What I said last Sunday – Saint Michael


Saint Michael overcoming Satan – sculpture by Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral

In the Church of England we were keeping the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. I decided to tell everyone who Saint Michael and the other six archangels are and what their roles are.

Revelation 12.7-12

Those of you who are into quizzes and quiz nights will know that every quiz – and especially pub quizzes – has to have a tie-breaker. And one particularly popular tie-breaker – at least I assume it is as I’ve come across it more than once, even though I don’t frequent pub quizzes – is one we had recently at one of our church functions. It was at our silent auction, and the tie-breaker for the quiz was ‘Name the actors who were the Magnificent Seven in the film of that name.’ The reason for it being a good tie-breaker is that most film buffs can get five or six names, but then most get stuck on the last one who has often been known as ‘that other one whose name nobody can ever remember!’

For those of you who don’t know, The Magnificent Seven is one of the greatest Western films ever made. It tells the story of a group of seven gunslingers who go to the defence of a poor Mexican village and defend them against all the odds against a group of marauding bandits. It was made in 1960 and has one of the most memorable film scores of all time by Elmer Bernstein.

And the Magnificent Seven are, as I’m sure you all know:

  • Yul Brynner, the leader
  • Steve McQueen
  • Charles Bronson
  • James Coburn
  • Robert Vaughan
  • Horst Buchholz
  • And the seventh? As those of you who were at the silent auction will now know the one whose name most people can never remember – Brad Dexter.

Well – today we are confronted by the magnificent seven. Not the Magnificent Seven cowboys who rode to protect a Mexican Village from Eli Wallach’s bandit, but the Magnificent Seven Archangels who stand before the throne of God and help and protect God’s people at God’s request. For today we keep the feast known in the Anglican Church as the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. But it is also a feast of the Magnificent Seven – not just Michael but his six other companion archangels. And just as Yul Brynner led the Magnificent Seven in the film, so Saint Michael leads the Magnificent Seven Archangels for much the same reason – to protect and defend against evil. Though the Bible doesn’t tell us whether, like Yul Brynner, Saint Michael was bald – I suspect not!

So – who or what are the Magnificent Seven archangels? The word ‘angel’ is a Greek word that means ‘messenger’. The angels are God’s messengers. Add to that the Greek word for rule ‘arche’ and you get the word ‘archangel’ which means ‘ruling messenger’, or basically ‘chief angel’. They are usually portrayed as wearing somewhat glorious and shining apparel, usually armour of some kind. The Church divides angelic beings into three ranks – essentially highest, middle and lowest. The highest rank includes the Seraphim, those whom Isaiah saw in his vision in the Temple. Archangels and angels are actually in the third and lowest rank, but they are portrayed in the Bible as those who deal with human beings. And traditionally there are seven of the archangels – hence the Magnificent Seven – and the Church gets this number from the book of Revelation where Saint John says ‘I saw the seven angels who stand before God’ (Revelation 8.2). In fact, they are also honoured and revered in Judaism and Islam.

But who are they. What are their names. And what do they do? Well, we begin with Michael since he is the one who gives his name to our feast day today. Since the time of the Early Church he has been seen as the chief of the archangels because of the belief that it was Michael who threw Satan out of heaven – we heard that in our first reading from the book of Revelation. Many of you will be familiar with the famous sculpture by Jacob Epstein on the outside wall of Coventry Cathedral portraying Michael defeating Satan. Saint Michael is the patron saint of Coventry Cathedral. Since the earliest days of Christianity he has been seen as a protector of the Church, and his name – which is Hebrew – means ‘Who is like God.’ He is also the patron saint of paratroopers, mariners, the police – and I have no idea why, of grocers.

But who are the rest? Who are the other six archangels? Well, you should be able to name at least one more. In fact, I’d expect any child at our church school to be able to name one more. Gabriel, of course, who keeps popping up throughout the Christmas story. His name means ‘God is my strength’ and he seems to be the one who carries messages from God – hence he is the patron saint of television and telecommunications.

Two more appear in the Bible, though in the Deuterocanonical books – what we sometimes call the Apocrypha. There’s Raphael, who appears in the book of Tobit, and because of his role in that book where he heals Tobit of blindness he is associated with healing. His name means ‘God heals’. And it’s from Raphael that the Guild of Saint Raphael, which promotes the ministry of healing in the Church of England takes its name. The fourth archangel who gets a mention is Uriel, who appears to the prophet Ezra in the Second Book of Esdras. His name means ‘God is my light’. And actually, Uriel is an archangel that Anglicans have but the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t. The two books of Esdras are listed in the Anglican Deuterocanonical (or Apocryphal) books, but are excluded from the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture.

And what of the other three? Well, they are destined to be rather like Brad Dexter in the film The Magnificent Seven – to be those we know about but whose names we can’t remember. Depending where you look for the answer to the question, ‘what are their names?’ you’ll get all kinds of different answers. Essentially we don’t actually know who they are or whether they had, or have, any particular roles. They’re a bit of a mystery.

And why do we keep this feast today? We celebrate the feast today because a basilica near Rome was built and dedicated to Saint Michael in the fifth century on 30th September, with the celebrations beginning in good Church custom on the evening of the preceding day, 29th. This has always been a popular feast, and over the years many customs have grown up around it. It is one of the old quarter-days, and is associated with the beginning of autumn. It used to be said that the harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas – which is why we keep harvest thanksgiving around this time – and it became the custom to eat a well-fattened goose, fed on the stubble from the fields, and goose fairs were held at Michaelmas. The city of Nottingham still has one every year. I asked the priest I live with if we were having goose for our Sunday dinner and was told, very firmly and with one of those looks that showed she thought I was completely mad, no!

But chiefly the feast of Saint Michael was a day when, with the onset of autumn and the shortening days, the coming of the dark days of winter, that people were particularly conscious that Saint Michael the Archangel represented the defeat of Satan, the overcoming of evil. It was a day that reminded people that God had created angels to help and protect his people on earth. As we prayed in our collect for today:

Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven, so, at your command, they may help and defend us on earth. Amen.