A Catholic Monthly Magazine

St Michael Window

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

Michael Dunedin

A similar window from Dunedin Cathedral

I am still reading my way around St Mary’s Church in Nelson. This is one of the oldest parish churches in New Zealand, its foundation stone was laid in 1883 and is the second church on the site the first having been erected in 1856, enlarged in 1865, and destroyed by fire on Easter night, 1881. I am standing in the left aisle of the church towards the sanctuary looking at the saints in the windows. St Edward the Confessor is to my left, St Joseph to my right and in front of me, somewhat oddly, is St Michael.

It is strange to find Michael here because unlike the saints who surround him he is not human. Michael is an angel. When angels appear in the architecture it is usually in a higher register. Michael is one of only three angels mentioned by name in the Bible. (Gabriel and Raphael are the other two). He is mentioned three times in the book of Daniel. In one of those references he is described as “the great prince who stands guard over the children of your people” (Dan 12:1). The letter of Jude, in the New Testament, refers to him as “Michael the Archangel” (Jude 1:9) and describes him, when disputing with the devil as saying “The Lord rebuke you!” However the passage which really fired Christian imagination about Michael is that found in three verses of the book of Revelation (12:7-9)

And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Michael is therefore imagined as “God’s general”, a powerful soldier and the key opponent of the devil. Devotion to “Holy Michael” or “Saint Michael” is evidenced by Christian shrines dedicated to him from the fourth century. They were places where he was invoked for healing.

Because the Book of Revelation had Michael leading God’s armies in the past it was assumed that he would lead the divine forces in the end times, just before the Final Judgement. This gave Michael a key role in fighting with the devil for the souls of the departed at the end of time. Many of the features of the Final Judgement at the end of time were then transferred in the Christian imagination to the Particular Judgement which happens for each individual at the time of their death. Michael was thus depicted as battling the devil for each soul immediately after their departure from this life. Michael is only going to fight for the freedom of virtuous souls, so he acquired the attribute in art of a set of scales, with which to weigh souls so as to determine if they were too heavy with sin!

The Nelson window was erected in 1917 as a memorial for a couple described as “old settlers” Michael and Elizabeth Hodgens who were from Louth in Lincolnshire, England. They had come to Nelson before 1860 and had farmed at Dovedale. Michael died, aged 74, in 1901 and was buried from St Mary’s. Elizabeth (née Casey) his wife, died in Nelson in 1914. Presumably family or friends paid for the window. The choice of St Michael would have been appropriate in memory of Michael Hodgens, but also because this angelic figure was being invoked for the departed couple to champion them at the Judgement.

In my opinion this is one of the best windows of the Church. The Archangel Michael is a magnificent figure dressed in elaborate armour, equipped with a flaming sword and a large set of scales. The firey sword is an allusion to the line in Genesis “at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3:24). Presumably, if one angelic guardian is equipped with a flaming sword then it becomes standard equipment.

St Michael with Sword and Scales

St Michael with Sword and Scales

The Archangel Michael is depicted with a halo, though he was never canonized – he is in a different league from human saints. The window has him with a magnificent set of blue wings – blue being the colour of the heavens. There is a flower placed rather prominently between the angel’s feet and I was going to claim this as a Michelmas Daisy since this variety flowers in England near the September 29 feast of the Archangels. Unfortunately the petals are too broad and too few for it to be an aster.

St Michael was drawn to the attention of Catholics much more frequently in the Tridentine liturgy than in our present mass. The Confiteor mentioned him twice:

Flowers at St Michael’s Feet

Flowers at St Michael’s Feet

I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, brethren, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, brethren, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Moreover from 1886 to 1964 there was a special prayer to St Michael included in the ‘Leonine Prayers’ which were said after every low mass.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Another saint, John Paul II, said of this text: “Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.”

I am grateful to the Hodgens family for their putting this image before us.   

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