St Michael and All Angels, 30th of September, 2018
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Although I have lived in Victoria for most of my life, I was born in a tiny little town in WA that rejoices in the name of Useless Loop. Useless Loop is on the coast of WA, on Denham Sound on the shore opposite the much more famous town of Monkey Mia where the dolphins come in to be fed by tourists. Useless Loop is a closed company town owned by the salt mine for whom my dad was working at the time of my birth. It is a place almost devoid of vegetation with huge evaporation ponds and mountains of sparkling salt. Periodically, it is hit by cyclones. In short, Useless Loop is not a place with much to recommend it.
Well, clearly Nathanael didn't think Nazareth had much going for it either! Philip tells him, 'We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth'. (John 1:45) You can almost hear Nathanael snort as he replies, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' (John 1:46)
There is, however, a lovely hidden extra side to Nathanael's dismissal of Nazareth as a birthplace. In Brendan Byrne's commentary on the Gospel of John Life Abounding, he adds the delightful note that the first time that Jesus' glory is displayed in this Gospel it will be in another small, provincial town; Cana of Galilee. And this small town, 'just happens to be (though we only learn this toward the close of the gospel [21:21]) the hometown of Nathanael!'
Useless Loop, Nazareth, Cana, think of your small town of choice. It is important to the story that John is telling that Nazareth is not a prestigious address. God has become incarnate in humanity and being born in the back-blocks is another aspect of the self-emptying that the Divine Word has undergone in taking on our nature. The Word who is with God, and is God, and without whom nothing came into being in the prologue of John's Gospel, (John 1:1,3) has become incarnate of a poor woman and has grown up in crummy old Nazareth.
But it is not just the fact that God came down to earth and lived an ordinary, human life that is important to the Gospel writer John. This is the 'downward' movement but there is an 'upward' movement too; what Brendan Byrne describes as, 'the sacramentality that pervades the story'. It is not simply that God's self has entered the world, but that in doing so, God has enabled us to be taken back into God's self. The ordinary, everyday, unremarkable things have become the means by which we can know the Divine. God's own self has taken on our human frailty and as a result we and all creation are all made new! Through the mystery of God's incarnation, if only we have eyes to see, every part of creation now discloses the divine.
It is this intimate connection between heaven and earth that is part of what we celebrate today on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. The interaction between heaven and earth, between God and creation, is an important theme for today. The apocalyptic writings of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, use extravagant imagery to express the power and glory of God's realm, fully revealed in heaven but already breaking through to earth.
Historically, apocalyptic writing grows out of persecution and can be seen as a kind of resistance writing. The codes and symbols used allow a persecuted minority to imagine a new reality in ways that are too dangerous to do openly. Much of the apocalyptic writing in the Bible is found in the books of Daniel and Revelation but it is scattered throughout the Gospels too, for example, in references to the end of the age and the Son of Man coming in the clouds.
Various groups within Christianity have tried to understand this kind of writing as literal predictions of the future but this has a couple of problems. Firstly, in the book of Daniel, for example, Daniel speaks about 'the end' but he doesn't provide a consistent timeline for 'the end' and what he means by 'the end' changes from chapter to chapter. In my view, another, more important problem with the attempt to see apocalyptic writing as literal predictions of the future, is that in doing so, we miss its transformative power and importance in the here and now.
Apocalyptic writing is a way of bringing hope and of engaging the imagination in addressing questions that are central to human life in the present, not just in the future. Questions such as:
Is the world headed in any particular direction? Does justice win out in the end, or does history lack purpose? How does one account for disaster when meaning seems absent? What realities lie beyond the world as we ordinarily perceive it, and how might those realities influence our world? What is death, and what, if anything, follows it?
For me, the wisdom of celebrating a feast dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, is that in doing so, we stop for a moment to acknowledge that, as Christians, we live our lives with one foot in heaven and one here on earth. We belong to God's realm that is, already and not yet.
Our lives contain both the revelation of the divine and the hum drum earthliness of Nazareth; because of the incarnation, those things cannot be separated. Brendan Byrne writes that,
Mature faith, paradoxically, moves ... from the marvelous to the ordinary and everyday. It pierces the barrier between heaven and earth to find the divine depth in the "Nazareth" of one's own life.
'The "Nazareth" of one's own life'; the place from whence nothing good ever emerges, where dreams come to nothing and the things of heaven are far away. And yet, even here, there is a divine depth. God's incarnation in Jesus promises us that even the places in our lives that seem to us to be the lowest, most hopeless and mundane, the farthest removed from God, are still caught up in God's transformative love which pierces the barrier between heaven and earth. The question is, can we see it? Do we believe it to be true?
The late nineteenth century English poet and mystic, Francis Thompson writes about this breaking in of heaven to earth in his poem, In No Strange Land.
- O world invisible, we view thee,
- O world intangible, we touch thee,
- O world unknowable, we know thee,
- Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
- Not where the wheeling systems darken,
- And our benumbed conceiving soars! —
- The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
- Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
- The angels keep their ancient places; —
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
- That miss the many-splendoured thing. 
Thompson, who lived rough on the streets of London for three years, was able to see the reality to which the apocalyptic writers point; by looking with eyes open to see the breaking in of God's reality, we can transform our own reality.
Of course, to allow that transformation to take place, we need eyes that can see God's reality. Is it possible for us to learn to see in that way? In a world so heavily invested in deconstructing mystery and in understanding and explaining everything rationally, can we learn to see the angels around us; the messengers and signs of the ways in which the realm of God is already present?
One way that I have found helpful is through a practice known as the Examen. It was developed by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola. In his, Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius describes this technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day. The aim of the Examen is to detect God's presence, to see where God is at work in our lives, and to discern God's direction for us. It is a habit that many Christians practise daily. (Incidentally, the wonderful New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne who I mentioned earlier is a Jesuit and I think his dedication to seeing in this way pervades his writing).
In closing today, I would like to share with you, very briefly, a five-step version of the Examen. As I read these steps to you, I invite you to reflect prayerfully on your day yesterday and to invite God into the rest of today.
- Ask God for light. I want to look at my day with God's eyes, not merely my own.
- Give thanks. The day I have just lived is a gift from God. Be grateful for it.
- Review the Day. I carefully look back on the day just completed, being guided by the Holy Spirit.
- Face your shortcomings. I face up to what is wrong — in my life and in me.
- Look toward the day to come. I ask where I need God in the day to come.
- Brendan Byrne, Life Abounding: A Reading of John's Gospel, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2014), 48.
- Byrne, Life Abounding, 48.
- Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21
- Greg Carey, Ultimate Things: An Introduction to Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Literature, (St Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2005), 1.
- Byrne, Life Abounding, 50.
- Francis Thompson, In No Strange Land, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jun/26/poem-of-the-week-in-no-strange-land-by-francis-thompson
- A copy of this 5 step Examen can be found at, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/19076/examen-prayer-card
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.