With Angels and Archangels
Once, the patriarch Jacob, falling asleep with his head on a stone, was shown a ladder connecting earth and heaven. On the ladder, ascending and descending, were the angels of God, His ministering spirits, coming and going before the King. Upon waking, Jacob fearfully confessed, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:16–17).
At another time, the king of Syria sent his army to capture the prophet Elisha, surrounding the city with chariots and horses. When the prophet’s servant saw the great host, he despaired. “Do not be afraid,” the prophet promised, “For those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:16–17).
Things are not always as they seem. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). And we walk by faith in the Creator of all things visible and invisible (Nicene Creed). This creation includes invisible, incorporeal spirits, and they are closer than we know. The heavenly realm of spirits is not far away, but in and behind the physical realm we see. Humans are in both realms at the same time. What’s more, as Christians, we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6), and we wrestle against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).
Nowhere can this spiritual world be more firmly impressed upon the human conscience than in the Divine Service. You stand upon no mere plot of earth in any materialistic sense. You stand at the very gate of heaven, surrounded by armies of holy fire. The weight of this glory is almost palpable as the King of Heaven holds court on earth. So it is no accident that we join the singing of the angelic choirs in both the Service of the Word and in the Service of the Sacrament. We join the angels in proclaiming and adoring the Lord we share.
The Gloria in Excelsis is the song the angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem at the birth of our Lord (Luke 2). In this way, they fulfilled their office as messengers of the Good News. They proclaimed the glory of God in Christ and His peace for sinners in the blood of the holy Child. How fitting then that we share this proclamation with the angels, first singing their words and then giving our attention to the Word of God. In the writings of the prophets and apostles, we hear the things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12). While many of the holy angels have served as God’s heralds, announcing His promises to God’s people, it was ultimately to men that this message was committed. We are the ones addressed by the Lord and it is for our benefit. In joyful amazement the angels see mankind entrusted with the proclamation of their King.
But the angels witness an even greater glory in the Service of the Sacrament and, once again, we join their song. The Sanctus is the song of the seraphim always surrounding God’s throne. This song was first heard by the prophet Isaiah in Jerusalem’s temple (Is. 6), and again witnessed by the apostle John on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 4). But now, O God, your throne of grace is here, even at our altar, so with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee and saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. The One who sits on the throne, adored by His angel hosts, is now with us in His very body and blood. These mighty beings of heavenly splendor must fall down in wonder as they behold us, in all our human frailty, welcomed by their God to commune with Him, closer, more intimately than they could ever hope. They behold him, but they do not share flesh and blood with Him. They know Him, but He does not dwell in them, imparting to them His own divine nature. They live forever before Him, but the source of their life is not His holy body and precious blood that redeems, forgives, and sanctifies us, poor sinners.
All of that, the full wealth of our Savior’s atonement, is not a gift for the holy angels. It is for us, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. But the angels are filled with joy for us. They are only glad to sing of the salvation their God worked for us. And they gladly join us in the King’s throne room, at the very gate of heaven here on earth. The cherubim, their faces veiled from light, While saints in wonder kneel, Sing praise to Him whose face with glory bright No earthly masks conceal. This sacrament God gives us Binds us in unity, Joins earth to heav’n beyond us, Time with eternity! (LSB 639:3).