31 October 2009

Singing to Angels, Mary, and the Saints?

Tomorrow we'll do it again: sing Hymn 670 in Lutheran Service Book. In this hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, the first hymn is addressed to the choirs of the holy angels:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain! Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
Virtues, archangels, angel choirs!

The second stanza, however, is addressed to the blessed and most holy Virgin Mary:

O higher than the Cherubim,
More glorious than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises.
Thou, Bearer of the Eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.

Nothing so vibrantly confesses the communion of saints as this joyful hymn that calls upon the Mother of God to lead the praises. Some might ask, can we say this about her? Is she truly higher than the Cherubim? Is she truly more glorious than the Seraphim? The only answer can be a question: which Angel gave birth to the Eternal Word and Son of the Father? No angel! Only the Blessed Virgin Mary did this, and so she is truly Mother of God and we rightly call upon her lead the angelic hosts in their praises of her Son, the Eternal Word; we ask her, the most gracious ("full of grace" as the Angel called her) to "magnify the Lord!" The words recall her hymn Magnificat: "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

After calling upon Mary to lead the praises of God's people, we move on to others:

Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest!
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant raise the song,

From the angels to Mary, from Mary to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and all the prophets. From them to Peter, James, John, Andrew and all the twelve and all who have poured out their blood for the Lamb. From them to ALL the saints - all who have been baptized into Christ and washed in His blood. We call upon them all to join the song of the Lamb's triumph with their alleluias.

And we join them too:

O friends in gladness let us sing,
Supernal anthems echoing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit,
Three in One,

So it is that the choirs of angels join the holy mother, the patriarchs and prophets, the apostles and martyrs, all saints and we, we whom our Lord called "friends," are privileged to sing our alleluias with them. Behold, beloved, the mystery of the Church as ONE communion, ONE fellowship in Christ, bound together by the one Spirit in the life that can never end! Alleluia, indeed!


Scott Larkins said...

Romanish Rags;)

Amberg said...

I thought it rather ironic last year, when at my Church we sang to Mary (to which I'm not technically opposed), but couldn't sing to those whose toils have ended. They changed "Oh, how blest are ye" to "Oh, how blest are they."

I wonder why they couldn't just change "ye" to "you."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Are you sure they can hear you?


Dixie said...

What I think is so interesting about this hymn is the listing of the 9 classes of angels. I never understood that these words spoke of 9 classes of angels even though I had sung the hymn many times in my past--nor did I understand there was such a thing until a few years ago one of our St. John Chrysostom Oratorical speakers discussed them in his speech. This is a very rich hymn.

Would you know how the verse about the Theotokos came about? It is very similar to our Eastern Orthodox hymn penned by St. Cosmas the Hymnographer:

More honorable than the cherabim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
Thou who without stain bearest God the Word,
And are truly Theotokos,
We magnify thee.

Was this hymn popular at some time in the West?

William Weedon said...

Actually, the nine choirs are also part of the Western heritage. This particular hymn, though, Dixie was constructed AROUND verse 2 - which, as you correctly observe, is based on the song from the Orthodox liturgy.

Amberg said...

I don't really like singing "Most gracious" in a Lutheran Church to refer to Mary, since "gracious" in our language in no way means "blessed," which is really the sense of the Angel's words to the Mother of God.

I didn't sing it this Morning because it disturbed me. I was also disturbed by various other things, but that's just my Norwegian blood boiling at the change in our national hymn. How am I supposed to sing hymns by heart with a baby in my hands when they go and change the words? Ah well, Happy All Saints Day!

Dixie said...

Oh yes, I am familiar that the 9 choirs are also part of the Western Heritage but surprised that I hadn't known about it until recently. (I had 8 years of Roman Catholic grade school, you know, at St. Joseph Croatian in Soulard, and the nuns did an exceptional job of teaching us the faith.)

