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Vol.III, June.’97

 

Make Two Cherubim of Gold (Ex 25,18-20)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

After the covenant on Mount Sinai, with the promise of obedience of Israel, God wanted to live among His people, however not without taking the holy Angels with Him. He asked Moses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex 25,8). He asked for a visible sign of His invisible presence, and so He did for His Angels too: "You shall make two cherubim of gold ... on the end of the mercy seat" (v. 18). In angelology, this text is seldom taken in consideration (cf. W. Wagner, The Mission of the Holy Angels, 31 f. and 341 f.); in the practical life, however, we find the representations in the Churches of the Early Church as well as in those of our days, in St. Peter’s as in many a parish around the world where, in commemoration of these Cherubim, two Angel (statues) are posted in adoration alongside the tabernacle. If God wanted explicitly the artistic representation of the Angels near Him, then He does so certainly only because He had called them already before in the invisible reality of Heaven to be near Him.

1. Let us, therefore, first remain with the truth, expressed in the art: the holy Angels, in particular the Cherubim, are His "Body-Guard and Guards of His dwelling place, the Guard of Honor" (Vagaggini, Il senso teologico della Liturgia, ch.12,2; cf. Gen 32,2). They "constitute as it were the closest ‘circle’ to the Creator" (John Paul II, Catechesis, July 9, 1986). Where God is, there are His Angels too. This is true on earth as well as in Heaven. In Sacred Scripture we find the Angels either in the presence of God, before the "dwelling place of God, the paradise" (cf. Ex 3,24) or, on mission to us, freeing us from exile from God (cf. Ex 12-14) by bringing us to the place, which God has prepared for us near Him (cf. Ex 23).

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "God’s own ‘place’" is called "Heaven". And, "‘heaven’ refers to the saints and the ‘place’ of spiritual creatures, the Angels, who surround God" (CCC 326). In fact, we find them at the holy ground on Mount Horeb (cf. Ex 3,2) and within His sanctuary as His temple (cf. Is 6,1 ff.); we find them always with the "new temple", the Son of God on earth (cf. Lk 1-2; Mt 4,11; Lk 22,43; 24,4-7; Acts 1,10-11); we find them present during the Liturgy of the Church (cf. CCC 335, 1090, 1383) and at any silent place, where Our Lord and God is present, be it in the Holy Eucharist, be it mystically in the individual faithful with whom we find the Guardian Angels.

2. Therefore, God tells Moses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary" with "two Cherubim of gold... on the end of the mercy seat... the Cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the Cherubim be" (Ex 25,16-20 and 37,7-9; cf. 1 Kings 6,23-30 and 2 Chr 3,11-13; Heb. 9,4-5). "Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains ... with Cherubim skilfully worked" (Ex 26,1; cf. 26,31; 36,8).

The first fact may occasion some surprise: God orders a sculpture of the Cherubim to be made. The Church understands this in relation to the Incarnation of the Son of God: As Christ wanted to become visible in his human nature in order to make known God the Father (cf. Jn 1,18), so He wants the Angels to be visible too, and be it only through images (cf. Council of Nicaea II; CCC 1161 and 2131). Thus St. Thomas affirms: "The reason why Angels assumed bodies in the OT was to serve as a figurative indication that the WORD of God would assume a human body; all the apparitions of the OT, namely, were ordered to that apparition in which the Son of God appeared in the Flesh" (Summa Theol. I. q.51,a.2,1m) Some forms had to be found, which would not mislead our comprehension of the heavenly spirits, but help to understand them and their mission. God himself has chosen two signs: "wings" and "faces".

