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Vol. X, August 2004

 

“In the presence of the angels I will bless You” (Ps 138:1).

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The holy angels reached their final goal and are full of joy in the Beatific Vision of God. Once more, the Psalmist refers to the praise of God by those who “stand in the house of the LORD, in the courts of the house of our God!” (Ps 135:1-2). And man wants to be part of it: “I thank You, Lord, with all my heart...In the presence of the angels I will bless You. I adore before Your holy temple” (Ps 138:1-2, version of the Liturgy of the Hours). The text makes clear that God and not the angels are the goal of the praise. In what sense, then, and for what purpose are they mentioned? How far does this reference help us to live in deeper union with the holy angels?

1. In the Presence of the Angels

The Psalmist is aware of “the presence of the angels” when he praises the Lord. It is not necessarily limited to the official Liturgy.

a) The Angel As Both Mother and Teacher

We might understand the presence of the holy angels from the likeness of a mother with her children, who always has an eye on them and is watching and ready to help them when they need her. But also contrariwise, the children observe the mother. They watch her and learn from her, so that she is assuredly the first teacher or, in many areas, the only teacher of the children. In their future life they will often just imitate their mother. Man learns much more by observation than by real study. In this respect, it is important that we know about the presence of the angels and are aware of it in order to learn from them.

As we do not see the angels, it is necessary that we be instructed about them (cf. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 213-217). Beyond that, we still need a constant reminder such as returning to them regularly in our prayers and in the daily recitation of the Angelus with the Angel of God. Other reminders might be images and statutes, the stained-glassed windows of churches or holy cards in the breviary, etc. The Church always defended these figurative representations (cf. CCC 1161, 2131). In the measure that we are open and attentive towards the angels, the more easily can they inspire and guide us. Certainly, the holy angels are examples to be imitated (cf. the traditional interpretation of Mt 22:30) and teachers to be obeyed (cf. Acts 5:21,29; 12:7ff.). They want to share with us their joy and happiness.

b) Always and Everywhere in the Presence of the Angels

We are already familiar with the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and traditional theology, which says that all creatures are entrusted to their care: “The angels care and are vigilant even to the smallest things in the cosmos” (St. Hieronymus, Comm. in Eccl 10:20). Especially, “from its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession” (CCC 336). Further, we know that the holy angels fulfill all their service out of obedience and love for God. Such an attitude explains why they are always praising God, in direct adoration or in any mission out of love for Him. For us this means that wherever we are, we can (and even should) lift up our mind to God; and we will find ourselves in the companionship of the holy angels! Whatever we do, like the holy angels we should do it in the name and for the glory of God (cf. Phil 4:4-9, 13). This practice should help us to become more aware of their presence. St. Clement of Alexandria believed that he who prays, prays with the angels, even if he prays alone. For they never leave him.

2. The Liturgical Presence of the Angels

The presence of the holy angels is especially strong when we are exclusively free for God. The Catechism teaches: “In her Liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God. She invokes their assistance...” (335).

a) The Liturgy of the Hours

St. John Chrysostom affirmed that we imitate the angels not just in contemplation, but also in the praise of God (Expos. in Ps. 150). Thus, St. Basil the Great exhorted a candidate of the monastic life, “Praise the Lord by day and by night in imitation of the Cherubim” (De renuntia saec., 10). Some Fathers called the Psalms, the great prayer of the Church, “work of the angels” (St. Basil, Comm. in Ps 1) and the “angelic prayer” (John Damasc., Sacra parallela). “To psalm means to exercise the activity of the angels, to live in a celestial mode, to burn before God an eternally spiritual incense” (St. Basil, Hom. in Ps 1:2). St. Ignatius of Antioch introduced the praise of the Blessed Trinity after a vision of the angels. He introduced the chant alternating between choirs in imitation of the Seraphim (cf. Is 6:3). So rich are the mystical experiences of the presence of the angels in the Liturgy of the Hours that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council does not surprise us: “Jesus Christ, High Priest of the New and Eternal Covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven” (Vat. II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 83). On this basis what John Paul II states in his apostolic letter on Consecrated Life may be understood: “The Christian East emphasizes this dimension when it considers monks as angels of God on earth who proclaim the renewal of the world in Christ” (27). In the Ordinary of the Canons Regular of Windesheim, a rule of consecrated life in the western Church, it is said: “We have to imitate the angels and unite ourselves with their praise of God, because we are earthly angels. Pious and religious people on earth act like the angels in heaven”.

