As one of the Quarter Days of the medieval year, Michaelmas had important significance for rents, leases and employment. If you are preparing to return to school, university or the legal world, the name Michaelmas might still denominate your term. Otherwise, this once important feast has only a residual impact on the cultural landscape of England, rather as St Michael has all but disappeared from the liturgical landscape by being ousted from the Confiteor. Henry VIII banned the celebration of St Michael, which is why primary school children now celebrate “harvest festival”; until the Reformation, the Mass of St Michael marked harvest home, accompanied by feasting on its fruits. (Its particular delicacy was goose, fattened on the gleanings and stubble.) In the old Julian Calendar, the liturgical feast coincided more closely to the autumn equinox, making it a kind of last hurrah before the year turned and the darkness encroached; another way of baptising pagan culture.
The Prayer to St Michael was composed by Pope Leo XIII, supposedly after he had a terrifying vision of Satan assaulting the Church. It is still recited at the end of low Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and last year Pope Francis asked the faithful to recite it with the rosary to protect the Church. The massive persecution of Christians, the worldwide suspension of public cult throughout huge parts of the world over Holy Week and Easter, and now the attacks on churches and sacred symbols make prayers for the Church more urgent than ever. She is under assault from within and without.
We should avoid a tendency to make St Michael into a two-dimensional figure in this warfare, a sort of angelic superhero or mascot. His power over evil is because he is “One Like God” and it is this likeness to God that the evil one opposes wherever he finds it. The battle is a primordial one of darkness and light, truth and falsehood. It is a battle in me, each day. Grace is never static; each of my choices increases or diminishes my likeness to God.
It is good to pray to St Michael and his legions to heal the Church, but important also that I make spiritual warfare against temptation – including the temptation to confuse spiritual power with earthly. In the midst of evil assault and apparent defeat, Jesus tells us he could instantly have legions of angels rescuing him, yet it is his incarnate, loving sacrifice, not superhuman power over his enemy, which brings victory. Invoking St Michael, whose flaming sword guards the return to a paradise lost by misused autonomy and failure to worship, enjoins on us the requirement to radical obedience to God’s will. My likeness to God depends on me putting to death all within me that is – in the phrase of Pope Benedict XVI – “anti-divine”. The sword is in the shape of a cross, the only way to paradise and safety, the only weapon.
St Michael’s statue is atop Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo because his intercession saved the city from the plague. To invoke him is not just to ask for some extrinsic act of heroism which removes all danger, but to ask for healing: healing from the fear that the divine power of God would somehow not be enough, not be sufficient to overcome any obstacle, however fearful.