surely haven’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor that they are not also doing battle for God, on behalf of God’s people. Angels don’t often figure into our theologies of work, but perhaps they should. We may work hard at very good and very worthy tasks, but we do not work alone, and we may not even be aware of the battles being waged around us as we sip coffee, check email, click “Like,” or tweet a witty line.

If angels too often get short shrift, the Bible’s apocalyptic literature has also suffered, in profoundly costly ways, from cultural correlations of our own day. Junk “Christian fiction” has muddied the intellectual and spiritual waters of these writings, which have always been a source of hope and sustenance to those suffering and in dire need of help, refuge, and defense. But it would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater to ignore the apocalyptic, and the comfort it offers, as well as the reality of created beings like angels, even if they seem far removed from the mundane world we inhabit.

We are all too aware that there is terrible, ferocious evil in this world – not just what we hear on the news, like the shocking events that captivate our political conversations. There is also evil that goes unreported, unnoticed, and unchallenged; evil in its banality, in its horrible blind bureaucratic efficiency; even evil that lurks in our own crooked hearts. While so many of us seek to grapple with and address the injustices of this present age, we are also acutely aware of our own limits. We know there are powers beyond our comprehension and beyond our own strength or even imagination. This matters to our very mundane lives, to our sometimes flagging wills, and to the work that God calls us to do each day, contributing to the common good.

And so, Merry Michaelmas, dear, weary, image-bearing immortal. Take comfort in the other reality that this forgotten Feast celebrates.


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