Michael Fisher considers the place of angels in the mass
At the heart of the eucharist there lies the wonderful concept that, for a few precious moments, the veil between this world and the next is so palpably thin that our earthly worship becomes one with that of the church triumphant in its adoration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, present both on his throne of heavenly glory, and upon our altars as he comes to us in the blessed sacrament. It is a breathtaking thought, and one which should ever fill us with awe and wonder, praise and thanksgiving.
When, in the 9th century, envoys were sent from Russia (Kievan Rus) – as yet unconverted – to Constantinople to discover what Christian faith and worship was all about, they visited the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia where they experienced for the first time the rich splendours of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. The language, the music and the ritual were all totally foreign to them, but it spoke to them so dramatically and powerfully that they said, ‘We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven’. As a consequence, Russia adopted the Orthodox faith, which has flourished there ever since, even through decades of savage persecution under the Bolsheviks, and it is very much alive today. One of my tutors in theological college was an Orthodox who, when asked what he thought was the main difference between Orthodox and Anglican worship, replied, ‘Oh, that’s easy. The Orthodox are looking for heaven; you Anglicans are always looking for the right page’, and of course he had a valid point. Nowadays it might well be a case of ‘icononstasis vs OHP screen’!
It is my belief that worship – and supremely eucharistic worship – should offer a foretaste of the glories of heaven. If our churches fail to offer that kind of experience, reinforced by sound teaching, then people of all ages may find themselves drawn to less wholesome forms of spirituality, such as astrology, occultism, ouija boards and séances, to say nothing of the ghoulish paraphernalia surrounding the annual cash-driven ‘celebration’ of Hallowe’en. Yet within certain parts of the Church of England there has been a steady erosion of customary dignity and decorum in favour of ‘dumbing-down’ worship to make it conform to current secular trends. Hence the recent moves in General Synod towards laxity in matters of vesture and distinctive clerical attire; but how, I wonder, can you offer a glimpse of heaven, and present the mass as the most powerful tool of mission and evangelism with clergy clad in jeans, T-shirt and trainers, slouching behind a makeshift altar more suited to the pasting of wallpaper than the celebration of the holy mysteries? Remember that it was a combination of gorgeous heaven-pointing ritual and passionate concern for the forgotten poor that characterized the leaders of the Victorian Catholic Revival, and it filled their churches.
The role of liturgy in the work of mission and evangelism may be one area of ‘mutual flourishing’ in which we could join forces with Anglican Catholic Future and perhaps the Prayer Book Society too, in promoting our churches as exemplary centres of excellence in the conduct of worship in the broadest sense, and not just ‘high mass with all the trimmings’. While on holiday at a south-coast resort last year, I looked up the ND parish directory for a suitable church to attend, and found one which, intriguingly, offered an ‘informal eucharist’ after the main Sunday mass, so I chose to go along to it. ‘Informal?’ – yes, to a degree it was, in that it was a fairly simple low mass with two hymns accompanied on piano, a modified eucharistic prayer, and only the celebrant vested (in full vestments, of course); but ‘dumbed-down’ it most certainly was not, though clearly suited to families with children, and those just finding their way into the faith. There was the maximum amount of lay involvement in the liturgy, a short reflective homily on the gospel for the day, and all encompassed within little more than half an hour. It shows what can be done within the essential structure of the mass without any loss of dignity or sense of occasion, and I was more than happy to go again this year.
The current quest for alternative spiritualities includes a strange fascination with angels. Many gift-shops, jewellers’ shops and greetings-card shops carry a range of ‘angel’ figures: little ornaments, pendants, key-fobs, keepsakes and suchlike. Whatever one might make of these, it seems to me that their growing popularity reflects a belief amongst people of no particular religious affiliation that there are spiritual beings different from ourselves, but who act as guardians and guides, and here again our churches have a significant teaching role.
So what have the holy scriptures and holy church to say about angels? From Genesis to Revelation, the references to angels are so many and various that their existence is never in doubt. The Church’s view of angels is derived from the Bible’s teaching about the closeness of these spiritual beings to God, and their value in helping us mortals. The angels’ faithful service is centred upon their love of God, and their ministry to us is a response to God’s will. A specific ministry of the angels within the mass occurs in some of the eucharistic prayers in use today: ‘Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven…’.
The ‘company of heaven’ is one of the major themes of the last few weeks of ordinary time before we begin the new Christian year, and so these weeks should never be viewed as the ‘fag-end’ of the cycle; quite the reverse in fact. First comes the Feast of SS Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, followed by the Holy Guardian Angels on 2 October; then All Saints’ and All Souls’ and all that they have to teach us about life and death and what lies beyond. Finally all reaches a glorious crescendo and finale in the celebration of Christ the King.
Moving through this part of the Christian year is, to my mind, a bit like climbing a tall church tower: moving ever onwards and upwards. Here and there the spiral staircase is illuminated by little windows which give glimpses of the world outside and below: first a bit of the church roof, then perhaps a view of the churchyard, then the tops of houses and other parts of the town; and from the upper levels, the surrounding countryside and distant hills. Finally, having emerged from the staircase onto the top of the tower, it all fits together in an exhilarating 360-degree panorama, with the sky arching above. So it is with our journey to the end of the Christian year, with its various commemorations and observances giving insights into various aspects of our faith. The Solemnity of Christ the King is the point at which we come out on to the parapet, and when everything fits together in one splendid panorama; the world below and the heavens above, and Jesus Christ as Sovereign Lord of all. Then we have to come down from the parapet, to begin the cycle all over again as we look towards Advent, but with that vision ever in our minds – which brings us nicely back to where I began: the mass, which takes us week by week as it were to the top of the tower, to catch a vision of what lies beyond, and the ultimate victory in which we all hope to share in the company of the eternal king, with the angels and the saints ‘on whose constant intercession we rely for unfailing help’.
Fr Michael Fisher is a priest at St Michael’s, Cross Heath.