Like all ancient liturgical rites of the Church, the traditional Roman rite of Mass—especially if one includes the Asperges me and the Leonine prayer to St. Michael—is full of references and allusions to the holy angels, and more than that, prayers directly addressed to them. To cite all these wonderful texts, let alone comment on them, would make a lengthy article in itself. Since my purpose here is not to analyze the text of the Mass but to present an accessible introduction to the angels, I will pass up this tempting alternative. Still, in keeping with the ancient truth legem credendi statuit lex orandi (or more pithily, lex credendi, lex orandi), the best way to begin is to call to mind some of these liturgical expressions of our faith.
The prayer after the Asperges me asks the Lord to “vouchsafe to send Thy holy angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit and defend all that are assembled in this place.” The Confiteor invokes St. Michael the Archangel twice, and at a High Mass the priest blesses the incense at the Offertory: “Through the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, standing at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all His elect, may the Lord vouchsafe to bless + this incense and to receive it in the odor of sweetness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (It bears remarking that since the Confiteor is said a total of three times—twice at the start of Mass, and once before communion—and either the incensation takes place at High Mass or the Leonine prayer is recited after Low Mass, St. Michael will be invoked a total of seven times.) The Munda cor meum is based on Isaiah 6:6, where a seraph is the one that brings down the burning coal. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, rather like the creation account in the Book of Genesis, makes a brief but poignant mention of the world of created spirits: Credo in … factorem caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium, “I believe in … the Maker of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible.” Read aloud or sung in every celebration of the Mass, the best-known liturgical reference to the angels is the Preface’s culminating line, which varies in its wording depending on the Preface used but always acclaims the angels as the chief chanters of the Sanctus. Thus we hear in the Preface of the Holy Trinity: “So that in confessing the true and everlasting Godhead, distinction in persons, unity in essence, and equality in majesty may be adored, which [Godhead] the Angels and Archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim do praise, who cease not daily to cry out, with one voice saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts…” There is a mysterious prayer shortly after the consecration: “Most humbly we implore Thee, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Thy Holy Angel to Thine altar on high, before the face of Thy Divine Majesty.” The medieval liturgical exegetes never fully agreed as to who this angel was, some arguing it is an angel properly speaking, even St. Michael, others that it is a symbolic reference to Christ Himself, “the angel of the great counsel” as He is titled in a verse of Isaiah according to the Greek Septuagint, carried into our liturgy in the Introit of the third Mass of Christmas, Puer natus est. (St. Thomas Aquinas decides to offer both interpretations and leaves it at that!) In addition to the foregoing, there are oblique and generic references, and, of course, the prayers and readings expressly commemorating the angels on certain feastdays.
Angels in the Old Testament