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What the devil can’t give you

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IT’S Michaelmas again, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. I’m rather well-practised in this celebration because I had 14 years of fun as Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London.

The title St Michael means he who is like God. Michael was known to the prophet Daniel in ancient Israel, and he has been venerated by all the churches from the beginning. The early Greek Fathers called him Chief Militant and Archistrategos – literally the General Officer Commanding. The Egyptian Christians long ago dedicated the Nile as St Michael’s River. And when Germany was converted from paganism, all the mountains dedicated to Wotan were re-consecrated to Michael. That’s why there are so many chapels to St Michael on mountain peaks in Germany. Wagner ought to have noticed that before he wrote his pagan epics.

Most vividly, St Michael is the Archangel of the Apocalypse and the Book of Revelation says: There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. War in heaven? There’s a thought for the manufacturers of religious greetings cards! St Michael, you might say, is not the favourite saint of our bishops and synods who are forever urging us to apologise for every military campaign back as far as Trafalgar and even the Crusades.

Those who take the cosy view of angels, seeing them as effeminate creatures with embroidered wings, are really away with the fairies. We should remind them of Our Lord’s saying that he came to bring not peace but a sword. That Christ urges us to spiritual warfare, promising that the gates of hell will not prevail.

There is a reminder of Christian warfare in the bell tower of St Michael’s, Cornhill. It’s a scar on the wall where it is said St Michael attacked the devil who was trying to get in. I used to get fed up with listening to the literal-minded gang of sceptics and pedants telling me over the years: It wasn’t done by St Michael – it was a bolt of lightning. Where do these people keep their imagination? What do they think St Michael uses, for heaven’s sake! Lightning is the first item in the Archangel’s armoury.

All right, so if there is holy warfare where’s the enemy? We are told about the enemy in the Epistle of Jude – the shortest book in the New Testament. It fits on to one page near the end of the Bible. Have a look at it. We are told how to identify the enemies of Christ:‘They are filthy dreamers who defile the flesh, despise dominion and speak evil of dignities . . . brute beasts who corrupt themselves . . . these says St Jude are the spots in your feasts of charity . . . clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead . . . wandering stars to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.’

So we are told our Christian warfare is against those who defile the flesh. It sounds terribly old fashioned, doesn’t it – until you take a look at what’s available on the telly and the internet. Or you venture – foolishly – into any of our town centres in the evenings. We inhabit the consumerism of hell where all the mortal sins have been redefined as lifestyle choices. And then the Epistle warns of those who despise dominion and speak evil of dignities. Old fashioned, is it? – when deference is sneered at as outdated by the yobs who run the mass media. Brute beasts who corrupt themselves? – just take a walk around the West End.

Now St Jude’s Epistle may be short, but he mentions St Michael. And what he has to say ought to interest us. He refers to a dispute between St Michael and the devil over the location of the tomb of Moses. In the Hebrew tradition no one knows where this tomb is. The devil is threatening to reveal it. Why? So that the people will turn to hero worship, put neon signs over Moses’s tomb as a tourist attraction, let the cash registers roll and exploit Moses as a celeb. St Michael will have none of this. He knows the significance of Moses as the giver of God’s Law and will not have him turned into a personality cult.

Do not think that angels and devils, St Michael and Satan, are mere illusions. Just because they are usually invisible doesn’t mean they are not real.

I find it wearing to have to keep reminding the literal-minded types that poetry, pictures, music and an active imagination are the best tools when it comes to the embodiment of the truth. A successful metaphor presents us directly with reality.  

St Michael and the angels belong to this reality and they are at war. How? Well, the devil creates nothing original. God is the only Creator. The devil can only copy God’s actions, befouling them as he goes along. So the devil is called the Father of Lies and the Ape of God. The devil is hard at work aping God all the time:

He can’t give you love; but he can give you a disordered sexual appetite. He cannot give you the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other; but he can give you Put yourself about a bit!

The devil can’t give you art; but he can give you animals in formaldehyde, an unmade bed, Carl Andre’s bricks and the junk entered for the Turner Prize.

He can’t give you music; but he can give you the noise that passes for it, the ubiquitous 24/7 racket of rock and pop.

He can’t build Chartres Cathedral; but he built the South Bank.

The devil cannot give you the gift of statesmanship; but he can give you lookalike coalition parties. It’s apt that St Michael’s Day comes around at the same time as the party conferences with all their soundbites, mawkish self-congratulation, false promises and downright lies – all to flashing lights, whirling captions and a cacophonous soundtrack.

The devil can’t give you friendship; but he can give you as many social networking sites as you want. On any one of these you can – as some of our terrorist friends do – advertise your upcoming act of mass murder.

For the devil a pregnancy is a failed abortion.

He can’t give you Honour thy father and thy mother; but he does come along to threaten legislation to say that it’s OK to kill them off when they become a nuisance or you want their money.

He can’t give you Sabbath rest by Galilee; but he can provide shopping on the seventh day.

He can’t give you wisdom, sound knowledge or even good teaching; but he can peddle slogans such as Education, Education, Education and Delivering Excellence to Every School. Really? Why then, according to the Education Department’s own reckoning, do 30 per cent of pupils leave school after 11 years of compulsory ‘education’ unable to read, write and count efficiently?

The devil can’t even give us a decent game of cricket; only a barbarous parody of the game and make you play it in your pyjamas to the relentless barrage of pop.

The devil can’t give you the beauty of holiness; but he can give you the illiterate Bad News Bible, doggerel modern services and, just when you’re trying to say your prayers at the Holy Communion, the rowdy interruption called The Peace – you might call it liturgical rape.

The devil can’t teach you to pray; but he provides lots of psychoanalysis, counselling and navel-gazing. Sir Keir Starmer has just promised us oodles more of this stuff to help us with our ‘mental health issues’.

He can’t create a park; but he has created hundreds of theme parks.

He can’t show you the glory of the night sky; but he can provide any number of nightclubs.

God gives us the truth that can set us free; the devil gives us TV chat shows.

But let’s hand it to the devil: he can give you eternal life – the catch is that you have to spend it with him.

Seeing we are beset by the crafts and assaults of the devil, give us, we beseech thee O Lord, the mighty protection of St Michael and all the holy angels that we may resist all the crafty assaults of the devil, the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, that we may serve thee with a quiet mind.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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