Several weeks ago I wrote about angels in this space and promised to write more. I wanted to link some of the descriptions of angels that we can find in Scripture to our actual liturgy and practice as Christians. I am trying to get at what angels actually have to do with you and me in our lived experience. I want to start with an early Christian theologian and reader of Scripture who took all the various references to angelic beings in Scripture and in other sources, ancient Jewish literature for example, and systematized them into categories. Now, boxing such things into categories is satisfying but dangerous. Nevertheless, I think these categories of angelic beings are interesting and can, at least, give us a framework in which to think about them, as long as we aren’t too dogmatic about it.
This framework is from a 5th century text called the On the Celestial Hierarchy, by a person who is now known as Pseudo-Dionysus (long story behind the name). Here are the categories of the heavenly host according to this text, grouped in three groups of three: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues, Powers; Principalities, Archangels, Angels.
Immediately you’ll notice that angels and archangels are at the end of the list. While we might colloquially refer to all these creatures as angels, the heavenly beings that function as messengers, (for that is what the word “angel” means) represent a small portion of the heavenly host. The ordering begins with those beings closest to the eternal presence of God almighty and work “outward” to those whose function in God’s economy take them to various aspects of the material world and human interaction. As messengers and defenders of humanity, archangels and angels appear closest to us in the heavenly ranks.
I don’t have the space in this week’s “Note” to write about all 9 ranks of the heavenly host, but I will at least write a little about the first two and the last two, particularly with what they have to do with our worship here on earth. Think of this as a commentary on our Sunday Eucharistic liturgy. With the Christmas story fresh on our minds, we remember that the angel (messenger) of the Lord visited shepherds with Good News of great joy, and then was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host—perhaps not just angels, but others from the ranks of heaven—who sing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth…”. This proclamation of the heavenly host forms the basis for the standard opening hymn of our Eucharistic liturgy, called the Gloria. Since it is the proclamation of the angels and, traditionally, the archangels such as Gabriel, the Gloria makes perfect sense as the opening of what is called the Liturgy of the Word. This is the first half of our service, in which we proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation week after week by reading Scripture, preaching the sermon, and reciting the Creed. The Liturgy of the Word is the message of the angels over and over again, amplified by human voices. The Liturgy of the Word is followed by the Liturgy of the Table (the altar), and that is where we next meet with heavenly beings.
Here is a really important moment in our Eucharistic liturgy. To set the scene: we’ve gathered together our gifts, including the elements of bread and wine and, in the offering, we’ve offered them to God “from whom all blessing flow.” There is an opening dialogue (“The Lord be with you”) which establishes the fact that we are joining our prayers together and that, with the consent of those gathered, the priest is representing the prayers and thanksgivings of the entire assembly. Then comes a paragraph called a “proper preface” which usually sets the scene, the liturgical season, etc. and answers the question, Why is it “a right and good thing always and everywhere to praise God”? Then comes the moment I am thinking about. The culmination of the proper preface is always the observation that we humans are joining our Eucharistic prayer with the ongoing praise and prayer of the “angels, the archangels, and all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to the glory of Your [God’s] name: Holy, Holy, Holy…”. They’re joining us, or rather, we’re joining them and the liturgies of humans intersect with the liturgy of the angels.
Along with the angels and archangels, whose message we joined during the liturgy of the Word, the company of heaven actually refers in particular to seraphim, cherubim, and thrones, the first three ranks in the list I shared above. This becomes clear when we examine the biblical sources for this part of the Eucharistic prayer.
As a note, “seraphim” is Hebrew and translates to English as “burning ones” (yes, it is plural). There are many mentions of seraphim in Scripture but one in particular pertains to the liturgy of the Eucharist, Isaiah 6:1-5:
In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Notice that seraphim stand above the throne of God and have six wings. The seraphim’s role is to eternally stand vigil near God’s throne and to sing endless praise to the mighty One. Similar are the cherubim. Cherubim are described in the book of Ezekiel to creatures with four wings, and four heads: the heads of a lion, a human, an eagle, and ox (Ezekiel 1:5-11; compare this to the creatures who adorn our pulpit and who represent the four gospels). These obviously do not look like cuddly babies with dainty wings that were popularized by renaissance painters. Cherubim have a variety of roles ascribed to them in the Old Testament, but the most significant one seems to be the bearers of the throne of God. In Ezekiel, God’s throne is depicted as a flaming chariot that is drawn by the cherubim. In Exodus, God tells Moses to recreate a material copy of the throne room of God that Moses experiences atop Mt. Sinai. Moses does this and builds the tabernacle, with the Ark of Covenant being God’s throne. On top of the Ark of the Covenant are two golden cherubim upon which God’s glory resides.
In Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, John the author receives a vision of the heavenly throne room that is similar to Isaiah’s vision.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
Here, John sees living creatures whose attributes combine Isaiah’s description of the seraphim, Ezekiel’s description of the cherubim, as well as Ezekiel’s description of another creature named, thrones, which are living wheels with eyes that form the chariot/throne of God. These creatures not only worship God the Father, they worship the Lamb who was slain, who is at the right hand of God. The Lamb is Christ who is the eternal sacrifice, once offered for the salvation of the whole world. Christ is there on the heavenly altar (of which the ancient tabernacle is a copy), and Christ is made present in our midst in the Eucharist. At that moment, earth and heaven are joined, righteousness and mercy kiss, and our voices truly are joined with the hosts of heaven in eternal praise.