A reflection on Revelation 12:7-12 by the Rev. Marnie Peterson for the feast of St. Michael and All Angels
It isn’t very often that we get to preach on Revelation. It comes up surprisingly little in the lectionary that we follow (or maybe not that surprising) In Year A, which is the year that we find ourselves in now, it will show up again on All Saints but that’s it. Next year it will show up twice, three times if we transfer the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels to a Sunday again.
Which is what we have done this year and why I have the opportunity to talk about this now.
The feast of Michaelmas, I learned is a minor Christian festival that is usually celebrated on September 29th. And I’ll be honest it isn’t one that means all that much to me. Maybe you pay more attention to this autumnal festival if you attend a church that has Michael as its patron saint – like why I care a lot about St. Brigid, for example.
But here is what I learned and it isn’t much:
‘In Christian angelology, the Archangel Michael is the greatest of all the Archangels and is honored for defeating Satan in the war in heaven. He is one of the principal angelic warriors, seen as a protector against the dark of night, and the administrator of cosmic intelligence. Michaelmas has also delineated time and seasons for secular purposes, as well, particularly in Britain and Ireland as one of the quarter days.’[i]
So we have before us the story of St. Michael, arguably the greatest of all angels who wrestles the devil and tosses him out of heaven.
A classic story of good versus evil perhaps.
But first some background, because I don’t actually think you can read the Bible and the book of Revelation in particular without some background. A really helpful resource for figuring some of this out is: Revelation and the End of All Things, by Craig R. Koester.
This tale in revelation links closely to a Roman tale in which a woman, Leto, has become pregnant by the God, Zeus. And a dragon called Python is after her hoping to kill both Leto and her child. She is rescued by the wind and is taken to safety on an island, there she gives birth to the gods Apollo and Artemis. Days after his birth Apollo sets off after the dragon and slays him.
Roman leaders liked to use this tale to their advantage by associating themselves with Apollo, who it was said killed the dragon and so began an age of prosperity and peace.
The woman in the story might be the goddess of Roma, the queen of heaven and her son might be the roman emperor who overcomes the forces of evil for the goodness of peace and light.
Caesar was hailed as the new Apollo and Emperor Nero liked to present himself likewise. Leaders who were ordained by the gods to bring in a new and better age.
Dragon slayers. Now before we head too far into Winter is Coming – let’s now think of this story within the context the John was presenting.
It’s helpful though to know the story or the lore that was floating around at the time to help us to understand how the readers of John’s tale might have heard it.
The Christians at that time would have known this story of Leto.
‘…they would also find that John’s version reverses the usual implications of the tale, so that in his version the woman in labor is not a pagan goddess, but the people of God; the child is not the emperor but Christ; and the dragon represents forces that oppose Christ and threaten his church. In the end, a story that was used to celebrate the popular culture is now transformed in a way that helps readers to resist being assimilated to the culture.’ (Koester, 2001)
So this might seem like a pretty big leap. But if you look closer, you will notice that the description of the child is the same one used in Psalm 2 which talks about the anointed one or Son of God. Christians reading this story would have noticed that the child goes from birth straight to the throne of God. It jumps from Christ’s birth straight to his resurrection. The point of this isn’t to go over the death story again, Koester argues, but to remind the readers that Christ’s death was the triumph over evil.
And rather than moving into a peace time – a huge fight breaks out between Michael and the dragon. Michael who fights on behalf of the people of God and wins, to the extent that the devil we are told no longer has any power in heaven but is restricted to the earthly realm.
So, the devil who once had power both in God’s realm and earth now only has half the space in which they can do anything.
Satan, which in Hebrew translates to adversary, has no power with God.
So to recap according to this interpretation of this story, the people of God are being pursued by a dragon or the devil or an adversary. Then Christ comes who is one of the people but also an advocate of God, who shows them that evil can be overcome. This sets off a firestorm of a fight between one angel in particular but really between good and evil, because evil is not ok with loss of any kind and will constantly give chase. Evil loses and is tossed from the realm of God so that the only place it can wreak havoc is here, on earth.
So I get that this interpretation might be problematic for some of you. It can be hard to think that the church might need protecting, particularly if you have come here from a church that did not protect you.
And really, to be completely honest I’m not all that concerned with protecting the church. But I am concerned with protecting God’s people.
It is my contention that the whole people of God deserve protection from evil. Because I do know that evil is real and I do believe with all my heart in a God that is good and in Christ who shows us how to love.
All of us are resisting evil in some form. All of us have something that pursues us, that tries to make us feel less than worthy – homophobia or transphobia, media which tells us what perfection ‘should’ look like in the form of style or body shape, attacks based on the colour of our skin, a justice and a political system that still has work to do in order to be just for everyone. Shame, addiction of some form – and it can take many – or abuse of any kind.
These are sources of evil – this is where the adversary is hard at work and this is where we as a community can offer support and resistance.
We do not have to support the systems that are in place that favour one group over another, that tell us one is better than another. We can take a stand against language that excludes or makes us or anyone feel less than, or unsafe.
We can take our lead from Michael and put up a fight against evil. All of us have some form of dragon that we are fighting.
It is my job to stand against a popular culture that says that any of us are less than. It is the work of all of us to stand with one another as the children of God who follow the teachings of Christ to stand against forms of intolerance or injustice.
And that is hard work and I am still figuring it out. I still don’t have a very good fight stance. I still get afraid and worry that I’m using the wrong words, that I am a part of the evil that surrounds us in some way. And rest assured that I am still fighting my own dragons.
But here is what I want to say – that evil can look scary and big and like it is impossible to defeat and what this story tells us is that it is not. And actually the story of Jesus’ death helps us with that.
That we follow Jesus Christ, who even at the end, would not participate in the violence and evil that persecuted and surrounded him is a signal to us that we don’t have to either.
That we follow Jesus who preached about love and who showed us what grace truly looks like, shows us how we can be too.
Even that we have crazy stories of Angels and dragons at the back of our holy book is helpful because we have great stories within our own tradition of good that wins over evil.
Love wins in the end, every single time. Evil is vulnerable and cannot stand on its own. But love can. And we – you and I, and this whole community – stand together even when we don’t get it right the first or even the second time. We have the opportunity to try again because that is what love is like.
So maybe that is why we tell this story. Maybe that is why we celebrate the Feast of St. Michael, not just because a good fight scene is interesting or because stories of Dragons are fun, but because we need to be reminded that good wins, that evil is vulnerable and that we do not fight any of this alone.