Words on the Word

St Michael the Archangel

The battle against good and evil told of by the Apocalypse is reflected in a prayer that, until not so long ago, was recited daily at the conclusion of Mass: ‘Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protector against the wickedness and snares of the devil.’ Many of you, I am sure, will remember how it continues. The story behind that prayer is not uninteresting. It goes back to an instruction of 1886 by which Leo XIII exhorted all the bishops and religious superiors of the Church to ensure its daily recitation. The pope, we are reliably informed, had shortly before, while at prayer, gained an experiential sense of the abiding struggle of evil against good. He wished the Church to call as one upon the angelic hosts to assist it in keeping darkness at bay and to fight with it for light and truth.

The hosts of heaven are no strangers to us. We invoke them in every Preface of the Mass as we unite our adoration to theirs. But do we think of them as effective allies in our struggle to resist the snares of death and sin? If not, perhaps we should. I am struck by the fact that our society, which tends to reject any notion of God, often seems nonetheless to take evil for granted. This summer, for instance, following the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, I have seen several thoroughly secular commentators attribute last summer’s atrocities to the influence of ‘evil’. What they understand by the term is far from clear. But it is obvious that such language, even when woolly in the extreme, generates anxiety and confusion, the very qualities associated with the devil in our monastic, ascetic tradition.

Today’s feast provides a salutary counterpoint. It reminds us that the decisive battle against evil has been fought and won on Calvary. Whatever stirrings of it we may still ascertain in our lives and in the world at large are destined to culminate in the victory of the Lamb who was slain. To ensure that we are not unwittingly seduced by evil, God has commissioned angels to guard and help us. Let us call upon their assistance. Let us find peace in their protection. And let our testimony as Christians be marked by unshakeable confidence in the all-powerfulness of our good Lord, before whose countenance every fascination of evil melts away like wax before a living flame.