Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle : A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021

November is the Month of the Dead when we look to the last days. Last Sunday was also the first public Remembrance Day service in Davidson’s Mains in my time as Rector and I was pleased to be asked to lead it. In our Church that morning, I took the readings for the Sunday (‘Proper 33’ for the Lectionary Geeks) rather than those for Remembrance Day. By introducing Michael the Archangel, they seemed very appropriate. I have long had a devotion to St Michael, loving his churches on the high places where heaven is near and spiritual combat is close. One of the best images of St Michael I have seen is in the chapel of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It was commissioned by the fourth Lord St Levan and was sculpted by Lyn Constable Maxwell in 1989. It shows the Archangel, having cast down Satan, holding his sword as a cross and offering the fallen angel his hand to help him rise – the offer is being rejected. This is theologicaly interesting. I didn’t touch upon this in the sermon below but it adds to the conviction that we need to call upon St Michael in these times of crisis. The sermon ends with Pope Leo XIII’s great prayer, uncompromising and powerful, which we would do well to pray frequently.

+ ‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise and there shall be a time of anguish’

Words from our first reading, we are using the collect and readings for the Sunday, not Remembrance Sunday and they are actually more appropriate. In the Prophet Daniel the Jews are in captivity and looking to future deliverance and this is a prophesy that the Archangel Michael, Prince of the Armies of Heaven, will intervene at an unprecedented time of war and anguish. In the New Testament, Jesus again directs us to ‘wars and rumours of wars’ when ‘nation shall rise against nation’, and the great Temple in Jerusalem the disciples were admiring will be destroyed and flattened – like the town in France on the Western Front or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hope, yes. But no exemption from the ‘time of anguish’.

Today is Remembrance Sunday when we remember the dead of two world wars and pray for peace. As the Great Wars recede into the past and those who remember them fall away, the time of anguish, however, still remains. There are many for whom it relates to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq & Afghanistan. Today we remember them too.

‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise’. We want angels in the ‘time of anguish’ – and sometimes they arrive. This space between the Resurrection of Christ and the End is the time of the angels. Sometimes they are disguised as our neighbour, sometimes they appear in glory. You may know the story of the Angel of Mons. In August 1914 the heavily outnumbered British Expeditionary Force held off the Germans at Mons just long enough for an orderly retreat. Stories arose of the troops seeing medieval bowmen or ghostly cavalry fighting alongside them and of an angel in the sky protecting them.

Each of us has family or personal connections to those we remember today. Perhaps this is why Remembrance Day has captured the public imagination of Britain in recent years. In Padstow, where I was Rector, the whole town came out on Remembrance Day, filled the Church and churchyard and walked up to the War Memorial afterwards. At the Rectory we have a picture on the wall of my great-grandfather William Holmes in uniform on his horse, he was gassed on the Western Front but survived – just. Who are you remembering today?     

My grandfather was with the 8th Army in the North African desert in WW2 and I enjoyed his stories when I was little. I recently heard a story about the Battle of El Alamein, which was fought around a village named after St Menas. The Germans disturbed the saint, who appeared and charged their lines with many camels and helped the allies to victory. Whatever you think of this, it is again heavenly help in a time of anguish – part of the battlefield was given to the local Church afterwards.

‘At that time Michael the great Prince shall arise’. The Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle is built on the site of an ancient chapel to St Michael and at its heart has a large statue of St Michael by Alice Meredith Williams. The National War Memorial is a powerful place, very different to the Cenotaph in London. It is a repository of memory and anguish that looks towards peace. As we remember, and see the devastation of war, can we look for hope? There are often good conversations at the door after Church. Last week I was asked if there is any hope for the world in the face of the climate crisis and the unwillingness of politicians to give anything but promises. And I was challenged to justify clergy who went on about hope without any real justification. I felt like one of the priests of Israel, just before Jerusalem was destroyed, faced by the Prophet Jeremiah. How can you speak of hope to a Jew in Warsaw in 1942? To a Madagascan whose harvest has failed again and whose children are starving.

There is no guarantee of peace on earth, of avoiding famine, of avoiding a migrant crisis and wars over water and other resources as the earth as the planet heats up. No guarantee of avoiding another Hitler or Stalin, not much change of beating swords into ploughshares or ballistic missiles into washing machines. There are still times of anguish ahead. But we are still called to hope and to fight for the common good, to work for peace and justice, for a world where children don’t go hungry. Reading the Bible, one gets the impression that all WILL be well, but not in this world. It holds our a vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth where the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We are called to do our bit here, on earth, to work for the things that endure: love, peace and justice. But the ‘time of anguish’ is still with us on earth. As we remember those who died, pray for those who still carry the pain of war and bereavement, and ready ourselves to keep up the good fight for the things that endure; let us pray for all in the midst of conflict that ‘Michael the Great Prince shall arise’ and give a taste of the consolation and victory of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our strength against the wickedness and snares of the devil, may God rebuke him we humbly pray. And may you, Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast down to hell Satan and all wicked angels who wander the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.’  

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