Friday, May 23, 2014

Angel over angels

Archangel Michael is an angel for Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is referred to in both the Bible and the Qur'an. In the Christian world view, he is God's chosen commander, humanity's protector and Heaven's gatekeeper.


Michael is the patron saint of the sick and dying, ambulance drivers and nurses. Sailors in distress, soldiers at war and the sick on their deathbeds pray to him. He is the saviour who comes to the rescue when danger and death threaten. In the song Michael Row the Boat Ashore, it is Michael who rows the souls over the river and home to God. He is also the gatekeeper who on Judgement Day judges souls before they are allowed into Heaven.

In the apocalypse, Michael is given the role of God's commander in the battle against the dragon, evil:
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. (Revelation 12:7-8)

The great dragon was hurled to the earth, 
and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:9).
Illustration by Gustave Dorée

Who is like God?
In sculpture and visual art, Michael is usually portrayed as a warrior angel. Armed with spear and shield he is about to defeat the dragon, the incarnation of evil. His shield often bears the inscription "Quis Ut Deus", which is the Latin translation of the angel's Hebrew name "Mik ha El" meaning who is like God? This can be understood as a scornful question to Satan who dares to oppose God.

A set of scales, representing the weighing of souls, is one of Michael's attributes. We see this symbol on the shield of the bronze statue of Michael on the north-western front tower of the Nidaros Cathedral  in Trondheim. The statue stands tall with the lance raised against the dragon at the angel's feet. It is no coincidence that the fearless Michael stands right in this location. He is the church's protection against the destructive forces in the west and to the north, ready to battle against the darkness and on the side of the light and justice (see photo below).

The sculptor Kristofer  Leirdal was inspired by
the American singer Bob Dylan when this statue
of St. Michael was created in 1965.
© Kristofer Leirdal /BONO. Photo by NDR 

St. Michael in Norway
In Norway, we know of 28 churches dedicated to St. Michael, mostly in the eastern part of the country. Only eight of these have been preserved. St. Michael's Church on Slottsberget in Tønsberg (previously called Mikkelsberg) was the most important. It was built in the 1100s, modelled after the church in Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. The reputation St. Michael's Church had as a sacred place – and the holy relic of the cross kept in the church – made Old Tunsberg a popular shrine for pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

Marble plaque with Michael
defeating the dragon (13th c).
Photo by Carl-Erik Eriksson.
Click to enlarge.
In Nidaros Cathedral there is a small Michael Chapel over the northern entry portal. On the outside of the chapel stands a marble plaque with an image of the archangel defeating the dragon. The plaque originates from the 13th century (see photo).

The good will triumph
The cult of St Michael is international in scope. There are churches dedicated to him all over the world. In the countries around the Mediterranean and throughout Latin America, people celebrate "Fiesta de San Miguel" for many days in September every year. Here in the Nordic countries – even though we have toned down the celebration of Michael's Mass on September 29, and belief in angels – we too might do well to remember St. Michael, the fearless angel who defends the good and defeats the evil, who comforts those in need and shows mercy when it matters.

He has qualities we need – courage, compassion and vigour – in the service of good. So we can believe what we want about angels. There is no question that this angel stands firmly on the right side in the eternal struggle between good and evil.
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