"Wings" are symbol of power which grants protection and security. Even of God it is said: He keeps us under the shadow of His wings (cf. Ps 17,8; 57,2; Dt 32,11). God not only ordered the Cherubim to be depicted with wings, but also had them, as well as the Seraphim, nearly always appear with wings to the prophets: to Isaiah (6,2); to Ezechiel (10,16.19; to St. John (Rev 8,13; 14,6). The "wings" manifest their protective power first over the Sanctuary, but then also over all that belongs to God, ourselves included (cf. Ps 91,4 and 11, where it is spoken of the wings of God and then follows the reference on the Guardian Angels). Through their natural relation to the wind, "wings" also symbolize the readiness and promptitude with regard to the Will of God (cf. Is 40,31; Heb 1,7 and Ps 104,4; Dan 9,21), all the more since wind (‘ruah’ in Hebrew; ‘pneuma’ in Greek; and ‘spiritus’ in Latin) is associated with the Spirit of God (cf. Gen 1,1) and the spiritual nature of the Angels. Both their power and their will, are in the service of God also while among man, keeping vigil in the Holy of Holies and adoring. On many other occasions, of course, the Angels appear without wings at times because their identity is to remain hidden (eg., Raphael in the Book of Tobias).

We note, further, that their faces are directed to one another and to the mercy seat. Speaking of a "face" of pure spirits indicate first of all their being and personal character. The direction of their faces indicates the complete focus of their attention. As pure spirits the holy Angels are totally dedicated to what they do: they are such adorers "in spirit and in truth" as the Father seeks (Jn 4,23), worshipping with right intention and in reality, with will and in deed. The fact that their faces are turned to one another may express the confession of their love for God; it may even indicate their union in adoration as the Seraphim called one to another saying "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Is 6,3).

3. Finally, it is significant that God wanted the tabernacle and the mercy seat together. Prefigurations of the Paschal Mystery, they remind us of the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance of the New Testament. As in the OT figures, so now in the mystery of Christ do Cherubim have their place. For us priests, this is important, because there in the holy of holies (at the altar) is where God wanted to speak with Moses, and with us today: "There I will meet you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two Cherubim that are upon the ark of testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel" (v. 22). Is there not here a reference to the main duties in our ministry? we were ordained to preach the word of God to the people, to reconcile them with God by absolving them from their sins and to consecrate for them the Bread of Life. By this imagery God wants to make us aware of the presence of these heavenly liturgists: They transmit us the light and word of God for our sermons; they care that we are always available for reconciliation. And when after Mass we invite the people every day: "‘Go (you) in peace,’ can we priests not stay there near the tabernacle with the Cherubim, in the house of God. What a consolation it would be for the faithful to know that we are there adoring for them, pondering God’s will and presenting their needs and intentions in sincere intercession. It is certainly in this that the holy Angels want to be and are our "fellow-servants"!

A contemporary Benedictine theologian concluded a study on "The Angel in the Liturgy", saying: "The Angels are mediators between the person who prays and offers here below and God, between the earthly and heavenly Church, between the sacrifice on earth and that in heaven. The Supplices has taught us this (cf. Roman Canon of the Holy Mass). We ourselves fulfill angelic services by celebrating the Eucharist; we are bodily liturgists behind them and in them might become like unto the liturgy of the ‘bodiless’; we are the ‘Ikon’ of the Angels. This the Great Entrance has taught us (cf. the Cherubikon in the Byzantine Liturgy). Furthermore, we are made worthy to participate in that which constitutes the liturgy of the liturgies of the blessed spirits: to sing to the Thrice Holy the thrice holy hymn. This is the doctrine of the Sanctus." (P. Odilo Heiming, "The Angel in the Liturgy", in: T. Bogler, The Angels in the world of today, Maria Laach 1960, 55-72,71f.)

4. What else remains than to conclude with humble thanksgiving and petition: let us every morning and every evening thank the holy Angels for having adored our Lord and God while we were away, and watched over the Sanctuary, that has been entrusted to our care. Let us ask them to continue always to do so. Let us meditate often about the presence of the Cherubim in the Sanctuary and during the Liturgy, so that we grow in respect before our Lord, and for our priesthood and so grow in our priestly zeal. Let us finally learn and say frequently with Blessed José M. Escriva: "O Angelic Spirits that guard our Tabernacles, wherein lies the adorable treasure of the Holy Eucharist, defend it from profanation and preserve it for our love." (The Way, nr. 569).

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC