‘Holy Angel’ in the Roman Canon
Date: July 16, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.
Question: I would like to know about the "Holy Angel" in the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I, that takes the gift to the altar on high. The Latin text refers to the text in capital letters (per manus sancti Angeli tui). Who exactly is the Angel? It cannot be Christ, right? Why is it in a capital letter? -- V.N., Rome
Answer: In answering this question, we will necessarily have to summarize many years of scientific research by numerous scholars.
The text in question would seem to be related to a Greek proto canon from the liturgy of St. Mark from Alexandria in Egypt. It is found in Latin in both the Roman Canon and in the book of St. Ambrose (died 397) “De Sacramentis,” which probably predates the version in the Roman Canon.
There are some differences between the Greek and Ambrosian versions and the Roman text. In these the prayer forms a single prayer together with the prayer “Supra quae” which follows the petition regarding the angel or, in St. Ambrose, angels in plural:
Et petimus et precamur
Uti hanc oblationem suscipias
in sublime altare tuum per manus angelorum tuorum,
sicut suscipere dignatus es munera
pueri tui iusti Abel
patriarchae nostri Abrahae
et quod tibi obtulit
summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech
In the Roman Canon, these are two separate prayers and in inverse order. Also, only one angel is mentioned in the Roman Canon.
Scholars, such as the Italian Enrico Mazza, propose that the difference between singular and plural forms of angels are more due to questions of Latin style and grammar and do not denote any fundamental theological differences.
In short, he would say that the point that is underlined is that the heavenly liturgy intervenes each time that the earthly liturgy is celebrated. It refers to the service of the angels before God and, because of this, he holds that Ambrose’s plural gives a better rendering of the idea expressed in the Greek original than the Roman singular, which appears to introduce a new figure into the liturgy.
Something similar can be said about the use of capital letters. It varies among manuscripts and is of no particular importance theologically.
While this is quite true and could well have been the intention of the Latin composers of the canons, there are other scholars who also seek to go to the root of the prayer itself and propose that it was originally a Judeo-Christian prayer.
If this is the case, we must remember that early Christians had no difficulty in relating Jesus to the figure of the “Suffering Servant” of the prophet Isiah united to the “Lamb of God” pointed out by St. John the Baptist, and they would readily use terms such as angel or servant in referring to Our Lord.
This can be found, for example, in the anaphora of pseudo-Hippolytus (circa A.D. 225-250) which forms the basis for our current Eucharistic Prayer II. In its original form it twice refers to Christ as “your servant” and once as a messenger (angel). Another early text in which Christ is called “the Holy Angel” is The Shepherd of Hermas, written sometime between the years A.D. 100 and 150.
It was only after the advent of the Arian heresy that such terms became suspect of subordinating Christ to the Father and, hence, denying his divinity.
It is therefore quite feasible that the original literary form of this prayer stems from a Judeo-Christian environment in Alexandria which for centuries was home to one of the largest Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land.
Even before Christianity, rabbinical commentaries on Scripture spoke about a heavenly temple and a heavenly altar corresponding to the earthly one in Jerusalem. Some of these comments also contemplate a heavenly worship in which an angel (frequently Michael) is in charge of making the heavenly offering at the altar.
Some of these notions were carried forward into early Christianity. Consequently, it would not have been strange for early Judeo-Christians, strong believers in Christ’s priesthood as witnessed by the Epistle to the Hebrews, to substitute Christ for Michael in the heavenly liturgy. Indeed, at this stage of theological development, there is evidence that they might even have thought of Michael as simply another name of Christ.
In conclusion, both answers might well be true. In the remote origins of the prayer the angel mentioned might have been identified as Christ. At a later stage of development, when this text was incorporated into Latin in the Ambrosian and Roman canons, it was understood to refer to the heavenly liturgy present in the earthly as reflected above all in the Sanctus.
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