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Why I love Michaelmas

From Alex Scutt, Wellspring webmaster, Melbourne

For a musician, Michaelmas is a very special feast - and it has always been one of my favourites. It's not just that it falls at a time of year when the light is changing and one has that comforting sense of light and life with flowers and leaves and the wonderful combinations of whites, pinks, greens, and the subtle purples and reds all around us. Its a time when the created world we know springs back into life again and somehow we are connected with those other parts of God's created order - in short, angels.

BUt Michaelmas also speaks of angels and angel song and our own faltering attempts at singing which when that stops, the angels take it up again, and somehow when we are once again moved to song, then we have that sense of taking up *their* song, and so it goes on in an eternal circle. We have so much great hymody to choose from on this feast day - from favourites like "Ye watchers and ye holy ones" and "Ye holy angels bright", to forgotten gems such as "Angel voices ever singing round thy thrones of light" which speak to that faltering praise to which I just alluded. The second stanza goes:

Thou who art beyond the farthest
Mortal eye can scan,
Can it be that thou regardest
Songs of sinful man?
Can we know that thou art near us
And wilt hear us?
Yea, we can.

How often do we get a chance to sing hymns about hymns - or, to coin a phrase - engage in a bit of metahymnody? I was reminded of this recently when we had, at evensong at St Paul's Cathedral (Melbourne) the words of Frederic Pratt Green who lived through most of the twentieth century - "So often in our music we have found / a new dimension in the world of sound / Which leads us to a more profound Alleluia."

That said, I do think it is a shame that so many of these wonderful Victorian hymns have received such short shrift at the hand of the compilers of modern hymnbooks, including our own - words have been changed to make them "up to date" or "politically correct" too often at the expense of good poetical and, in some cases, theological sense. I think it's time we allowed some of these hymns to speak for themselves and to us without these modern accretions.

What I love about Michaelmas is also about how angels too have ministries complementary to our own, and that God is the end and goal of all ministry, human and divine. I think the old hymn, "Stars of the morning so gloriously bright," written in the 9th century and with some lovely Victorian tunes written for it speaks to this part of the feast -

These are thy ministers, these dost thou own,
Lord God of Sabaoth, nearest thy throne;
these are thy messengers, these dost thou send,
Help of the helpless ones! us to defend.

And - yes - I'm so programmed to modern concepts of language that I changed the last line to include not just "man" but "us"! So that takes us back to the faltering, ambiguous and confused praise with which I started and just how much we need the angels' song to counterbalance it.

So when it comes to music I have written a new modern tune with some rather catchy irregular rhythms to allow the stars of the morning not just to shine but to dance too and to which I hope we might all catch on to as well: modern rhythms to an old mode - so it combines the new with the old, the earthly with the heavenly. Perhaps even the angels might take it up and improve upon it. Who knows.

23 September 2013