“Grant that as your holy angels stand before you in heaven, so at your command they may help and defend us here on earth.”
As we prepared to mark our patronal festival at the Cathedral Church of St Michael and All Angels, the banners were set out for the day. One of these is a particularly striking depiction of the Archangel Michael fully engaged in combat with a dragon, and indeed running a spear right through it.
This graphic banner caught the attention of a visitor to the Cathedral, who was attending the memorial service for her grandmother.
That led to a question: just what is that banner all about? Why would such a thing be in a church?
On the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, we encounter a bit of apocalyptic!
The language of the Book of Revelation is that of the “great dragon being thrown down, that ancient serpent.” The Archangel Michael and all the angels fight against this dragon and the rebellious angels — “and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”
The Revelation to John is properly titled “The Apocalypse of John” – ‘apocalyptic’ is a literary genre indicating disclosure – or you might say: the literature of the ‘glimpse’.
Apocalyptic literature seeks to pull back the curtain on the normal goings-on so as to offer a glimpse behind the scenes, so to speak – in the revelatory terms of divine disclosure.
In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (of which a remake is in the works), there is the Man Behind the Curtain. Dorothy was in need of help, and so sought out the man behind the curtain in hopes that this Wizard could help her get home. It turns out that the whole thing is smoke and mirrors. Behind the curtain is just a regular fellow operating machinery and making noise.
And yet this ‘wizard’ then hands out some gifts: to the tinman a heart, to the lion courage, to the scarecrow a brain, to Dorothy the revelation that she does in fact have the power to return home within her grasp, but she had not realized that and needed to be able to see it.
Those gifts actually end up changing things. Transformation occurs. Help is given.
And that is a kind of gentle apocalyptic that offers a glimpse not of what is expected, but of what is unexpected and most needed.
Nobody really expects to encounter a depiction of an angel running a spear through a dragon when you attend the funeral of your grandmother!
And yet it is the spear through the dragon that illumines something deeply important.
The Apocalypse of John was written into a world marked by oppressive structures – exploitation – persecution. It is written as a kind of flash of light that tries to direct the churches’ attention in the midst of whatever situation it finds itself in, toward a reality that it confesses at the heart of its faith, and to shape its life accordingly.
It is a disturbing book and has always (rightly) occupied only the fringes of the churches faith and scripture.
But the French sociologist Jacques Ellul writes helpfully of this text as framing the reality of the world relative to the truth of the Kingdom of God. In some of the biblical writings there is strong opposition between those two things, but Ellul writes that “in the Apocalypse there is a close relation between the two: the real provides the truth with the means for expressing itself, the truth transfigures the real by giving it a meaning that it obviously does not have in itself” (Ellul, Apocalypse, 17).
I think that suggests an incarnational form of divine help. On the one hand, we are directed to look at the world around us as an arena in which power is at work in ways that are often oppressive, or simply blind – because power doesn’t need to stop to notice the one who is powerless. The angelic spear and the dragon point toward the conflict of good and evil, found readily around us, and in us, and in our institutions, including the church. On the other hand, we are directed also in the opposite direction at the same time – to consider the image of the “lamb who was slain” as the place of divine power – indeed as the place of divine help. A gift – a flash of light – a glimpse that transforms the world.
“O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us.”