I did a little google-ing because I was curious as to how the author would have known about this decidedly Eastern verse. It appears the author, John Athelstan Laurie Riley, actually spent some time on Mount Athos and wrote a book about it. I imagine it was on Mount Athos that he was exposed to the Eastern version.

Drew said...

I also did some looking into Athelstan Riley. Turns out he also wrote a guide to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy meant for English Christians who may, for whatever reason, find themselves in an Orthodox service.


His book on Mount Athos can be found here:


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

It is good that we instruct Mary to get back to her work of praising God with the hosts of heaven. I'd imagine so many people trying to bug her with stuff would be distracting. Pray to Christ - let Mary sing!

Quite Lutheran, I think. >=o)

Past Elder said...

There's a bunch of classifications, some with as many as 11 (Apostolic Constitutions) or as few as 7 (St Jerome).

Most have 9 and the typical nomenclature comes from Pseudo-Dionysus and Aquinas, with some assist from Dante:

1st Sphere: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
2nd Sphere: Dominions, Virtues, Powers
3rd Sphere: Principalities, Archangels and Angels.

Mary, like any good magistra scholae cantorum, teaches too:

Lovely Lady dressed in blue -
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
Tell me what to say!

Did you lift Him up, sometimes,
Gently on your knee?
Did you sing to Him the way
Mother does to me?

Did you hold His hand at night?
Did you ever try
Telling stories of the world?
O! And did He cry?

Do you really think He cares
If I tell Him things -
Little things that happen? And
Do the Angels' wings

Make a noise? And can He hear
Me if I speak low?
Does He understand me now?
Tell me -- for you know.

Lovely Lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little boy,
And you know the way.

I always hear that kid's poem in the voice from which I learned it as a kid -- Bishop Sheen. Matter of fact, I think I'll go ahead and conclude with

Bye now, and God Love you!

Chris said...


The hymn:

"It is truly meet to call thee blessed, the all immaculate, all blessed and mother of our God. More honorable than the cherabim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,
Thou who without stain bearest God the Word,
And are truly Theotokos,
We magnify thee."

is attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian not to St. Cosmas. The melody we sing to it (tone 2) was originally chanted by the archangel Gabriel.

Dixie said...

I had a holy card with "Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue" on the back...it was my favorite until a nun confiscated all of my holy cards...for trading them during mass. I had memorized the poem although today I can only recall the 1st verse by memory.

Sorry, Chris...if I misattributed...didn't mean to mislead anyone.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

"Most gracious" is an interesting phrase. I tend to see it in terms of Mary being "gratia plena."

William Weedon said...

Amen, Pr. Brown, and EXACTLY, Deacon.

Amberg said...

I think that if the LSB committee felt so constrained to change unnecessarily "to please HIm with our behavior" to "that we follow Christ our Savior" in "O Lord we praise Thee" and take out the saints presence in the holy place in "Behold a Host" among other very annoying and poorly executed changes in many jewels of English-Lutheran hymnody, they should have felt a little more discomfortable when they read "most gracious." "Blest Virgin" or even "Most blessed" would have worked a lot better.

As it stands "most gracious" isn't at all what the Scriptures say and reflects false doctrine concerning our Lady. I cannot sing it because I'm Lutheran. I also won't sing "gratia plena" because it has been taken to mean that our Lady is full of grace and not to mean what the Holy Spirit actually inspired Elizabeth to sing. We move from gratia plena, which originally meant blessed according to Latin idiom to "most gracious." Unless one changes the meaning of the word he cannot sing this without singing something severely misleading about the Mother of God.

Besides this, I think it is great that we tell the Bearer of the eternal Word to praise God with us.

Sing it loud, Mater Dei! You are the greatest hymnist that the Church has ever seen!

William Weedon said...

On gratia plena recall, Mark, the words of the Blessed Reformer from his Personal Prayer Book, reprinted throughout his lifetime and to the end of the 16th century:

"In the first place, she is proclaimed to be full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin - something exceedingly great. For God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil." AE 43:40.

Amberg said...

