A few months ago, I was in a conversation with a friend (a former classmate and now a fellow seminary professor at a different institution). She mentioned at some point that she didn’t believe that angels really exist. “They don’t fit within my metaphysics,” she explained.

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.

After further consideration, however, I felt I had to return to first principles and work from there, rather than from a general metaphysic. For the fact is that the Scripture and the liturgy speak a great deal about angels (Nathan Jennings alluded to some of this last week is his fantastic essay). And if individual Christians or even ecclesial communities who take both sources as authoritative hoped to conclude that angels are some sort of elaborate metaphor, then they must face a very difficult hermeneutical task. Consider the 1979 BCP’s collect for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels (September 29), a version of which also appeared in the eighth-century Gregorian sacramentary and was also in the Sarum Missal.

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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 ….

In Christian worship, the near universal presence of the heavenly hymn of the angels, known as the Sanctus (from Isaiah 6:3; see also Revelation 4:8; Ezekiel 1; and Daniel 7:1-14), is not just the most sustained and sweeping liturgical argument for a non-metaphorical belief in the existence of angels, not least because its use was basically universal in the Christian East by about 350 and only a little slower to catch on in the West (though Ambrose witnesses to it in the late fourth century). The Sanctus also makes a much broader claim: that Christians act and speak as if Eucharistic worship in particular participates in the activity of angels and archangels and the whole gamut of angelic creatures. In short, God joins earth to heaven in the Eucharist because this is how he ordained to unite mortals to the heavenly temple and altar, where the celebrant is the self-same altar and victim, priest and lamb.

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).

Liturgy of St. Mark Roman Canon 1549 BCP
“ {Receive, O God, the thank-offerings} of those who offer the sacrifices at your [holy and heavenly and] spiritual altar in [the vastness of] heaven by the ministry of your archangels, much or little, secretly or openly, willing but unable, and those who offered the offerings today; as your accepted the gifts of your righteous Abel… In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: {command that these gifts} be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son… And although we be unworthy (through our manyfolde synnes) to offre unto thee any Sacryfice: Yet we beseche thee to accepte thys our bounden duetie and service, and {commaunde these our prayers and supplicacions}, by the Ministery of thy holy Angels, to be brought up into thy holy Tabernacle before the syght of thy dyvine majestie;

The phrase “fragrant/pure offering” isn’t retained in either the Roman Canon or in Cranmer’s 1549 revision, but it is very clear that this notion is theologically connected in many of the liturgies by way of Malachi 1:11:

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.

This verse is quoted by most early liturgies and fathers as a prophecy of the Eucharist, along with Romans 12:1: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

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.

  1. 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.

  2. Some have suggested that the angel is a way of speaking of the Holy Spirit (an idea that has precedent in both the canonical Scriptures and in other Jewish and Christian literature) and is thus a veiled epiclesis (the Greek word used for the direct invocation of the Holy Spirit, usually to change the elements in some way into the Body and Blood of Christ).
  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.

So what?

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.”

The featured image is a detail of a twelfth-century plaque once adorning an altar cross from the St Martial’s monastery in Limoges. The photo was taken by Peter Roan in 2010, and it is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the director of St. Mary’s Chapel, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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I was surprised by the direction you take in response to your friend’s reply “They don’t fit within my metaphysics.” You raised the soteriological question with respect to angelic beings (very interesting question). You point out that the Fathers, Scripture, and the Liturgy contain multiple references to angels (again, interesting). But you don’t deal with the question of her “metaphysic.” I’d like to know what she meant, because I normally read that as meaning that what she means is that it is not possible for being like angels to exist because of what she believes is the nature of reality.… Read more »

Not to be flippant, but isn’t this a fairly basic issue in
Christian theology: nobody thinks angels are pure evil; they wouldn’t even exist if they did. Their goods, though are multiple (knowledge, power, being). I mean, this is basic Augustine (or any church father).

I enjoy learning more about Aquinas. Interesting that he had so much to say about angels and demons (I guess he did write something called _Summa_…). I have wanted to write something about Satan et al, but looks like I won’t get the chance. One thing I will say that I really wanted to say: People today have gotten their notions of Satan more from mass media (with at at distance a strong dose of Milton). I appreciate that Thomas uses some well done philosophical reasoning, but his ideas about angels et al are still conjectures. I am a firm… Read more »