I was flummoxed. I couldn’t recall ever hearing anyone say that before. But as I thought about it, I began to understand where the problems might arise. How to we make sense of the salvation or damnation (I assume those are the right words; cf. Mt 25:41) of angels, when it appears that there there was some point at which they made a decision whose effects are everlasting? And even more, what do we make of the seeming fact that they have no further chance to love or reject God? Perhaps their one choice means that they will never have any other desire to have that which they currently do not possess?
As an aside, in case you’re wondering, Aquinas argued that the spirits we call angels merited heaven and beatitude in one meritorious act immediately after creation (Summa theologiae [ST] I, 62, 5, ad. 3); likewise, the spirits we call demons, including the devil, also merited damnation in one act (ST I, 63, 5-6). And you can read it all here if you’re really interested: ST I, 50-64.
O Everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth ….
Cranmer’s first BCP in 1549 retained with some slight modifications one of the most unusual aspects of the traditional Western eucharistic prayer (known as the Roman Canon), the most widely used of all such historic prayers. In the paragraph of the Roman Canon known as the Supplices te near the end of the prayers (each of the paragraphs are known by their first two words in the Latin), the prayer asks that “these gifts” may be taken to the altar on high by the hand of your holy angel (this prayer is quite early, as it is already witnessed in Ambrose’s On the Sacraments IV.27). Lots of other early liturgies speak of a heavenly altar and make some allusion of our participation in it as well (e.g. most of the Byzantine liturgies, especially St. James, St. Mark and its Coptic version).
Here’s a little diagram of three liturgies where this notion appears (I’ve put in brackets the items that said to be are offered, italicized mention of the heavenly altar; and underlined mention of the angelic ministry).
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.
In short, what we see in early eucharistic liturgies and theology is a very complex array of ideas: a heavenly altar; sacrifices that are acceptable and have a fragrant offering; the idea of a living (i.e. unbloody) sacrifice; the complex interrelationship of the sacrifice of the Christian person, a life of holiness, the perfect offering of Jesus, and the Eucharistic gifts.
But there are different ideas about the role of the angels in this process or “who” is the angel who helps create the link between earthly and heavenly worship.
- Some have read the petition in a straightforward way: the request is that some angel so appointed would unite this earthly Eucharistic worship with the “living-but-sacrificed Lamb who has entered into the Holy Place on our behalf and ever lives to make intercession for us.” Not many think that the request is for a literal transference in time/space of the eucharistic gifts. Often, this connection is made with incense and the descriptions of both the four living creatures (Rev 5:8) and the angel who is often identified as Michael, who mixes incense with the prayers of the saints at the heavenly altar in Rev 8:3-4. Hence the incense prayer at the Offertory in the Western liturgy:
By the intercession of St Michael the Archangel, who stands at the right hand of the altar of incense, and that of all the angels, be pleased to bless this incense and accept it as a fragrant offering; through Christ our Lord.
3. Still a third way of reading the passage is to read the angel Christologically. Referring to Jesus as an angel (literally, as God’s ultimate “messenger,” the meaning of the word) was relatively common in the first few centuries, including in eucharistic liturgies, such as Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Constitutions. Here, the idea is that Jesus, who is the victim, the offering, the altar, is asked as priest to make this the offering that is acceptable by His own hand and make it the same perfectly pleasing and acceptable offering made on the altar of the cross. The use of ‘angel’ as a term for Jesus likely died out in light of the debates of the Council of Nicaea and concerns about titles that could indicate that Jesus was not fully or eternally God.
Christians will do well not just to take seriously, but to ask what it means to cultivate an active acceptance of the fact that God has “constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order.” What St. Thomas Aquinas describes (ST I, 111-113) is a vast array of things that angels do: worship and adore; exercise priest-like functions of offering and liturgical ministry; work miracles; serve as messengers; assist humans; guard individuals. One of the things that is most remarkable about all this is that, as Thomas says, “Nor can anyone doubt that God can immediately reveal things to men without the help of the angels” (Summa theologiae I, 112, 2, corpus). But nonetheless, God does use angels, and, as Thomas says in his famous prayer before study, in so doing God “didst apportion the elements of the world most wisely.”
This is but one more example of the truth seen in all the feasts, running from Christmas through the Pentecost: God ordained to work through created beings and things, whether “visible or invisible,” to accomplish the work of salvation. And this he shows us most fully: for when the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, he did so in order that we might tabernacle with him and be brought by him into his own tabernacle, united so closely that together with him, we might be so bold as to pray, “Our Father.”