Merry Michaelmas! Have you started working on your Christmas pageant yet?
I am not the biggest fan of Christmas pageants, to be honest, though I am equipped with countless delightful stories about them. After all, like any good church kid, I participated extensively in these programs, from when I was a preschooler performing our parish’s traditional assortment of songs, moving up to be an angel in the second grade nativity, and then snagging all the longer readings as I grew older.
Of all my pageant stories, though, perhaps the most notable harkens back to when I was in high school and my mother, then the Sunday School superintendent at our church, made a move that can really only be described as a coup. Having grown up performing in the pageant at this same church, and with her younger children still aging into it, my mother decided to abandon the program we’d been performing for over 40 years. Instead, she recruited the pack of upper-elementary aged theater kids to lead a production of “The Fumbly Bumbly Angels.” And while it was easy to cast most of the production, she still needed an older child to be the archangel. I think you can all see where this is going.
As a second grader, being a silent angel in the nativity was my ideal role. I am not made for the stage. I had no desire to be the archangel in this radical Christmas Pageant experiment, but I memorized my lines anyway and wore the big circle of fleece that stood in for angel garb.
Angels play a central role in how we—adults, but especially children—think about heaven. Glittering angels are seen atop our Christmas trees. We sing songs about them and and see them depicted in picture books and cartoons. Yes, angels, the shiny, flitting white-garbed and winged beings are, as the origins of the word make clear, messengers of God and soldiers who stand guard. And despite their constant use of the greeting, ‘Do not be afraid,’ angels seem to be so beautiful and wondrous that there is no reason we would need to fear them.
All of this suggests that we really don’t need much help remembering Saint Michael and All Angels, so why do we mark them on the church calendar in this collective way?
Historically speaking, we celebrate Saint Michael, considered the greatest of the angels, as well as Gabriel, Raphael, and the many other angels on September 29 for largely practical reasons. This feast day has acted as the marker of seasonal change— when harvests would end, rents might come due, and communities prepare for the dark of winter when evil forces were understood to be stronger. Since Michael is believed to have defeated Lucifer, as described in the Book of Revelation, we celebrate and draw close to him, guarding against this winter darkness. But I don’t know that this explanation helps us much now.
Instead, when I think of why it matters that we continue to remember these angels, I think about singing the Sanctus each week. Standing at the altar with many of my congregation’s youngest children, guiding them through the Eucharistic Prayer each week, our priest speaks the Proper Preface:
‘Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with Angels and Archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
who forever sing this hymn
to proclaim the glory of your Name:’
and as he says this, I whisper to the children, ‘Now we’ll sing the angels’ song.’
Isn’t that what that text really says?
Whatever the historic premise of Michaelmas, what I find in this moment of praise is that we actually turn to the angels regularly as models of right worship. They teach us how to think and talk about God’s greatness and maybe they even encourage us to strive for such unending praise, that every moment of our lives may also sing this song.
And those little fumbly, bumbly angels in that pageant that I was roped into once upon a time? Well, their whole goal was to show they were worthy of singing with the Heavenly Choir, but maybe that was a mistake. We are all always and already invited to sing our praise to God with Saint Michael and All Angels, not just on this feast day, but every day, now and forever more.