The Church reserves September 29 as the feast of St. Michael and All Angels (commonly called “Michaelmas”). In 2019, that day falls on a Sunday, and so First Lutheran Church will celebrate the feast with all the grandeur and majesty befitting Christ and His holy angels. Christians may be tempted to overlook the angels, given that popular culture treats them as sweet-faced and saccharine. Nothing could be further from the truth, as today’s lessons make perfectly clear. The holy angels are nothing less than terrifying warriors, capable of laying waste to anything and everything as God commands them, even the very forces of hell and Satan himself.
And yet, the angels lack something that man has: Christ’s redemption. Christ did not die for the angels. This fact gives us a particular worth, for we were “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 7:23) and the angels were not. They are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14)—that is, us. The angels are created, sinless beings who do the will of God, which will is our salvation. And as God works through His means of grace in the Word and Sacraments, so does He work through the means of His holy angels to protect and minister to us.
Several of Lutheranism’s fine composers wrote music for Michaelmas, including Michael Praetorius, Johannes Eccard, Matthias Weckmann, and Georg Philip Telemann. All of these composers save Telemann were active long before Johann Sebastian Bach. While Bach’s music is rightly regarded as the “peak” of Lutheran music, nevertheless Lutheranism before his time had no lack of wonderful musical expressions of the Gospel.
Both the 8am and 11am Divine Services at FLC will feature festival music for the occasion:
8am (soprano and violin):
Packe dich, gelähmter Drache (Georg Philip Telemann)
11am (choir, strings, and sackbuts):
Heut singt die liebe Christenheit (Michael Praetorius)
Aus lieb läßt Gott der Christenheit (Johannes Eccard)
Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel (Matthias Weckmann)
In the Lutheran tradition the Introit was commonly “subbed out” for a festive motet on feasts. Praetorius’s “Heut singt die liebe Christenheit” straddles the space between the two, as a hymn-like composition that is nevertheless intended to be sung by a choir. Eccard provides a similar, slightly more musically complex, meditation on the work of the angels, sung at the Offertory. The other Propers are chanted in the forms in which they were retained in the Lutheran missals of the first century following the Reformation. The Gradual fittingly comes from Psalm 91 (which also appears on the First Sunday in Lent, when Jesus is tempted by Satan and comforted by angels), and the historic Sequence is a prayer to Christ, as King of the holy angels, for angelic protection and defense. The chief hymn was penned by Philip Melanchthon, friend of Martin Luther and author of the Augsburg Confession.
The second lesson appointed for Michaelmas comes from Revelation and tells of the war in heaven, in which St. Michael leads the holy angels into battle and drives Satan out of heaven. In his sacred cantata for Michaelmas, Weckmann depicts this battle with a colorful orchestra of strings and sackbuts. He provides some sonic relief with a fantastic solo line concerning “the great dragon, that ancient snake” being thrown all the way down to earth, as the soloist meanders about and eventually settles on the absolute bottom of the vocal range; the soprano duet that follows paints the devil’s angels likewise falling to earth. The drama continues with the “great voice” echoing throughout heaven in a massive tutti from the whole ensemble: “Now is the victory and the power and the kingdom and the might of our God.” How is Satan’s defeat achieved? “Through the Blood of the Lamb:” that is, through the blood of Christ. Therefore, we may rejoice along with “the heavens and those who dwell therein.”
Not all Lutheran music for feasts is as massive: Telemann, a contemporary of Bach, wrote many cantatas scored for only a single voice and solo instrument. The text for Telemann’s Michaelmas cantata references Gideon as God’s help, treating him as a type of St. Michael. After all, the name Michael is really a question: it means “who is like unto God?” And of course the answer is “nobody,” which is why St. Michael himself is really a type of Christ, Who alone is able to throw down Satan. Therefore we can say with the soloist (rhetorically): “Get lost, Satan!”
The postlude takes as its subject the hymn “My Soul, Now Praise Your Maker,” sung at the distribution. Praetorius takes us through the chorale melody in a relatively straightforward manner, but allows the final phrase to repeat almost endlessly, gradually ornamenting it with faster and faster notes, until it becomes absolutely dizzying. While the hymn is not keyed specifically to today’s feast, nevertheless it is a fitting meditation for the day. For our souls are given to praise God, our Creator, for creating us in “body and soul, eyes, ears, and all [our] members, [our] reason and all [our] senses,” and for giving us all His first-article gifts, including the holy angels.