By Fr. Sean McDermott
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order; Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels always do thee service in heaven, so, by thy appointment, they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Recently, when I told an acquaintance that I was teaching a class on angels, he looked at me strangely and asked why I chose that topic. For him, angelology was not even a secondary topic to be considered, perhaps not even tertiary! But the more I prepared for the class, the more I realized just how important it is for Catholics to understand the nature and mission of angels. Angels, of course, are not a primary belief of Christianity, but it would be imprudent to equate the subordinate with the unnecessary. In the following, I attempt to show why all Christians should know more about angels.
In brief, knowledge of angelology brings greater depth to our core Christian prayers and statements of faith, and this greater knowledge enhances our participation in God’s love, which is our final end. Of course, this could be said about knowledge of anything, but angelology in particular affords unique insights about ourselves and our place within God’s creation.
First, there are three feast days in the year that are dedicated to angels. St. Michael and All Angels, celebrated on September 29th, is a Prayer Book feast of obligation, and yet the prayers and liturgy of the Mass seem quite strange compared to the other feasts that are mentioned in the Prayer Book. The Collect for the feast mentions angels being a ‘wonderful order’ that does service to God in heaven and defends men on earth. While we celebrate this feast every year, do we really know the nature of this wonderful order? And while we might easily guess that angels give worship to God in heaven, what sort of help do they actually give us on earth? These are important questions, and being ignorant of the answers would be similar to attending the Mass for St. Peter and not understanding the role of an Apostle!
The other two masses dedicated specifically to angels in the Missal follow in quick succession: Holy Guardian Angels on October 2 and St. Raphael on October 24.
Angelology in Creed and Prayer
Second, within every Mass, there are three important instances that refer to angels. Understanding the nature and mission of angels will bring greater clarity to our worship. First, we assert together in the Nicene Creed that God is the “Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible.” Angels, as incorporeal substances, are invisible to our sense of sight, but each time we recite the Creed, we are implicitly professing their reality!
Second, during the Lord’s Prayer we ask God that His Will be done on earth as it is in heaven; i.e., the realm of angels. That heavenly realm is the place in which God’s Will is accomplished already in a special way--according to Our Lord, angels behold the face of God (Matt 18:10)!
The third and most explicit reference comes during the Sursum Corda, when the Celebrant declares that the congregation is joining with a worship that is ongoing — the worship of the angels.
“THEREFORE with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee, and saying, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Amen.”
Not only does this attest to the reality of angels, it also shows the intimate relationship humans have with angels in the order of creation.
Participation and Enjoyment
The climax of human worship, and therefore of human existence, occurs during the Mass in our worship of God as the Holy Lord God of Hosts. As seen above, that worship is not just meant for humans but also for angels. In fact, during the Mass, we are joining a perpetual worship that is, in effect, led by the angels. Because of that fact, we often refer to human worship as participatory: we participate in the angels’ worship of God which in turn is joining the perfect worship of the Son to the Father.
Isn’t it marvelous to consider that our worship joins the worship of beings so majestic and mighty that men often are tempted to worship them? When St. John the Divine is shown the vision by an angel on Patmos, he falls down and seeks to worship that angel (Rev 22:8-9)! In addition, these beautiful beings assist our worship by bringing our prayers to the throne of God (Rev. 8 and Tobit 12). It is true that God could have done everything in Creation by Himself. He could have accomplished all of His Work and Mission Himself, but God works with His creation to accomplish His Will in Creation. As a result we see an hierarchy of creation, rich with Being, all caught up within this work of redemption. Reflection on angels and their mission and knowledge should be cause for our own enjoyment! As Thomas Traherne puts it:
“The WORLD is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift. When God made the World He made the Heavens, and the Heavens of Heavens, and the Angels, and the Celestial Powers. These also are parts of the World: So are all those infinite and eternal Treasures that are to abide for ever, after the Day of Judgment. Neither are these, some here, and some there, but all everywhere, and at once to be enjoyed.”
So let us, therefore, worship with the angels and enjoy their presence and existence as we give thanks to Our Lord for his wonderful Creation.
Serge-Thomas Bonino, in his excellent book Angels and Demons, shows how angelology assists philosophers and theologians alike to gain greater insights in their respective fields. He calls the study of angels a ‘thought laboratory’ that helps one distill and refine both metaphysical and anthropological concepts. At the most basic level, every time one studies angels, one is studying their Maker, God Almighty. Through this knowledge, one participates in the Truth which radiates throughout creation. But even more, angelology provides a deeper clarity to a variety of subjects such as the meaning of Creation, the problem of evil, the Imago Dei, the nature of the Church, and the history of redemption. In terms of anthropology, Bonino argues that angelology is not just an appendix, “a coded roundabout way of speaking about man, a crypto-anthropology that any serious hermeneutic would show to be alienating and illusory in the final analysis. It is not the now-empty religious chrysalis in which the modern concept of the human subject was supposedly formed” (3). Being a separate type of nature, angels help bring needed comparison and contrast to anthropology. If one wants to understand an oak tree, it is helpful to compare an oak tree with different species and or even different plants. Today, as Bonino points out, it is much more fashionable to compare the homo sapiens with a chimpanzee, and while there are things to be learned from such a comparison, a lot will go missing. Therefore angels bring a unique and important backdrop as a thought laboratory, especially for anthropology.
On this feast day of St. Michael and All Angels, I hope this peaks your interest in angels and shows why we should learn more about angels. If you wish to pursue more, here are two lectures I gave recently to my parish. The third and final lecture will be posted in two weeks.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.