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Jun 30, 2016

A Lesson from the Cherubim: Sing When It Hurts

Sonja Corbitt

“He put a new song in my mouth; a hymn of praise to our God” (Ps 40:1-3).

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Life is hard. Sometimes dark. There are times when troubles pile so high we fear we might suffocate under them. We are lonely. We are scared. We are burdened. These are wintery, cold spiritual seasons when there seems to be no light, no help, no relief, no comfort in any direction. It’s at these times, when we are most discouraged, most weary, that the angels teach us what we must do. We must SING!

Angels are actively engaged in the unceasing praise of God. At Mass several parts of our Liturgy come from Scriptural accounts of angelic worship. The Gloria begins with words sung by the angels at Christ’s birth (Lk 2:14). The Sanctus is from Isaiah’s vision of God surrounded by angels who sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Is 6:1-3).

Some Things You May Not Have Known About Cherubim

Some angels are called cherubim, thought to be from the root “to mount.” The Psalms describe a majestic God “mounted” upon, or riding, the winged cherubim: “And He ascended upon the cherubim and He flew: and He flew upon the wings of the wind” (Ps 18:10).

This sort of ascendance imagery is also used in fifteen songs which comprise one of the most precious and beautiful portions of the Bible, the Psalms of Ascent. Sung by the children of Israel as they ascended Mount Zion in Jerusalem during liturgical feasts, their worship was an integral part of the sweaty, joyful exertion and anticipation of arriving at the summit where God awaited.

Their physical climb up the mountain was a type, model, and picture of the slow upward trajectory of the Christian spiritual life here on earth. It is a glorious, sweaty enterprise that will ultimately require our very last breath, but those same Psalms of Ascent lift and accompany us, too, up the grand, grueling mountain as we sing them in the Divine Office and our hearts ascend to God in daily prayer.

Far from baby-faced, Ezekiel’s vision of the mysterious cherubim reveals a strange, soaring creature, understood to signify a four-part natural possession of the “soaring sublimity of the eagle, the intelligent wisdom of man, the lithe strength of the lion, and the ponderous weight of the ox” (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Part eagle, part human, part lion, and part ox, it is also thought that each part represents a corner of the astrological zodiac at which cherubim stand guard: Scorpio (eagle), Aquarius (human), Leo (lion), and Taurus (bull). This enigmatic hybrid creature, then, symbolizes the cosmos upon which God mounts and presides, enthroned.

Cherubim are first mentioned in Genesis 3:24, where God placed them at the eastern end, the entrance, of the Garden of Eden to “guard the way to the tree of life.” Later, the entrance curtains to the tabernacle and the temple, modeled on the Garden, were decorated with beautiful weavings, artistic renderings of cherubim in vibrant colors and fabrics. At God’s instruction, cherubim were on both the tabernacle and temple veils that screened the Holy of Holies where God’s presence rested.

Two golden statues of cherubim stood at either side of the mercy seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Their mysterious wings covered their faces and spread completely over the ark, functioning somewhat as armrests on the “throne” of the invisible God of Israel. That God’s presence was “located” above the Ark of the Covenant, over and between the cherubim, also suggests that the cherubim were “mounts” upon which he “ascended” and “ruled.”

For us earth dwellers, these elevated scriptural depictions tell us a bittersweet secret about worship. God’s instructions for the craftsmanship of the cherubim over the ark’s mercy seat were specific. There would be two cherubim on the mercy seat, both of one slab of hammered, beaten gold.

“The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be stationed at the two ends of the mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies” (Ex 25:17-22).

In the Cherubic Hymn and Great Entrance in the Orthodox Liturgy it is said, “You are carried upon the Cherubic Throne by the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Our Eastern brothers and sisters teach that we “mystically represent the Cherubim—high ranking angels that carry the Lord upon His throne, praising His holiness in the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

Praising God Like the Angels

God dwells in the midst of the praise of cherubim, and of men. Indeed, he draws near to it, so that he would be one with it, mount it like the wings of angels, and rule the heaving cosmos from it. He is seated enthroned upon your praise (Ps 22:3, RSVCE). He inhabits it. Like the cherubim, of beaten and hammered gold in the dark secret of the Holy of Holies, we must sing!

When circumstances have reduced your joy to a whisper, you must SING. When we least feel like it, when it is most difficult, praise is most sacrificial and therefore most potent. Raise your voice in golden praise. Chant the glorious Psalms of Ascent that lift battered spirits to the divine summit.

Cry if you must, dear one, if through weakness, anguish, struggle, or discouragement, but it is when life has hammered and beaten you down that you are nearest the seat of the mercy of God. He is near to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18).

You May Also Like…

God’s Army: the Truth about Angels

The Psalms: Prayers from the Heart of a King

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  • (big heart) The wings of eagles have taken on new significance for me recently. Now the wings of cherubim. The vast wings of an eagle, the courage and fierceness of a lion, and the immovable, steadfast ox. Love it!!

  • What a beautiful image for me during dark days…to fall between the wings of cherubim, help them to raise me high, and allow God to wrap me in His arms.

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