The Return of Michaelmas: Why We Need St. Michael the Archangel

Joe Roddy is the Irish captain of a small boat that takes a dozen very lucky tourists out to sea. Their destination is a rock called Skellig Michael. It is an island eight miles off the southwestern coast of Ireland. 

When they arrive at the dock, he asks them if they know why the island is famous. One unfortunate pipes up and says, “Of course. This is where Star Wars: The Last Jedi was filmed.” 

A priest sitting at the entrance to a cell on Skellig Michael, circa 1890-1910 via National Library of Ireland / Flickr

Resisting the urge to keel-haul the star-struck landlubber, Captain Roddy patiently explains that the island has been dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel for the past fifteen hundred years, and it’s also the site of an ancient monastery of the same name. Moderns may have forgotten those facts in lieu of Hollywood movie trivia, but clueless tourists can still feel drawn to holy places. Even the most spiritually barren seem to need a supernatural friend.

That’s why the coming Feast of Michaelmas, also known as the Feast of the Archangels, on September 29, is still important. A holy day focused heavily on St. Michael the Archangel, it was the third most popular feast next to Easter and Christmas, a harvest festival of great celebration. But it has faded in the minds of people.

 

Why?

In a world where there can be no afterlife for anyone or anything, in a world where creation is not treasured, in a world where those people who have gone before us are not remembered, in a world where saints are not honored and where angels are thought not to exist–in a world like this, human life will ultimately be cheapened and our faith will die. Even Catholics who still try to hold on to the faith are touched with this nihilism. 

Many of us try to practice our religion and follow Christ, but we find our hearts barren and joyless. The problem with our Catholic faith is not that we don’t believe, it is that we don’t believe enough.  Often godless and materialistic, the secular world is leeching out of us what faith remains.

Scientists look up in the sky and many of them see only icy points of light. They feel the emptiness and coldness of space.  But when we Catholic Christians look up at the stars what do we see? What should we see? If we truly believe all the truth and beauty our faith provides, we will see a living, dynamic universe.  Far from being alone here on earth, we humans are in the midst of life — the medieval academics swore if you listened you could hear the music of the spheres, the great song of the planets and stars, sung by angels of light. 

Our faith teaches us that there are other beings besides us, angelic beings of great power.  Most of them have nothing to do with us — they have other jobs. The Old and New Testament tell us that the types of angels known as Powers and Dominions rule the fate of stars and planets and are their guardians.  The universe is their highway and all creation is their care.  Then, there are those angels who touch our lives — Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and our own guardian angels.  We cannot conceive of their power, but with a deep enough spirituality, we can feel their presence. They protect us from harm, keep spiritual enemies at bay, and bring God’s messages to us. That is the testament of our faith. 

In times past, our Irish and Scottish forebears used Michaelmas to celebrate the importance of St. Michael. He was a felt presence and an essential helper in their daily lives. To celebrate his feast day, they would collect the harvest and bake a bread full of the fruits and grains of the field.  Those Celtic peasants of a few hundred years ago would even have a procession from the church on horseback, the pastor on a white stallion, parishioners on their horses, and they’d make for the graveyard overlooking the sea and they’d ride around the graves praying for the ones who had gone before, asking St. Michael to carry their loved ones to heaven. Then, in a celebration of life and creation, they would race their horses on the beach, the strand of sand echoing to pounding hooves.   There would be cheering and laughing, feasting and friendship.  Religion and life would merge as one. 

Imagine, if we could recapture a part of the truth these humble people knew instinctively.  Imagine, if we went throughout our day, conscious that the guardian angel our heavenly Father has given each of us is watching over us and walking by our side.  We would never feel alone.  Imagine the saints cheering for us as we win private battles against sin and vice.  Isn’t this a much wider and more beautiful understanding of our faith than the stripped-down version of our religion so many have which posits a distant God that we come to worship once a week at best?

Recently, St. Michael has been making somewhat of a comeback. Some dioceses and many parishes now mandate the recitation of Pope Leo XIII’s Prayer to St. Michael after Mass:

St. Michael the Archangel,

Defend us in battle.

Be our defense 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,

Cast into hell, Satan, and all the other evil spirits

Who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.

Lawyers, scientists, politicians, farmers, laborers, all types of people, fervently say this prayer, a prayer that would not have crossed their lips twenty years ago.  Why pray it now?  People fear this godless age, and they see demonic sins such as child abuse and terrorism grip people in distress and horror.  With so much suffering, how in the world do we combat it? Our sterile hearts still naturally turn to prayer, to the angelic saint who has impacted humanity time again, protecting it against all types of evil.

Thank God our Catholic memories are intact.  We can reach back much farther than the latest Star Wars movie for a concrete figure of protection and heroism.  We can reach back to the great angelic hero whose name is Quis ut Deus, “Who is like God”, or in the Hebrew—Michael.  He is the one who drove Lucifer from heaven during the rebellion against God.  He is the guardian of Israel, the majestic seraphim in the Book of Daniel.  He is the one who escorts the dead to judgment.  He is the overarching guardian of the planet we live on.  He carries out the will of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Many ordinary folks remember this, and there are still some who keep the traditions.  Look around your gardens and the countryside. Michaelmas daisies (those blue and purple asters) are the last flowers blooming and named for the seraph’s feast day. There is also an old legend that St. Michael cast Satan out of heaven who fell into sharp, prickled blackberry bushes on September 29, ruining the fruit for the rest of the year.  That is why the legend says blackberries are not harvested after Michaelmas.  Sounds like an old wives’ tale but in my town, Katy’s Pie Company makes a Michaelmas pie full of blackberries, just to celebrate St. Michael’s victory. 

Not everyone has forgotten. The last parish I pastored was an Irish one in the Midwest.  It’s living memory still carries the scene of early parishioners a century and a half ago celebrating St. Michael like their ancestors did in Ireland. It was a celebration of the harvest and of God’s protection of his people. At that parish, they still pass out St. Michael’s Bread after the Sunday Mass closest to his feast. 

Whenever the darkness of evil arises, people instinctively turn to protectors.  God, who never leaves his people forsaken, has always sent his heavenly messengers to remind us that we are not alone either on earth or in the universe.  For millennia, St. Michael and the angels have represented a reality much larger than ourselves.  A famous poet once said, “The angels keep their ancient places; turn but a stone and start a wing.” 

St. Michael is still here.  All night, all day, he and his angels are watching over me, watching over all of us in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

By

Monsignor Eric R. Barr, STL is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. In his 35 years of priesthood, he has been pastor, principal, teacher, college professor, Vicar for Clergy, Chancellor, and Vicar General. He is a former associate editor of the Diocesan newspaper and an award winning, best selling novelist and non fiction author. He speaks on Celtic Theology and Current Catholic Issues.

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