Thursday, 25 August 2011

St. Michael - Quis ut Deus?: a question answered.

It struck me the other day when we said the prayer to St Michael the Archangel after the Rosary before mass that I had rather over looked him  - but of course Michael has a VERY  important part to play in this icon.   I had to check with Ian as to which one of the two angels was actually St. Michael as he is not killing a dragon, or wielding a sword, holding a  pair of scales or treading on Satan!   Michael's presence in the icon reminds  us that he is the angel of light, who watches over  the planet and keeps an eye on Lucifer and protects us from evil.  In the Catholic tradition he is seen as the guardian and protector of the Church.  And, although he does not carry them in our icon  he is often shown with scales, weighing our souls.  He is the supreme commander of the hosts of heaven. In our icon of the Sacred Heart St. Michael  is the angel on the right of the cross facing us wearing a red cloak.  And to the left, on the same side as the Blessed Virgin, is St Gabriel.

And as we think on St Michael, we pray:
Saint Michael the Archangel,
 defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
 May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: 
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
 by the power of God,
 thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits 
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Back in the 1990s Blessed John Paul urged us not to forget this prayer.
St. Michael, Ian Knowles at Elias Icons
Although today this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it, and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world. (Pope John Paul II, Regina Caeli, 24 April 1994) (Here) 
The significance of St Michael was also noted by Benedict XVI in 2007.  

[St. Michael] defends the cause of God's oneness against the presumption of the dragon, the "ancient serpent", as John calls it. The serpent's continuous effort is to make men believe that God must disappear so that they themselves may become important; that God impedes our freedom and, therefore, that we must rid ourselves of him. 
However, the dragon does not only accuse God. The Book of Revelation also calls it "the accuser of our brethren..., who accuses them day and night before our God" (12: 10). Those who cast God aside do not make man great but divest him of his dignity. Man then becomes a failed product of evolution. Those who accuse God also accuse man. Faith in God defends man in all his frailty and short-comings: God's brightness shines on every individual.  (Here) 

Reflecting on these observations by Bl. John Paul and Benedict ,  it seems to me that however much we focus on the light and fire of God’s love in this icon, we must never forget that there is also so much darkness in our world.   This is all the sadness and misery caused not by chance or human foolishness, and trials of evolution but darkness by design  and with a malign purpose.   There is wickedness and evil in the world and as Christians we are called to battle against it: we have need of the Prince of the angelic host.  The world is at times a dark and wicked place which badly needs the light and fire of Christ.  St. Michael should therefore prompt us to reflect upon what Bl.  John Paul refers to as the ' forces of darkness and the spirit of the world.'  At the time John Paul was calling on us to say this prayer one of the great forces of darkness - communism - was in decline, but another force of darkness was on the rise: materialism.  Mankind was losing its sense of the sacred and the holy.  Human beings were being seduced by the consumer society with all its false promises that money and wealth could make us all happy.  This was not a 'dark force' which was as obvious as that represented by Joseph Stalin  -  for  the new dark forces were far more insidious.  If the old dark force was about Marx, the new dark force was about the temptation of Markets and the belief that we could consume and spend our way to happiness.  This new dark force taught that  'I consume, therefore I am.'  It commanded:  'Be fruitful and consume the earth!'   John Paul was so right to remind us that we had a battle on our hands, but it is more and more evident that it is not a battle we are winning.  We need the spirit of St. Michael as we battle this dark force in all its many shapes and forms.

But in the light of Benedict's observation in 2007 (above) we can also see St Michael in another way.    St. Michael is battling against those who wish to get rid of God - those who want to make God disappear or like Prof. Richard Dawkins make him into an illusion and a delusion.   But - and this is Teilhard's point - God  gives a purpose to evolution.  God is the direction of evolution.   God is a God of evolution.  This is what this icon is all about. Christ is the Omega point of the evolution of creation.  If we take God out of evolution then we diminish the dignity of man: we become , as Benedict puts it, just another 'failed product of evolution'.  St Michael is battling a dragon that wants to remove God, but also a dragon that wants to destroy the dignity of a species that is not an evolutionary failure, but a partner in the ongoing creation and evolution of the universe.  The dragon wants a universe that has no purpose or direction.  The dragon wants a universe that is meaningless.   Our icon in its way is battling the same dragon: because it is saying the universe has a point.  The universe has a direction.  The universe is converging on a sacred centre.  A centre of divine energy: a love that drives the stars and all creation.   Perhaps it is for this reason that St. Michael is also acknowledged ( in the Litany of St. Michael) as the Guardian Angel of the Eucharist.  And given the close relationship between the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist, it is fitting and very beautiful that Ian had the foresight to paint St. Michael in the icon.  St Michael is battling against those dragons who wish to to take God out of evolution and out of the cosmos - or who wish to take evolution out of the cosmos.   I now think of him (in Teilhardian terms) as the Guardian Angel of the Eucharist and Guardian Angel of Evolution! 

