From the book of the Prophet Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I also saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up: and his train filled the Temple. Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. . . . And one cried unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. ( 6:4, 7)
And from the Talmud:
The ancient rabbis tell us that when Moses spent forty days and forty nights with God at the top of Mount Sinai, he could always tell when there was a change of shift in Heaven – that is when one group of angels stood aside to rest and were replaced by another. Moses noticed that the singing, the music was slightly different.
And from the Revelation of John:
There we are given, more than once, a vision of the worship of Heaven. Living creatures, elders with harps, myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels falling down before the throne of God and of the Conquering Lamb praising and shouting and singing, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever.” ( 5:13 )
Isaiah. The Talmud. Revelation. Contrary to what one might expect, it would appear that Heaven is a rather noisy place. But no. I’ve got it wrong. It may be loud, but it’s not noise, it’s music ! Music. And it seems that the presence of Gold is usually, in fact, almost always signaled and characterized by music. Music accompanies God, and most of the music is made by angels.
In art we see angels with instruments. Harps, of course, but trumpets as well. And also, lutes and flutes, dulcimers and sackbuts, even tiny organs. But most of all, angels sing, and by their voices they create the celestial harmony and music which is an announcement of the presence and the power of God.
They sang at the creation of the earth. Remember. God himself puts the question to Job, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth ? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy ?”
( 38:4, 7 ) And they sang to shepherds to announce the birth of the Savior, which was the beginning of the earth remade.
Gabriel, we read, spoke to Mary at the Annunciation. But this is unusual, uncharacteristic of angelic announcements. Even so, how many times – again and again – have his words overflowed from speech into music: “Ave Maria, gratia plena.” There is something about God that makes man and angels sing, and if Scripture is to be believed, Heaven, the presence of God, is filled with music.
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You may not know this; I didn’t until a few days ago. Lucifer, of ill repute, was, before his prideful fall, the angel in charge of the music of heaven. Choirmaster, impresario – I’m not sure – but Lucifer, the beautiful, in charge of Heaven’s music. Sad to say, now, I suppose, he’s in charge of the music of hell, if there is such a thing as the music of hell. Or perhaps, hell is the absence of music in the same way that hell is the absence of God. Could be. Though I must tell you, I’ve heard music that was inspired by an anger which was close to hate, and there was certainly something hellish about it.
But enough of hell. That’s not what we’re up to this evening.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “an angel can illuminate the thought and mind of man by strengthening the power of vision.” By vision Aquinas means the supernatural ability in man to perceive spiritual realities. This can be strengthened, of course, by God’s grace, but it can, Aquinas tell us, also be empowered by angels, who in their capacity as messengers and, one might say, enablers, announce, make clear, and illuminate the spiritual world. The angelic music opens our spiritual eyes to the Divine Beauty.
Strangely enough, Thomas Carlyle has the same kind of thing to say, though he gives Aquinas’ insight a rather secular, nineteenth century formulation. In one of his many essays, he writes, “Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.”
The Divine Beauty. The Infinite. All well and good. But what about you and me and music ? I say this: that it is one of the things that makes us human. Music makes us human and therefore, music is universal. There are – and as far as we can tell – there have been no human cultures without music. It is universal and was an essential part of the life of women and men from the very beginning. Some scholars even speculate that song came before speech. We sang together before we talked to one another . . . or at one another. Not a bad idea in today’s world. To keep our mouths shut except for singing might make for harmony and fellowship, rather than the discord of chatter and talk.
Certainly, song came before speech in the spiritual side of human life. Originally, prayers were not spoken, they were sung. Everything was sung and still is in most religious traditions. Perhaps this was, perhaps this is an earthly imitation of heaven. Perhaps we learned it from the angels.
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So far in this sermon, I have avoided a very necessary word. On purpose. We all know that there are various orders of angels. Tonight we celebrate Michael, an Archangel, and we celebrate, as well, his colleagues, the ordinary Angels. Angels are in various distinct orders, but the proper word, the theologically technical word, is choir. Angels are ordered in choirs, and this shows clearly how music, singing, is part of what an angel really is and really does.
There are, we are told, nine choirs of angels. The Choir of Seraphim. The Choir of Cherubim. The Choirs of Thrones, Virtues, Archangels, and Angels. And there are the Choirs of Dominions, Powers, and Principalities. Some writers, St. Paul for instance, consider these last three the iffy ones. Those about whom we heard tonight, those whom by Michael were thrown down from heaven, together with Satan, the Dragon. Others take a happier view and consider the fallen angels to be inherently disordered, and therefore they are without choirs and without names. All on their own, except for their demonic leader. I rarely disagree with St. Paul, but I prefer this happier view of the three choirs mentioned above. As I see it, there is nothing to fear, and, as with all angels, much to expect from Dominions, Powers, and Principalities.
But what of Choirs on earth ? In this Parish we have two, and many of those who make up our two choirs are here tonight. Are they angels ? I don’t know. God knows, not me. But I do know that they are supported and assisted by the angels. Whenever God is praised, the angels are there to help. And then there is that leader of the Choir, whom we honor tonight. Is he an angel ? I’ve often thought so. Not only does he make music, but he’s also a good influence on those around him. And we must not forget that “Simon” – the true name of our Church Cat – was revealed to Ross in a dream ! But again, I don’t know, God knows.
But I do know this. As the angels have assisted them, so also Ross and Jonathan and our choir members have assisted us in singing – and that is an angelic thing to do, for singing makes us really human and joins us to the Divine.
Let me end with a bit of enthusiasm from St. Hildegard of Bingen. She was a twelfth century nun whom you might well call a medieval rock star. She could do anything and in her time she did everything. She wrote music and she loved music. This is her exhortation:
There is the music of Heaven in all things. . . . So sing. Sing. The song of rejoicing softens hearts. It makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Singing summons the Holy Spirit. Happy praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to contemplate harmony without discord. Never stop singing.