Luther is clearly wrong. He first read the Bible in Latin and he tried to make what he memorized jive with the doctrine he knew. I do this all the time with KJV because I've used it for devotions for years. I'm finally moving slowly to ESV because of this very problem.

It may be nice pious way of trying to deal with the problem, but it actually illustrates the problem, namely that Elizabeth did not say that Mary was full of grace so that she was without sin. She said she was blessed, not full of grace or gracious. Luther interprets the words apart their actual meaning.

Also, she is no longer said to be gratia plena because the average Christian doesn't read the Bible in Latin anymore.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

But how could she possibly NOT be full of grace? Or did God withhold some measure of the grace He gave her? Did He, who Lutherans generally say cannot tolerate sin, consent to be formed from a corrupt womb?

How much more full of grace could a person be than to be bearing God almighty inside her own body?

Not, it's not good for us to presume to instruct the Mother of God. Good heavens!

Distracted? A glorified, deified Christian?????

Oh, this is rich! Lutherans praying to angels and saints and the Theotokos - on Reformation Sunday. Yes, praying to, for what's a hymn but a prayer set to words?

And it sounds very, very like what the Orthodox do every Sunday. No enough difference to slide a knife between.

Amberg said...

I think you're missing my point. Elizabeth did not say she was full of grace. She said she was blessed.

What do you mean when you say she was full of grace? I know that Christ was conceived and born without sin not because Mary wasn't a sinner (she certainly was, else she had not sung that her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior), but because the Holy Spirit came upon her and Christ was conceived and born apart from any coitus or will of any man.

I actually find it comforting that our God surrounded Himself by walls of flesh that were enmity against Him, since Mary was by nature a sinner. Mary was conceived and born in sin. She died and her body awaits the resurrection with her mother Eve. Her flesh was sinful. God was born of a woman and not a man with the power of God overshadowing the Virgin so that he was born without sin. We might call that a special "grace" as in a gift, but we wouldn't call it the grace by which we are justified, which is how we use the term "gracious" and "grace" most frequently.

She is most blessed among women because she was chosen to bear the eternal Word, to give birth to the Son of God, which had been promised to Eve after the fall.

I think we define grace differently and also have different views of sin.

I don't mind telling all the saints (it is sung on All Saints Day, not Reformation Sunday) to praise God, just as we praise God together with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven.

William Weedon said...


You keep saying "Elizabeth," but the reference is to Luke 1:28, and the words of the Angel Gabriel. ESV renders "O favored One" and the KJV "highly favoured." Luther translated "Holdselige." Certainly the blessedness of the Virgin is revealed first and foremost in her believing the Lord's promises - as Elizabeth rightly proclaims of her.


Many Lutherans sang it upon All Saints (and likely also St. Michael's), but I doubt that many sang it on Reformation. I think you'll find that what seems not a difference to you is quite different for us: to call out to the Virgin, "lead their praises" as opposed to beseeching her to "quicken thou me who lies dead in sin" is something you could drive a semi between, let alone a knife.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

To be filled with the Holy Spirit, as any Christian should be, is to be filled with Grace, is it not? Much more, then, to be filled with the Body of Christ in her womb. This, despite her sinful nature. The presence of Holiness Himself purifies,as the hot coal purified the lips of the prophet.

William, that prayer (for intercession) is not what I specified, namely, what's typically sung on a Sunday morning.

Here are a couple of troparia, one chosen bhecause it is for All Saints, the other chosen at random, to illustrate. The one calls upon the saints to pray, and the other calls upon Adam to rejoice in the Cross of Christ:

Troparion for All Saints (Second Tone)
O Apostles, Martyrs, and Prophets, Hierarchs, Monastics, and Righteous Ones; ye that have accomplished a good labour and kept the Faith, that have boldness before the Saviour; O Good Ones, intercede for us, we pray, that our souls be saved.


Hearken, O Adam, and rejoice with Eve, for He Who formerly stripped you both and took thee captive through beguilement, is laid low by the cross of Christ.

