In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Michael and All Angels. I’m glad that this year the feast falls on a Sunday so that we can all be here to celebrate it together. This feast is of special significance to the Church of the Holy Cross because we were originally established by the church, just north of us, dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels.
We might well begin by asking: what is an angel? Well, they are NOT effeminate looking half-birds that float on clouds, playing harps. Our faith teaches that there are nine orders or “choirs,” or kinds of angels, arranged in a hierarchy. From the lowest to the highest, they are: angels, archangels, principalities, authorities, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.
They are all immaterial, which is to say they do not have physical bodies. They are spirits. They are intelligent. They have personalities, and they have spheres of influence assigned to them by the Most High. Insofar as they “look like” anything at all, Scripture describes them in sometimes bewildering ways. Consider how the prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim, which he saw in a vision:
…each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And [they] had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; they went every one straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; [they] had the face of a lion on the right side, [they] had the face of an ox on the left side, and [they] had the face of an eagle at the back. (Ezekiel 1.6-10)
Ezekiel closely associates the choir of thrones with the cherubim, saying that the thrones somehow contain the spirits of the cherubim. And as for their appearance in the vision, the thrones are even more strange. Ezekiel says that each throne appeared to be a wheel within a wheel, the color of gleaming chrysolite, and that each had spokes and a rim, and that each rim was covered all over with eyes. And wherever the cherubim went, the thrones went with them. (See Ezekiel 1.)
The service of the higher choirs of angels is very mysterious. The seraphim, for example, whose name in Hebrew means “the burning ones,” are described in Scripture as the caretakers of God’s throne, and the guardians of his holiness. The prophet Isaiah says that they remain very close to God, and ceaselessly chant “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…” This is how it is that, at every mass, we mystically participate in the angelic service when we praise God, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn” to proclaim the glory of God’s Name.
The second reading at Mattins this morning, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, asks, “Are [angels] not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb. 1.14). And it is the lower of the choirs of angels which our faith teaches have most directly to do with human affairs. The fathers of the Church taught that angels had the task of guiding the nations of the earth away from the deceits of the demons, and toward the worship of the true God. They were failing at this task at the time of the Incarnation of the Lord, and it was in consequence of this sorry state of affairs, this losing battle, that an entire army of angels broke forth into singing at the birth of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, and as witnessed by the shepherds, to whom an angel had announced the birth of the Messiah. Eusebius of Caesarea (?) says that the jubilation of the angels in this passage is like the jubilation of a beleaguered army when suddenly their captain appears before them, arrayed gloriously, to rally them for the fight. Luke writes of that first Christmas Eve:
and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And thus we come, not coincidentally, to the component of the mass next after the Kyrie Eleison, which I talked about last week – we come to the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” “Glory to God in the highest.” This hymn is one of a few survivors from a great body of extra-biblical hymns, known as “psalmi idiotici,” from the very first centuries of the Church’s life. Other such hymns with which we should be familiar are the “Phos Hiliron,” which was restored to us in the rite of Evening Prayer in the 1979 Prayer Book, as well as the “Te Deum,” the Church’s great hymn of thanksgiving, and traditionally a canticle at Matins on major feasts.
Just as with the Sanctus, when we sing the Gloria at the beginning of the mass, the first stanza of which is the same hymn sung by the angels in Luke’s Gospel, we join with the angels in jubilant wonder at the superlative mystery of the Incarnation. So too, by singing this hymn, we go mystically to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us – to see, that is, the joining together of divine nature and human nature in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
And it is “meet and right” so to sing the Gloria at the beginning of mass, because the mystery of the Eucharist is inextricably linked-to, and really a manifestation of, the mystery of the Incarnation itself: God becomes man, and God-as-man distributes himself as Bread for the life of the world. “Glory to God in the highest!” indeed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a wonderful passage that speaks of the relationship of the angels to Christ. And the fact that we share in their song – “Glory to God in the Highest!” – indicates that the central feature of their relationship to the Lord is one that we share, namely: we and they are HIS. They and we belong to him. The Catechism says:
Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels: “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” They belong to him because they were created through andfor him: “for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” They belong to him still more because he has made them messengers of his saving plan: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (CCC 331)
When we join with the angels in singing the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” it shows how the beginning of every mass is like a little Christmas Eve, and we are linked through the intervening centuries to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night – that is to say in the darkness of a world, and of personal lives, so fraught by the power of Satan, the darkness of sickness and exploitation and loneliness and confusion and poverty. But through the darkness of such a night, and after begging for God’s mercy in the ninefold “Kyrie,” comes the angelic rescript: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” – and the same Savior, Christ the Lord, comes to you this morning and upon this altar, condescending in unspeakable mercy, and as an answer to our prayer.
Therefore indeed: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father: we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.