Monday, August 14, 2023

On the Christ-Angel of the Roman Mass

The Ascension of Christ, Mirozhsky Monastery, Pskov
In Fr. Claude Barthe’s remarkable book A Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning (Angelico Press, 2023, reviewed here), we are introduced early on to the allegorical understanding of Christ as an “Angel,” that is, a messenger and mediator, in keeping with the Septuagint’s use of the phrase “Angel of the Great Counsel” in Isaiah 9:6. Speaking of the Asperges, Fr Barthe says:
The aspersion itself, which follows when the ministers have entered the church, is really a combination of blessing and exorcism, almost a domestic rite. It resembles the aspersions seen in monasteries when a tour was made of the cloister, or the individual cells were visited. The final prayer of this ceremony, Exaudi nos, Domine . . . (Hear us, O holy Lord, almighty Father, eternal God: and vouchsafe to send thy holy angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all that dwell in this house), which is that of the blessing prescribed by the Ritual when the priest blesses a house as he enters it to carry out a ceremony, refers to the habitaculum, the house where one lives, for which one requests a visit from the Angel of God. This is also a first reference to “the Angel of God,” that is, to Christ himself, who is asked to come down to this place… There is a link between this water and the Blood of Christ, since immersion in the waters of baptism represents in reality immersion in the cistern of Christ’s propitiatory Blood. (36)
Later, speaking of the rite of incensation, Fr. Barthe comments:

The humanity of Jesus Christ, consumed (or consummated, as the classical writers used to say) in the sacrifice, lifts his prayer up to the Father, the only prayer that the Father finds acceptable, to which are joined the prayers of the saints, thrown like grains of incense into the burning furnace of love of Christ’s holy soul…. [T]he Angel of the Apocalypse (Rev 8:3–4)…draws near to the altar and offers the incense with the prayers of the saints… This Angel is, of course, Christ himself, and his golden censer (or scoop) is his precious humanity: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice” (Ps 140:2). (41)

Concerning the incensation at the offertory, he develops the point further:

Of course, the offering of incense at the altar also symbolizes the Angel who stood beside the altar of the Temple, holding in his hand the censer from which the smoke of the incense rose in the presence of the Lord (Rev 8:3–4). This angel is compared to St Michael, but above all reflects Christ, the Angel of Great Counsel, offering his own immaculate flesh, full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, to the Lord on our behalf on the altar of the Cross, in the odor of sweetness. The smoke of the incense gives material expression, in some way, along with the prayer of Christ, to the prayers of his saints. (91–92)

Then comes the most mysterious angel of all, the one mentioned in the “communion epiklesis” of the Roman Canon, the Supplices te rogamus:

We most humbly beseech thee, almighty God, to command that these things be borne by the hands of thy holy angel to thine altar on high, in the sight of thy divine majesty, that as many of us as, at this altar, shall partake of and receive the most holy Body ✠ and ✠ Blood of thy Son may be filled with every heavenly blessing and grace, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

On which Fr. Barthe observes:

There have been many discussions of the identity of the “Angel.” Durandus wrote, “He is the Angel of Great Counsel, the Counsellor on whose advice the Father created and recreated the world,” otherwise known as Christ-Wisdom, the Word incarnate. But he adds that the altar on high in the presence of God is also the crucified Christ sitting in glory at the right hand of the Father. The Angel brings these “sacraments” to this altar, revealing his wounds, and interceding for us who bring the sacraments to fulfilment on earth. Olier and Pierre Lebrun take a similar view. It is worth noting that the De Sacramentis refers to angels in the plural (per manus angelorum tuorum) rather than the singular, which would not contradict the idea of a “communion epiklesis,” but would prevent identification of the angels with Christ. St Thomas Aquinas, who thinks that the Angel can be compared to Christ, derives the following mystical etymology: the Mass, missa, takes its name from the fact that, through the Angel, the priest sends (mittit) his prayers to God, or again because Christ is the approved victim sent (missa) to us. All of which underlines that the meaning of the prayer Supplices te rogamus is at the heart of this oblation of the holy victim, which we know as the Canon, and is therefore also at the heart of the whole celebration. (117–18)

The Christological interpretation is classic and theologically attractive.

However, if we take the other interpretation, namely, that the angel who is tasked with bringing our offering before God is a reference to the created angel depicted in the book of Revelation as bringing the prayers of the saints before God, we can see some neat things about the Canon.

Note, first, how differently the Canon handles angels and saints. We ask to be admitted to the saints’ company, and we offer the Mass to their honor and remembrance, and we ask that they pray for us, but we never explicitly ask them to do the one thing the angel does: offer the Mass to God. In fact, the saints are never described as worshipping God (of course they do worship God—I’m just talking about what the text explicitly says). But the one other time angels are mentioned in the Canon lines up perfectly with the task of this angel of Revelation: the Preface describes the angels—above all, the cherubim and the seraphim—as ceaselessly worshipping God.

All of this suggests to me that, as the angels are by their very nature the mediators between God and men, so are they by their very nature the ones who would mediate even our prayers to God. The saints have joined the angels by grace, to be sure, but grace has not simply abolished the difference in nature between human souls and angelic choirs. The Mass seems to nod to this difference by a selectivity of description: saints do worship God ceaselessly, but that is not the role assigned them in the text of the Canon; angels do pray for us, but that is not the role assigned to them in the Canon. Rather, the angels are the primordial divine attendants; the saints are those who have joined the angels; and we hope to join the saints.

Because we are speaking of the Canon, allow me to mention one last beautiful subtlety: the sudden shift in prayer after the consecration. Up to that point, all prayer is directed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit; but after that point, prayer is consistently directed to the Son directly—and naturally enough, because THERE HE IS. Before the consecration, all prayer is shaped by the mystery of the Trinity; after the consecration, prayer is shaped by the Incarnation. In this way, the form of the prayer reflects the great mystery of God’s inner life piercing into our world of space and time through the Son taking on flesh.

Leaf from a Beatus manuscript: the Opening of the Fifth Seal (1180), Spanish, from the Met collections

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