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What The Angels Can Teach Us About The Sacred Liturgy

October 22, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


We have all seen the grim statistics of how Mass attendance is dramatically down from what it was half a century ago. Yet there is a sense in which every Mass, even a Mass said by a priest in private, is always “well attended.” For if on the one hand much of mankind has grown deaf to its responsibilities in the sight of God, the angels have not.
The belief that angels not only participate in the liturgy of Heaven as recounted in the Book of Revelation but also in that of Earth is ancient and well attested. Speaking of the confection of the Holy Eucharist, St. John Chrysostom affirms, “In that moment angels are in attendance upon the priest. The space around the altar is filled with the whole order of heavenly powers in honor of him who lies thereon” (The Priesthood: A Translation of the Peri Hierosynes of St. John Chrysostom, trans. W.A. Jurgens, New York, Macmillan Co., 1955, book 6, chapter 4, p. 95).
By way of anecdotal evidence for this, the saint relates a vision experienced by a pious elderly man that he learned of secondhand: “he suddenly saw a multitude of angels, as clearly as his eye could perceive them, clothed in shining garments, standing about the altar, and bowing down, just as soldiers do in the presence of their king” (ibid., pp. 95-96).
In his Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great makes a very similar assertion: “For, who of the faithful can have any doubt that at the moment of the immolation, at the sound of the priest’s voice, the heavens stand open and choirs of angels are present at the mystery of Jesus Christ” (Saint Gregory the Great: Dialogues, trans. Odo John Zimmerman, OSB, Fathers of the Church, volume 39, New York, Fathers of the Church, 1959, book 4, n. 60, p. 273).
The angels are likewise said to be participants in the Divine Office. Citing Psalm 138:1 concerning the praise of God in the sight of the angels, the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict enjoins monks to bear in mind “how we ought to behave ourselves in the presence of God and his angels, and so sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony” (The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English, ed. and trans. Abbot Justin McCann, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1952, chapter 19, pp. 67, 69).
Similarly, in the sixth century monastic Rule of the Master, also citing Psalm 138:1, monks are reminded not to act irreverently during the recitation of the office “because there are angels standing in front,” for “we pray and sing psalms in the presence of the angels” (The Rule of the Master: Regula magistri, trans. Luke Eberle, Cistercian Studies Series, n. 6, Kalamazoo, Mich., Cistercian Publications, 1977, n. 48, pp. 207-208).
By their role in the heavenly liturgy the angels set an example for those who celebrate it upon Earth. St. John Chrysostom observes that insofar as priests “imitate the ministry of angels,” it therefore “behooves the bearer of the priesthood to be as pure as if he stood in the very heavens amidst those Powers” (The Priesthood, book 3, chapter 4, p. 31).
For centuries, in traditional Catholic art, angels have generally been depicted in one of two ways — either as manly beings in representation of their superhuman strength and their roles as powerful protectors and ministers of the heavenly liturgy, or as chubby infants (“putti”) or children in representation of their absolute innocence, their total and irrevocable sinlessness. In this the angels remind us to enter upon the sacred liturgy with purity of heart, mind and body.
The faithful angels have all given their once-and-for-all irrevocable Fiat to God, to do His will always and for all eternity. Our participation in the sacred liturgy must also be a Fiat, to come to God and serve Him, to come into His Presence and worship Him, on His terms, not our own.
In his 1709 Essay on Criticism, the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) famously observed, “. . . fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Nowhere is this truer than in the sacred liturgy. With an intellect unclouded by original sin, the angels perceive unerringly and far more clearly than we the infinitude of difference between the Creator and His creatures, that although we are made in His likeness and image He nonetheless infinitely transcends His creatures.
Ironically the angels who are utterly superior beings to us never forget who God is, whereas we all too often take liberties with God that no angel would dare to.
Isaiah in his vision of God “sitting upon a throne” describes the Seraphim as reverently “veiling” Him: “Above him stood the seraphim; each had two wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isaiah 6:1-2). It is a key question of interpretation here as to whose face and feet are being concealed by the wings of the Seraphim: Is each Seraphim concealing his own face and feet, or are they concealing the face and feet of God? St. Jerome (347-420) asserts that they are veiling the face and feet of God:
