Homily for the Solemnity of Our Lady of Aberdeen

Today our Sanctuary is different. Here is a replica of the statue of St Michael the Archangel in the shrine of Monte Gargano in southern Italy, which is touring Scotland, and being hosted in many churches. And here – in honour of today’s solemnity – is our beautiful statue of our Lady of Aberdeen.

Today, with Mary as it were on one side of us and St Michael on the other, there’s a message to decode surely. They are together in ch. 12 of Revelation. The message may be this – I quote Pope Francis: “The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 158). And with our Lady and St Michael we have the assurance that the Lord will triumph, and we with him.

Let’s spend a moment with St Michael. We are familiar with the prayer that begins, “Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle.”

In Scripture, the angel Gabriel has to do with messages and announcements (Daniel and St Luke) and the angel Raphael with healing (the book of Tobit). Michael, though, is a warrior. Even his name is a flag: it means, “Who is like God?”. He’s the “great prince” (Dan 10:13; 12:1), an “archangel” (Jd 9). He “rises up” (Dan 12:1), he “comes to help” (Dan 12:13). He “has charge of / stands over” the Jewish people (Dan 13:1) and protects them against the Persians (Dan 10:13). But his real warfare is spiritual. He “contends with the devil” and calls on God: “the Lord rebuke you”, Satan (Jd 9). In the book of Revelation, he has his own angels (Rev 12:7) and “fights” against “the dragon and his angels” (Rev 12:7) and defeats them (Rev 12:8), to the joy of heaven (cf. Rev 12:12).

In 1589, an Italian priest called Lorenzo Scupoli published a book called “The Spiritual Combat”, sometimes rendered “Unseen Warfare”. This phrase, spiritual combat, spiritual warfare is part of our Christian vocabulary. It’s something real. St Paul had spoken of it already. In a passage of the Letter to Ephesians, he talks of the need to “stand firm” against the “schemes” of the devil” (Eph 6:11). We are not wrestling against flesh and blood, he says, but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). We must be equipped for battle, like Roman soldiers. We need to put ion the “whole armour of God” Eph 6:11). He mentions the belt, the breastplate, the boots; the shield, the helmet, the sword and gives them all spiritual interpretations. We need truth, a righteous life, readiness to evangelise, faith, salvation and the word of God. And then, as if coming to the fighting itself, he talks of “praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). And here, today, are these images of Michael the Archangel and Mary our Mother.

“Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle.”

As Christians, we have to fight with ourselves, against our human weaknesses. We must also resist succumbing to the ways of the world. We are encouraged too by the Church to fight for justice and peace in human affairs and for the well-being of creation. But in and beyond that there is another cosmic, spiritual battle going on. Not all that happens in life and the world can be fully explained by science or by human psychology or sociology. Our faith gives us a bigger vision.  There is another dimension too. Sometimes we sense that human evil is more than merely human, and that we need a more than human goodness to resist it. “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea” (GeE 161), says Pope Francis. Not a single saint has ever thought that. No, he is “a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting” (St Paul VI, Gen. Aud, 15 November 1972). “He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice” (GeE 161).

“Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle.”

In 1994, St John Paul II asked Catholics not to forget this prayer, but to use it. In October 2018, Pope Francis asked Catholics to say the Rosary with extra commitment, and to conclude it with the prayer to St Michael. It was the time we as bishops of Scotland were visiting him, and he spoke to us about it; and he was strong, strong.

Mary and Michael, at our side. Our Lady is a warrior too. The reading from Genesis, set immediately after the Fall, speaks of the ongoing battle between the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the serpent, the devil. Eve’s ultimate offspring, our Lord, will crush the head of the serpent, lethally, while the forces of evil will merely wound the Lord’s heel. You may remember the scene in Gethsemane in Mel Gibson’s Passion: how a snake appears and the Lord treads on his head, and then goes to his Passion. And by the side of Jesus, the new Adam, fights Mary too, the new Eve. Often in Western art, her immaculate foot is crushing the head of the serpent. In today’s Psalm, she’s compared to Judith, a warrior heroine of ancient Israel, who decapitated an Assyrian enemy and saved her people. In the Song of Songs, the Lover says of his Bride: “Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” (Sg 6:10) – words often applied to Mary. She is “awesome as an army”. She has the power of holiness. And beside the Cross, with the beloved disciple and the other women, she stands. It’s the posture of a warrior. The new Eve beside the new Adam. Militant Mary. And we pray today, in our Collect, that the flame of faith and love – our two great weapons – that the Holy Spirit lit in her may shine forth in us too, here in Aberdeen. Shine forth to the confusion of the devil and the glory of God. Mary and Michael beside us.

Let us then fight too. Fight for faith and love, fight for truth and goodness, fight for our children and for all under threat from false ideologies, fight for purity and peace. With our Lady and St Michael, we too know that “he who is in [us] is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 July 2023


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122