Where Are the Angels in the Mass?
This is the second post on angels; click here to read the first one:
When you enter a Catholic church, you should see a tabernacle, with a candle beside it. The candle is either red or white, and if that candle is lit, then the Eucharistic Host is in that tabernacle, and you are now in the presence of God.
This is why Catholics genuflect by bending our right knee down when we enter a Catholic church: we're acknowledging that we are in the presence of the King of kings, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The King of kings is always surrounded by His heavenly court, so when we're in the presence of God, then who else would be there with Him?
All of the saints and angels in Heaven!
Yes, the angels are definitely among us every time we enter a Catholic Church!
This is why Catholic churches are required to have images of saints and angels: they remind us of those who are present with us, by making visible what is invisible to us.
This is also why, during the Mass, the prayers and actions of the priests and laity are designed to remind us of that by reflecting that deeper reality, and teaching us how we should respond to being in the presence of God.
The Mass also walks us through the history of salvation; we're immersed in the foreshadowing of the savior promised in Genesis 3:15, the fulfillment of that promise in the person of Christ, and His promise of everlasting life.
Every moment of the Mass points to:
The foreshadowing and prophecies of the Savior
Christ's fulfillment of those prophecies
Angels have played a very big role in the history of salvation, and there are specific parts in the Mass where we acknowledge this, and join them in praising and acknowledging the glory of God.
Sometimes the readings from either the Old or New Testament remind us of the angels, but there are two times in the Mass when we sing with the angels in Heaven in giving glory to God:
The Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)
Singing with the Angels: the Gloria in Excelsis
During Lent and Advent, we don't sing the Gloria, but why not? It’s important enough to be a part of the Mass, so why is it skipped?
What is the Gloria?
The readings at the Mass During the Night at Christmas tell us what it is, and why it's sung. The Old Testament reading at that Mass is Isaiah 9:1-6, which begins:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone (Isaiah 9:1)
And (skipping a bit):
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5)
The Scripture readings at Mass are carefully chosen so that we can see the prophecies that were given in the Old Testament and how they are fulfilled in the New Testament.
The Gospel reading for that Mass is Luke 2:1-14: the shepherds are guarding their sheep during the darkness of the night when an angel appears to them in Luke 2:8-12:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
The message the angel brings to them is the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:5. It’s the celebration of the Nativity, or birth, of the Lord:
The angel said to them, Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 2:8-12)
The reference to the light, “the glory of the Lord shone around them,” is a reminder that the angel is not the source of the light: God is!
We know that Christ is the light of the world, from John 8:1: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” That "Light of the world" entered the world at the Incarnation on March 25, and was born on Christmas Day.
The Savior has come, darkness has been banished by His very presence, and the way to heaven will be open again. The response to the announcement is of such overwhelming joy, that “a multitude of the heavenly host” sing to give glory to God at the birth of the Savior:
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
"Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
When we sing the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the Highest) during the Mass, this is the mystery that we’re participating in: the promise of the savior has been fulfilled, and where that light shines the darkness is banished.
At every Catholic Mass we’re in the presence of heaven, and every time we sing the Gloria we’re singing it along with all of the angels and saints in heaven to remember and celebrate.
The Gloria is never said or sung during Advent because it’s our time of waiting for the birth of Christ, just as all of God’s people—from the Fall of Adam and Eve until the birth of Christ—waited for the messiah promised in Genesis 3:15.
The Mass is "a shadow and copy" (Hebrews 8:5) of the heavenly liturgy, and when we participate in a Catholic Mass, everything that is said and done is to give us a visible sign of what is invisible to us.
The readings chosen for each Mass remind us that from the beginning, God wanted all of us to be united to Him. The reading from the old testament is chosen based on the gospel reading, because that gospel reading is a fulfillment of what is recorded in that passage from the old testament.
Singing with the Angels: the Sanctus
Every Mass includes the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) as part of the Eucharistic prayer, but why?
And where does it come from?
We sing it because we’re in the presence of heaven; the entire Church is united in worship of God: the pilgrim Church on earth, the suffering Church in purgatory, and the Church Triumphant in heaven.
When we pray and sing we’re praying and singing along with all of these souls, and we can see the evidence in the Bible in both Revelation and Isaiah of the souls in heaven singing the Sanctus because they are in the presence of God. In Revelation, John writes about his vision of the angels in Revelation 4:8:
The four living creatures, each of them with six wings,
were covered with eyes inside and out.
Day and night they do not stop exclaiming:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.”
The new testament is concealed in the old, and the old testament is revealed in the new, so when we read the old testament we see a similar vision given to the prophet Isaiah in 6:1-3:
In the year King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne,
with the train of his garment filling the temple.
Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings:
with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet,
and with two they hovered.
One cried out to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!
All the earth is filled with his glory!”
In the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, there was the “holy place” where priests offered incense to God. This is where Zechariah encountered the angel Gabriel who told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to bear a son, John the Baptist. There was also the “holy of holies” where God was present in the Ark of the Covenant.
When we recite or sing this during the Mass, we’re singing this in union with the Church in heaven:
the whole congregation, joining with the heavenly powers, sings the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This acclamation, which constitutes part of the Eucharistic Prayer itself, is pronounced by all the people with the Priest.
The angels here are singing this because they are in the presence of God, and it’s said three times because the repetition of a word gives it a greater emphasis. In English, we change the endings on words: great, greater, greatest (singular, comparative, and superlative); but in the Hebrew emphasis or the importance of something is shown by repeating the word instead of changing the ending. The “Holy, Holy, Holy” is acknowledging that in worshiping God, we are worshiping Him because He is the holiest, or the perfection of holiness.
So you have:
The holy place: holy (singular)
The holy of holies: holier (comparative)
The Sanctus, or Holy, Holy, Holy: holiest (superlative)
When we say that Jesus is the "King of kings" we're saying that He's the "Kingest," which is really awkward in English, so it makes more sense if we say that He's the highest of all kings.
Representing the Angels: the Choir
Especially in older churches, the choir loft is located in the back of the church or along the sides, and it’s elevated. The people are facing the altar, because the priest is (in part) symbolizing Christ leading us towards the heavenly Jerusalem.
The location of the choir was to emphasize that they were symbolizing the angels in heaven, praising God with their singing. So the people would hear the choir singing the hymns, but didn’t keep their eyes on the choir members the entire time.
In the eastern rites of the Church, at one point in the divine liturgy the people sing, “we mystically represent the cherubim” as a reminder of this.
The reason why the choir members wear robes is so that they look like the angels do when they’re portrayed in some parts of the Bible and various works of art.
It’s also the reason why sometimes during Christmas pageants, the children in the choir wear robes and wings: it’s another symbol of the angels. When they’re singing during the Mass, they’re also reminding us that we’re in the presence of heaven, along with all of the angels and saints in heaven.
This isn’t just at Christmas time, of course (except for the wings on children); it’s also true during the rest of the year as well.
When we're singing with the angels in the Mass, we're also acknowledging:
Who God is
What He's done for us
That He wants us to spend our eternity with Him
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