Just not that much different.

William Weedon said...


We believe we have Scriptural warrant to call upon the company of heaven to praise God. We think of Psalm 148:

Praise him, all his angels!
Praise him, all his hosts!

We even call upon sun, moon, shining stars, clouds with rain, sea creatures, fire, hail, snow, and everything to join in that praise!

Or Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, ALL HIS WORKS, in ALL PLACES of His dominion!

In the Song of the Three Child, the same exhortation is directed toward the spirits of the departed:

You spirits and souls of the righteous, bless the Lord! (LSB 931, see vs. 11)

The hymn cited fits exactly into this Biblical pattern of exhorting all creation to join in the praises of the Blessed Trinity - the center of which praise is the Lamb, the Child of the Virgin. But I'm not seeing this Biblical witness teach us to ask for the saints intercession (an intercession which we have in any case as members of the one body - one member suffers, all suffer). In the confidence of that intercession, Luther's beautiful words on John 17 say it best: "For who can harm or injure a man who has this confidence, who knows that heaven and earth, and all the angels and the saints will cry to God when the smallest suffering befalls him?" But the Bible doesn't teach us to invoke this intercession from the dear saints, but to believe and live in it as members of the one Body of the Risen Savior.

Amberg said...

Pr. Weedon,

I'm sorry I was concentrating on Elizabeth. Kecharitomena from charitoo. Luther translated it more or less "blessed with grace." This keeps the translation closely connected to the root charis in Greek.

This is God's favor. I think that "grace" has been viewed as something substantive here, where as it is actually a condition of Mary before God.

This word used by Gabriel does not refer to being filled with grace, even if she was filled with grace in the manner described by Ms. Theodoridis above.

Ms. Theodoridis,
I think that's a fine way of explaining it. Thank you.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yes, I know. The saints are with you but you can't greet them. They can hear you, but you aren't allow to talk to them. They already intercede with God for you, but you are not allowed to ask them to. They already praise God, but this you are allowed to ask them to.

Oh, and you are allowed to praise them, too, as in O higher than the Cherubim, More Glorious than the Seraphim, prophets blest, martyrs strong.

William Weedon said...

It's because the focus - theirs and also ours - is upon the Lord and not upon them. We don't stare AT them, we stare WITH them, at the Lamb upon His throne and join them in giving glory and praise!

Amberg said...

When I petition God, He answers me in His Word and sacraments. If I were to pray to the blessed departed where would I obtain their answer?

christl242 said...

It's because the focus - theirs and also ours - is upon the Lord and not upon them. We don't stare AT them, we stare WITH them, at the Lamb upon His throne and join them in giving glory and praise!

A triple amen to that, Pastor Weedon.

Pastor Brown, you've made my day.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

You stare at Christ, but not so much at His members????

Until we get to see Him face to face, the saints are where you can see Him best. His saints, who along with St. Paul can say, "Not I, but Christ lives in me," bring you the meaning of Word and Sacrament in living form, bring you Christ "with skin on".

Where would you find your answer if you were to ask anything of a saint? Well, if you ever do it, you'll find out.

christl242 said...

Until we get to see Him face to face, the saints are where you can see Him best. His saints, who along with St. Paul can say, "Not I, but Christ lives in me," bring you the meaning of Word and Sacrament in living form, bring you Christ "with skin on".

Until the Last Day it is the Spirit through Word and Sacrament that enlightens the "eyes of faith" within us to see the Lord until that glorious day when we shall know as we are known.

The definition of saint, as St. Paul uses it in Scripture, is of those who are "called out" and “separated, set apart" for God – the primary meaning of the Hebrew “kadosh” -- so Paul writes to the saints at various congregations, who are still very much alive.

It does not primarily mean a Christian of "exceeding holiness" or perfection in this life which Lutherans do not acknowledge as possible this side of the veil. Every believing Christian who is baptized has Christ living within him.