“They covered not their own but God’s face. For who can know His beginning…? ‘And with two they covered His feet’: not their own but God’s. For who can know His bounds?” (letter 18a, to Damasus, in The Letters of Saint Jerome, trans. Charles Christopher Mierow, Ancient Christian Writers, n. 33, Westminster, Md., Newman Press, London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1963, p. 86).
Modern exegesis favors the explanation that the Seraphim are veiling their own eyes from the sight of God, out of reverence. Either way, what is being expressed here is the creature’s reverence for God, a veil of reverence set between God and His creatures. The Seraphim interpose their wings to veil the sight of God not because they do not enjoy the beatific vision, but rather to teach us reverence for God.
Isaiah’s vision serves to remind us that our Lord often teaches us reverence by drawing a curtain round about those things that most command our reverence. He conceals such things from our earthly vision that we might behold them with the deeper vision of reverence. Reverence puts a bit of distance between us and what we are reverencing, but in so doing, we actually see more clearly.
Think for example of a great mountain. Viewing it extremely close by standing upon its summit and staring directly down at the patch of earth beneath our feet, the mountain seems like nothing special, no different from any other patch of earth. It is rather when we view the mountain from afar, off in the distance, that we truly come to recognize and realize how very tall and majestic it truly is.
Unlike sinful, self-centered, fallen mankind, the angels are not “conflicted” as to whether God is greater than themselves — they know He is, that He is infinitely greater than themselves, and they respond accordingly. This is beautifully expressed in traditional artistic representations of angels, in which their faces almost universally convey a disposition of awe, wonder, and breathless admiration as they gaze upon God or our Lady.
When the Archangel St. Raphael reveals his identity to Tobit and his son Tobias, he begins by exhorting them to divine worship, telling them, “Praise God and give thanks to him; exalt him and give thanks to him in the presence of all the living for what he has done for you. It is good to praise God and to exalt his name, worthily declaring the works of God. Do not be slow to give him thanks” (Tobit 12:6).
This is divine worship that is all about God rather than ourselves — thanking Him, praising Him, exalting Him, not for what we have done, but for what He has done. The works of the Lord are to be declared “worthily,” i.e., in a worthy, fitting manner, implying that divine worship is to have a decorum proper to it. It has a sacral language, and sacral postures, gestures, actions, and furnishings proper to it.
To say that God is to be “exalted” is to say that He is praised in a way that sets Him utterly above ourselves — that our praise for Him most certainly should be “over the top.”
The angels praise God antiphonally: “And one [Seraphim] called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’” (Isaiah 6:3). The angels are not afraid to repeat themselves, saying, “Holy, holy, holy.” Nor should we, when worshipping God, for what is well said of God and to God bears repeating. It is not monotonous to repeat a fitting prayer to God, for with each repetition of a prayer a new moment of time is consecrated to Him, a new act of worship is offered to Him.
God does not need variety from us, nor does He need to be entertained. We are hard-wired for repetition, our lives sustained by one heartbeat after another, one breath after another. And the natural world in which God has placed us is full of repetition, with the same four seasons returning each year, animals of the same species having the same features, and so on. Why do we think we need constantly to change worship offered to an unchanging God?

The Eyes Of The Angels

The Book of Revelation speaks of “the seven angels who stand before God” (Rev. 8:2). Our Lord says of the guardian angels of children: “their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).
From the angels we learn that our worship of God must have a distinct orientation to it that turns us toward God rather than toward ourselves or each other. It has an upward thrust that leaves the world behind and below. The ad orientem tradition in the sacred liturgy expresses not only a turning toward God but also a turning way from worldliness and from the Prince of this world, the Devil.
The Armenian Bishop John Mandakuni (late fifth century) asserted, “Do you not know that in the moment when the Blessed Sacrament comes upon the altar, heaven above opens up and Christ descends and is here; that the angelic hosts move down from heaven to earth and surround the altar where the Blessed Sacrament of the Lord is?” (quoted in Eric Peterson, The Angels and the Liturgy, New York, Herder and Herder, 1964, pp. 34-35).
Let us all strive to see the Holy Eucharist and the entire sacred liturgy through the eyes of the angels, that we like them may worship with reverence, wonder, and awe.

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