The Virgin Mary, St Matthew and St Michael

The Season of Pentecost continues through September. Three days of particular note occur in this month. September 8th - The Blessed Virgin Mary, September 21st - St Matthew the Apostle and September 29th - St Michael and All Angels.

The place of the Blessed Virgin Mary ( p 796 ASB) in the Anglican Church has often been a cause of tension. The extreme Anglo-Catholic wing wanting to make much of every Marian occasion in the Roman Calendar, and the conservative evangelical wing preferring not to mention her at all. The dehumanizing of Mary on the one hand and deep suspicion of her remembrance on the other has until relatively recently deprived us of placing Mary appropriately within the fullness of our spirituality.

Cranmer omitted all Marian feast days. The 1662 Prayer Book reinstated a lesser Holy Day on September 8th commemorating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On August 15th the Roman and Orthodox Churches commemorate Mary's Assumption into heaven. This day has been celebrated since the 4th century. The Catholic theology of the feast seeks to bestow on Mary a state between human and divine, immaculately conceived - free from sin, Virgin mother, and in death not returned to dust, as is the way of mortals, but assumed uncorrupted into heaven after the way of Christ. For others this view would change the nature of Mary. It alters her humanity which is considered important for showing that God, by his Spirit in the Virgin Mary, bestows upon us mortals the great honour of choosing to be born as one of us. Christ, the Word made flesh, takes upon himself our humanity but uniquely overcomes death, reconciling us to God by his resurrection for our redemption. Mary, therefore remains fully human and in death returns to dust. None the less, she is enduringly honoured as a unique servant of God, the mother of Christ.

The ASB opted to make the 8th September into a Principal feast Day. The new lectionary is adding a commemoration of Mary on August 15th to be in some unity of intent if not of doctrine with other denominations and to acknowledge the breadth of belief and practice in the Church of England. Saints’ days are usually kept on the date the saint is thought to have died and entered heaven. Thus the day becomes one of thanksgiving and celebration. It is therefore reasonable and right to have a such a day for Mary whilst allowing other places in the calendar to remember Mary’s crucial place in the life of Christ and so our life of faith.

The liturgical colour is white, the colour of purity and of Christ.

St Matthew the Apostle - September 21st (p.800 ASB). In the West a feast day has been celebrated for St Matthew since the 6th century. Matthew was Jewish. A tax collector working for the Romans until he answered Christ’s call. From very early times he has been regarded as the author of the first gospel. Written in the second half of the 1st century and generally though not universally believed to have used the gospel of Mark as its source material.

The Collect of the day was originally written by Cranmer for inclusion in the 1549 Prayer Book. Minor changes have been made to accommodate changed understanding.

St Michael and All Angels - September 29th (p.802 ASB). Michael was an archangel. His name means ‘Who is like unto God?’. We come across him in the book of Daniel where he appears as ‘one of the chief princes’ of the heavenly host and as the particular guardian of Israel. In the Book of Revelation he fights the heavenly battle against the dragon or devil.

It was Cranmer who added ‘All Angels’ to this feast day. The Collect is ancient and little altered. It comes from the Gregorian Sacramentary (collection of prayers said in the liturgy by the priest) of the 6th century.

The formal cult of Michael seems to have origin in the East where he was invoked for the care of the sick; churches have been built with this purpose in mind and hot springs dedicated in his name in Greece and Asia Minor. An apparition of Michael on Monte Gargano in South East Italy was instrumental in spreading the cult to the West and his feast day dates from the dedication of his basilica on the Salarian Way near Rome.

Michael has had a strong following from quite early times in Britain. Churches were dedicated to him and some are mentioned by Bede. By the Middle Ages almost 700 churches were dedicated to him. Places also bear his name - St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall for instance. It is thought that there was a vision of him there in the 8th century. He was a popular choice as patron saint of cemeteries.

In art he often depicted slaying the dragon, for example Epstein’s sculpture at Coventry Cathedral. In Medieval art he was more commonly seen weighing souls to determine their destiny. As you will realize I am unable to deduce the reason why our neighbours Marks and Spencer should have adopted him! Anyone know?

Helen Walker
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st August 1997