I don’t know how the idea came about that angels are an inessential decoration in the life of the Church. In the Bible, they have a vital function at important times. Jesus speaks of them clearly as of his own servants: “When the Son of man cometh in his glory, and all the angels with him.”
If you go to church, it is impossible to escape it. “May the angels lead you to paradise,” says the Latin text of the antiphon In Paradisum, familiar to Fauré’s setting, and sung as a corpse is taken to the funeral. Every day, angels are mentioned in the prayers of the Mass or in the Holy Communion in the book of common prayer.
The “holy, holy, holy” of the prayer called the Sanctus is declared to be the endless cheering of the angels of heaven in worshiping God. It is appropriated by the Church on earth in union with them in heaven. The mechanics of this are not explained, but I just came across a book that explores the phenomenon.
He is Angels and the Liturgy by Erik Peterson. He lived from 1890 to 1960, but this short work was released in English in 1964, after his death. He was a German, brought up in the traditions of Lutheran pietism, later fascinated by Kierkegaard, and brought to the Catholic Church by the liturgical movement of his time and the study of the Church Fathers who became his profession. He wrote against the Nazis.
He sees worship or liturgy in heaven as being of a civic or political nature, in the City of God or Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, from his resurrection and ascension, is he who reigns in heaven and earth, and to him a constant hymn of praise is offered by the great number of angels. It is not so much the occupation of angels as the essential expression of their nature.
Peterson notes that all of creation worships God – the sun and the moon and the stars and everything. It is not only a natural worship given to God by objects inanimate by their existence; it is also part of what has been accomplished by the redemption of the cosmos through the death and resurrection of Jesus, man and God.
Jesus Christ reigns in heaven as the high priest. Peterson does not say that he performs a sacrificial liturgy there. Indeed, I think that would be a misconception. It is he who suffered and he bears the marks of the Passion. He has already made the sacrifice that won back humanity and opened up the sky.
It is true, however, that the words of the Roman Eucharistic prayer ask God to “command that these gifts be carried by the hands of your holy Angel to your upper altar”. These gifts are identified as “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy bread of eternal life and the chalice of eternal salvation” – no less than the body and blood of Christ.
This language is quite apocalyptic, and indeed the information on the subject in the book of Revelation and in the Epistle to the Hebrews is formulated in transcendent cosmic terms.
When Saint Francis of Assisi received on his body the marks of Christ’s crucifixion, the stigmata or wounds on the hands, feet and sides, it was during a vision of a seraph, an angel, displaying between his six wings the figure of a man crucified on the Cross. Saint Bonaventure, in his life as Saint Francis, remarks that this surprises the saint, “knowing that the infirmity of the Passion does not agree with the immortality of a seraphic spirit”. It was therefore not a crucified angel that he saw in his vision, but a crucifix with seraph wings.
Angels do not have a body, but like spirits have an intellect and a will of great power. They are citizens of heaven and they care about the permanent city in which we hope they will welcome us one day.