Saturday, September 29, 2018

Liturgical Notes on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels

The traditional title of today’s feast is “The Dedication of St Michael the Archangel”, a term already found in the 8th century Lectionary of Wurzburg, the oldest of the Roman Rite that survives, and in the ancient sacramentaries. The Martyrology erroneously refers this feast to the dedication of the famous shrine of St Michael on Mt Gargano in the Italian region of Puglia, following a medieval tradition attested by William Durandus at the end of the 13th century. In reality, the title comes from the dedication of a church built sometime before the 7th century on the via Salaria, about seven miles from the gates of Rome, and remained in use long after the basilica itself fell completely to ruin. The traditional Ambrosian liturgy, which borrowed the feast from Rome, has in a certain sense preserved the memory of its origin better than the Roman Rite itself; not only does it use the Roman name, but it also takes several of the Mass chants, as well as the Epistle and Gospel, from the common Mass for the dedication of a church.

The central panel of The Last Judgment, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1446-52, showing Christ above, and below, St Michael weighing the souls of the dead.
Despite the fact that the feast’s title refers specifically only to St Michael, September 29th is really the feast of all the Angels, as stated repeatedly in the texts of both the Office and Mass. The Introit is taken from Psalm 102, “Bless the Lord, all ye his angels: you that are mighty in strength, and execute his word, hearkening to the voice of his orders.”


This text is repeated in part in the Gradual.


The Communion is taken from the Old Latin version of the canticle Benedicite, “Bless the Lord, ye angels of the Lord: sing a hymn, and exalt him above all forever.” (Daniel 3, 58)


The collect of the Mass makes no reference to St Michael at all: “O God, who in wondrous order assign the duties of Angels and of men: mercifully grant that our life on earth be guarded by those who continually stand in Thy presence and minister to Thee in heaven.”

The Lauds hymn of the Office speaks in its first stanza of all the Angels, and in the following three of Ss Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the only Archangels specifically named in the Bible. In the Greek version of the book of Tobias (12, 15), however, St Raphael refers to himself as “one of the seven holy Angels, who present the prayers of the saints, and who go in before the glory of the Holy One.” This gave rise to a Byzantine custom of depicting seven Archangels standing together around the Lord; many icons of this motif give names to the remaining four from various apocryphal sources. One is called Uriel, who is mentioned several times in the Book of Enoch which St Jude quotes in his epistle (verses 14-15). The names of the remaining three are not the same in all sources; in the 19th century Russian icon seen below, they are given as Jegudiel, Selaphiel and Barachiel.


The Byzantine feast of all the Angels is kept on November 8th, and like the Roman feast, originated with the dedication of a church; this was a basilica in Constantinople known as the Michaelion, traditionally said to have been built by Constantine himself. The formal title of the feast is “The Synaxis of the Great Commanders (ἀρχιστρατήγων) Michael and Gabriel, and the rest of the Bodiless Powers.” Curiously, the liturgical texts of the feast make no reference to St Raphael, nor to any of the other Angels, nor to the origin of the celebration.

In the Middle Ages, many places imitated the Roman custom of celebrating a second feast of St Michael, commemorating the famous apparition which led to the building of the shrine on Mt Gargano. In northern Europe, however, we find instead the feast of “St Michael on Mount Tumba”, the Latin name of the celebrated Mont-St-Michel, as for example in the Use of Sarum, which kept it on October 16th. A votive Mass of all the Angels was already in common use in the early ninth century, as attested by Alcuin of York, and is present among the votive Masses in every medieval missal. However, only very rarely does one find a feast of St Gabriel or of the Guardian Angels in the pre-Tridentine period; a Mass of St Raphael is sometimes found among the votive Masses especially to be said for the sick, but I have seen no reference to an actual feast day for him in the Medieval period.

In the year 1670, Pope Clement X added to the general Calendar of the Roman Rite a feast of the Guardian Angels, which had been granted to the Austrian Empire by Paul V at the beginning of the century. The feast was kept in some places on the first Sunday of September, but the common date, October 2, was chosen as the first free day after the feast of St Michael.

The Three Archangels and Tobias, by Francesco Botticini, 1470
Pope Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, took a particular interest in devotion to the Angels. At the end of 1917, he raised the feast of St Michael to the highest grade, double of the first class, along with the March 19 feast of St Joseph. In 1921, he added the feasts of Ss Gabriel and Raphael to the general Calendar, the former on the day before the Annunciation, the latter on October 24 for no readily apparent reason. The feast of St Michael’s Apparition was removed from the General Calendar in 1960; in the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, Ss Gabriel and Raphael have been added to September 29th, and their proper feasts suppressed, along with the traditional reference in the title to the church dedication.

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