b) The Holy Mass

How much more God will be blessed “in the presence of the angels” at the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of our Divine Redeemer. There “Jesus Christ, High Priest of the New and Eternal Covenant...continues His priestly work through His Church” (SC, 83). The testimonies are many. St. John Chrysostom writes that “angels surround the celebrant. The sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with celestial powers who are there to honor the One present on the altar” (De Sac., VI,4). In the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom the angels are mentioned sixteen times. St. Ambrose says: “The angels assist when Christ is present, when Christ is immolated...If the body of Christ is here present, here too are the angels present” (In Luc. 1:12). St. Bridget described the “presence of the angles” in her Revelations with these words: “One day, when I was assisting at the Holy Sacrifice, I saw an immense number of holy angels descend and gather around the altar, contemplating the priest”.

How much more than David can and should we say today: “I thank You, Lord, with all my heart...In the presence of the angels I will bless You”! For we, “in the earthly Liturgy...take part in a foretaste of that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims...With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord” (SC, 8; cf. Heb 12:22ff.).

3. The Union with the Angels

“The presence of the angels” is a mystery of the union of the Triumphant, Militant and Suffering Church in the Communion of Saints (cf. CCC 954-957). Such a union reminds us of the glorious visions of Ezechiel (cf. Ez 1, 10) or of St. John (cf. Rev. 4-5). For us the Christian life in communion with them is a mystery and reality of faith: “Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336). This “presence of the angels” must awaken in us the desire of their influence as they are already where we want to arrive.

a) The Presence of the Angels as an Aid

In the Catechism the Church makes us aware of how much we need the help of the angels even in our prayers: “Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust...When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?” (2777). But through their presence and our petition, they will direct our attention more to the eternal values and to the glory which awaits us in the presence of the Thrice-Holy God. To confirm this desire, the Church offers us the possibility of consecrating ourselves to them.

b) The Presence of the Angels as an Example

“The presence of the angels” requires more and more that we live like them. St. Benedict referred to this Psalm in his rule. He wanted, by making reference to the presence of the angels, to call his monks to a more conscious and integral prayer: “Let us reflect onwhat it means to be in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand in His presence that our minds are in harmony with our voices” (ch. 19; cf. CCC 1176). The awarenes of the presence of the holy angels leads us to greater silence. They make us aware of the sanctity and greatness of God, so that we think less of ourselves and more of God. In fact, the rest of the Psalm speaks almost exclusively of God and not of us: “I thank You for Your faithfulness and love which excel all we ever knew of You…Your love, O Lord, is eternal, discard not the work of Your hands” (vv. 2, 8).

The angels, as the Psalmist observes, bow before the majesty of God…That is reason enough for us to approach the Sacred Mysteries first with trembling and fear, then of course, also with “praise and thanksgiving”. As St. Paul admonishes us, “My beloved...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). And the Liturgy reminds us in the prefaces how the angels praise, the dominations adore and the powers tremble—“tremunt potestates”. Therefore, observes Theodore of Mopsuestia: “A religious fear fills our conscience, either before or after we have cried out, ‘Holy’” (Hom. Cat., 16), and the orthodox Church sings the Trishagion “in all Liturgical Hours and prayers” (Evdokimov, The Prayer of the Eastern Church).

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

This Psalm is especially pertinent for us who want to live our priesthood with and like the holy angels. We need to observe them and to obey their example and words. Our lives should manifest the presence of the angels through our prayerful recollection, the dignity of our behavior, our joy and our peace. The “presence of the angels” leads us to the attainment of all these traits.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC