Sep. 29, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Sep 29, 2019 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels

September 29, 2019 

In the words of Jacob when he awoke,  

“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 

On this celebration of St. Michael’s Day we’ve had the scripture and images of the Archangel Michael told, and even brought to life in pageant, and in doing so each year we’re invited into the timeless story of Michael, and to live into its rich depth. When Nathanael encounters Jesus he asks, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus says he saw him under the fig tree, before Philip called him. There is a surface-sound to the conversation at first, and yet Nathaniel realizes there is something deeper going on. In spite of asking Jesus how he knew him, in that moment Nathanael knows Jesus for exactly who he is, not just some roving rabbi, but the Son of God! 

Today we’ll be blessing, this icon of St. Michael, created for this congregation specifically and aided by your prayers while I was on sabbatical. I’d like to tell you something about icon writing. Before I even began first inscribing Michael’s image on this wooden board (which is symbolic of the tree of life in Eden), it had been layered with white linen cloth (called a Veil or Shroud) and twelve layers of gesso symbolizing the mother of God, quietude and readiness, white being the mother of all colors. Inscribing the image onto the board is called the first naming. I also learned that icons are to be made only of natural materials; wood, chalk, hide glue, egg yolk, real gold, and natural pigments from animal, vegetable and mineral elements. We learned to mix the finely ground pigments each day with egg yolk from the retreat center’s own brood, noticing how colors could change with egg yolks from different hens.  

A layer of earthy ochre-colored clay is applied, symbolizing the earth from which Adam and all humanity was created. Then gilding it with a layer of gold evoking the divine, applied in a way that recalls God breathing life into him; the iconographer deep-breathes warm air onto the surface and applies sheets of 23 karat gold. This is followed by areas of many layers of paint washes or ‘floats’ in the darker colors (which I stubbornly resisted using; I didn’t want green skin or purple garments!). The teacher patiently taught us how the richness of an icon is created by layering and combining floats and lights called “Roskrysh,” the darkest of which remain beneath as ‘chaos’ or primordial energy. Their depths layer with brighter colors to variously symbolize body, soul, and spiritual mind, so that their integrated multiplicity resounds, invites. In between come what look to be garish highlights (the Light of the Cosmos), these also showing through the layered floats of color. Final highlight lines, “Ozhivki,” are life-giving whisper-like strokes, especially on facial features, represent the uncreated light and energy of God. When that is all finished the icon is sealed for service with “Olifa,” as an oil of Chrism like we use for baptism, then it dries. Today is the liturgical consecration blessing it with Holy Water; invoking the energetic union of the image here offered with the original St. Michael himself. Even then it is still not really finished, until it is used by someone for prayer. 

Icons are not signed by the writer, nor intended as works of art (a comforting thought since my inexperience with a paintbrush frustrated me!), rather it is for prayer and contemplation, in a spiritual dimension. A viewing believer’s response is about more than a museum aesthetic or as an instruction device for teaching sacred stories, it is intended to reflect invisible realities so as to make them visible. Patterned on the incarnation; Christ became human and visible to reveal God to us in ways we could not know before. What are the layers of light and dark chaos colors in our lives, and where do we see divine light shining through?  

Icons haven’t always been familiar sights in Episcopal Churches, and they are part of the history of the church’s battles with iconoclasm. In 787 CE, the Second Council of Nicaea said (in translation paraphrase) that ‘among the various forms of sacred art, icons alone belong to an unwritten ecclesiastical tradition that is the equal to written tradition or scripture. They have an authentic mission to reveal the faith in visible form.’ As such an icon doesn’t appear realistic in style, and not because icon-writers are unskilled or too primitive to create a realistic image. Rather it is because an icon is designed to draw our attention away from the material world and into the spiritual world, it goes beneath the superficial appearances to reveal what is transfigured by grace. 

These days we seem to have less confidence in historic certainties and accurate reliability of what we hear, and the temptation is to despair of ever knowing any sure truth or reality of things. To pray with an icon is to believe in that greater reality and truth that they reflect, an experience of the promptings of the Holy Spirit. So, when one works on a traditional icon you pray constantly, and with this in mind. One thinks deeply about the figure and how it speaks truth to you or others. In light of this, how sad that we ‘domesticate’ angels so! Sword-bearing St. Michael and his multitude of angels certainly defies those romanticized tchotchkes or cute figurines of angels. The icon version of Michael bears the staff leadership ready to rally and travel to our side, the orb reflecting the image of Christ in the faces he sees. The one on our kneeler is ready to battle a most formidable dragon, and our children’s live action telling of his story illustrates the struggle these angels undertook on our behalf. Most depictions do show him with a defeated serpent at his feet, and that doesn’t line up with images of always-nice angelic hosts. It isn’t socially acceptable to talk about spiritual warfare, or to acknowledge the existence of evil in our world in polite society, yet each year as I see the story unfold I am comforted by a faith that says St. Michael and the Angels are battling evil with good. We are all charged with working for justice and peace, caring for others, standing against the evil at work in the world, and our very namesake here reminds us that God has our back when we are in the fray. Consider how our Eucharistic words speak of our prayers and praises being joined “with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven…” It makes St. Michael and all the angels feel a bit closer to hand in this sacred place and in our very lives. 

Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending; rich with symbolism this vision offers an image of God’s heavenly realm descending to our earthly one even as we rise to God’s realm, accompanied by those angels. In this dream setting Jacob learns God’s promise for the future and he awakens to declare, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” These angels were messengers, but not with words or news or to perform an act of faith, their message was in their presence. Not one angel, but many. Not in one place, but ascending and descending, both there and here, leaving Jacob awestruck and sure of God’s blessing and message, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”  

Yes, today is our patronal feast day and we celebrate with gusto, but if we depart today as if leaving it all behind, we’ve missed the point of the Archangel Michael, and of Jacob’s dream. We can open ourselves to the angels who join us, who show us God is with us in the prayers and in the fray of struggle, in the visible and invisible depths and layers of our lives — and in this glorious community! I hope that distinction between heaven and earth is blurred and broached by ladders of angels for all of us; as in how the icon’s layers reveal God and invite us deeper, how our Communion of bread and wine reveal Christ’s presence among us, in being sent to share the good news of God, and in how we resist evil seeking truth, justice, and peace. Yes, the angels ascending and descending is in our lives too. By that dream Jacob knew Bethel was a holy place, and still he knew he had to continue his journey, —so do we. Strengthened by joining the praises of Angels and Archangels and the prayers of many generations right here in this room, we recognize this gate of heaven, and that we do not go on alone. Like Jacob and Nathanael, we also will go to do the work we are called to, and we go with angels on our side.  Amen. 

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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