While on the subject of angels in hymns of western Christianity, I want to look at a hymn that I don’t think gained a large amount of popularity. I certainly didn’t grow up singing it, though that doesn’t reveal very much. I suspect that it’s a hymn mainly known in the high church wing of the Anglican Communion, because it’s a hymn that is quite elaborate in its call for all the angels and saints to join in the praise of God.
“Ye watchers and he holy ones” was written by Athelstan Riley in 1909. Riley was active in the Anglo-catholic Anglican world of late 19th and early 20th century England. He died in 1945. I bring this hymn to light in this context because it so obviously draws on traditional catholic Christian language and liturgy. The first verse calls on the angels to praise, the second…more on that later, the third names the “souls in endless rest…patriarchs and prophets blest…holy twelve…martyrs strong…all saints triumphant,” and the fourth offers a doxology to the Blessed Trinity. This is just too hieratic for much of the Christian world. Too bad.
But back to that first verse. Riley’s knowledge of both the Holy Scripture and Christian mystical tradition is evident. Here is the verse:
Ye watchers and ye holy ones, Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
This ought I not strange language to any Bible-reading, liturgy-attending Christian. However, let’s unpack it a bit. First stop, St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians chapter 6. (I’ll quote the AV in deference to Riley). “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (6:12) Earlier, in 1:21, he says that Christ has been set “far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named.” In 3:10, that the wisdom of God through the Church is made known to “the principalities and powers in heavenly places.” Romans 8:38 speaks about “powers” and “heavenly rulers” being among those things not able to separate us from the love of God in Christ. (It’s stronger than that: “nothing shall separate.”)
In Jewish and then Christian taxonomy of angels, there are traditionally nine orders, or ranks, of angels: cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels, and angels. With the fall of some of the angels, these various ranks are mirrored on either side of the great spiritual conflict. We see St. Paul referring to these various ranks, both good and bad. Christ is above them all, and our battle is with the evil ones, not with the flesh. Of course, He has already won over the forces of darkness. The forces of light are down for the strugglewith us.
In the above stanza, Riley has included them all. But he has also included two other titles that are not part of the traditional taxonomy, but we do find in the Bible: “watchers” and “holy ones.” In Daniel 4:13, the king has a dream, and in the dream an appearance is made by “a watcher and an holy one.” I think this is a double description of one figure: a messenger of God called a “watcher, a holy one.” Clearly a being that exists in such proximity to God and is ever-vigilant before God could be described as a “watcher, a holy one.”
To Orthodox Christians, these aren’t new images. The liturgy of the Church, particularly the prayer of the Priest at Baptism (and at the Blessing of the Waters), refers to the “Powers endowed with intelligence….The Angelic Powers….The Choirs of Archangels….The many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim…” Those last references are found at each Eucharistic celebration, also, before we sing with them, “Holy, holy, holy”. Here we find the awesome descriptions of heavenly scenes in Isaiah 6 and chapter 4 of the Revelation of St. John.
Also, Orthodox Christians are confronted with icons of the angels very often: on the Holy Door of the sanctuary barrier is an icon of the Archangel Gabriel bring Mary “the tidings every so strange”; on the two side doors are images of Angles; on the liturgical fans that are often borne before the Gospel Book and Gifts of bread and wine are images of the six-winged Seraphim; and Angels appear in icons appearing to the shepherds at Nativity; showing to the Myrrhbearing Women the empty tomb; and very many other places.
Now, I want to refer to one other stanza of Rileys’, the second that I skipped. Angels make an appearance here, but not as the subject. Rather, this verse describes another called to praise:
O higher than the Cherubim, More glorious than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the Eternal Word, Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Perhaps unwittingly sung by many, this is almost verbatim an Orthodox hymn to the Mother of God, the “bearer of the Eternal Word” (Theotokos, God-bearer) who is “most gracious” (as Gabriel said, “full of grace”). She is “higher than the Cherubim” and “more glorious [beyond compare] than the Seraphim.” This the famous Axion estin of the Greek liturgy (Dostoyno yest in Church Slavonic). She magnifies the Lord in her hymn from St. Luke’s Gospel, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
She is “higher than the Cherubim” because Christ has been exalted “far above all principality…” And in His Ascension, He took His body, his glorified flesh. And “we are members of His body,” says St. Paul in 5:30 of that same Ephesian epistle. By grace, we are – or rather, hope to be – seated with Christ at “God’s right hand.” His mother Mary has anticipated that general resurrection, so the Church believes, and, even now, enjoys that fellowship in the sacred life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.