Michael is, therefore, the  great defender of the earth against the evil  dragons which prowl around looking to devour and diminish our humanity.  In the book of Revelations ( 12:7-8) he  is shown as throwing Satan out of heaven , but he also has many less military responsibilities.  He is the patron saint of a holy death.   He is patron of the sick and dying but also of people who protect us : ambulance drivers and the police as well as sailors and knights as well as paramedics.  And for those of us familiar with radiotherapy, he is patron saint of radio therapists.  In other words, St. Michael is on our side: he reminds us of how vulnerable our souls are to the all temptations of the material world.   He reminds us that we need protection: oftentimes from our worst enemy: ourselves.

I remember when I was a child I used to be told not too look too long in a mirror as you would see the devil!   One day, I decided that I would spend all day looking in the mirror just to see what happened. Well, I managed about 15 mins and then got bored.  I told my mother than I had looked in the mirror for 'ages' and I had not seen the devil. 'Are you sure? ' replied my mother.  'I just saw myself. That is all!', I said right back at her.  'Exactly', she responded and got on with washing the floor.  St Michael reminds me that one of the dragons that consumes and destroys is looking right back at me every time  I shave.  The dragon of the unrestrained ego.  The dragon of the self.   When we pray to the Sacred Heart we are asking for the fire of God's love to consume us: to cleanse us from all the diseases of  our self - our heart, our real, our deep us .  Our prayer to the Sacred Heart is about the realization that we must be rescued from ourselves: our self-love.  So.. St. Michael is there to remind us that we battle the dragons that prowl around us, but we must also battle our inner dragons.

St Michael’s name in Hebrew means ‘Who is like God?’ ( In  many representations he is shown with the Latin translation of the Hebrew  : Quis ut Deus? ) Which  in itself is a fascinating thing -  to have a name which is a question!  Thus as we look at St. Michael in the icon we should reflect on that name : ‘Who is like God?’  St Michael looks at us and asks: ‘Who is like God?’   We can answer him, of course, ‘nothing’ and ‘no-one’.  Michael therefore reminds us of our need for humility.  He reminds us of the humility of God in becoming man.   Quis ut Deus?  Nothing is like God. And yet God humbled himself to become as we are.  Michael's question should make us reflect on the sheer enormity of the Incarnation.    (Indeed, it is the cosmic significance of the Incarnation which is the central theme in Teilhard's work.)

Quis ut Deus? should also make us reflect upon the words of Saint Bonaventure, the great Dr. Seraphim of the Church,  as we respond to St Michael's gaze in the icon:

'The Word was made flesh'  These words give expression to that heavenly mystery.... that the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.' ( cited in Ilia Delio, O.S.F. The Humility of God: A Franciscan Perspective, St Anthony Press, 2005, p51)

From this perspective  of Dr Seraphim we contemplate  the icon once  again and realize that there is a different answer to St. Michael, qua question. We can answer St Michael from the litany of the Sacred Heart. 

Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, formed in the womb of the Virgin Mother by the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, united substantially with the word of God, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, of infinite majesty, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, holy temple of God, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, tabernacle of the Most High, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, house of God and gate of heaven, have mercy on us.

To have seen the Son is to have seen the Father.  'Who is like God?'  Asks Michael, Prince of the Heavenly  Host.  We answer him:  the Word of God made flesh. 

Quis ut Deus?  Christ Omega: the child born to Mary.  The redeemer  whose coming was heralded by St Gabriel. The first born from the dead who will unite all things to himself.

Quis ut Deus? St. Michael: you are  the question on which our faith turns.

Your answer is to be found in the reply given by the Blessed Virgin Mary who had been  greeted as one full of grace by St. Gabriel who stands by your side. 

So there they are  at the top of the icon,  St Michael posing the question and Gabriel as herald of the answer. God is love and in Jesus born of Mary we see what God’s love is like. 

This is what God is like.  God is like the Sacred Heart.  The golden glow, the furnace at the centre of all things.  The Alpha and the Omega

St Michael, Archangel, Prince of the Heavenly Host, Commander of the Army of God, Guardian of the Catholic Church is answered. 

No comments:

Post a Comment