Sanctifying Your Day With the Angelus
by Msgr. Roger J. Scheckel, Spiritual Advisor of the Marian Catechist Apostolate
At the heart of our Catholic Faith is the celebration of the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son, conceived in the womb of the Virgin, it is fitting to reflect on one of the daily spiritual practices of the Marian Catechist, the praying of the Angelus.
A classic depiction of the Angelus is a painting by Jean-Francois Millet. It portrays a husband and wife interrupting their work in the field, bowing their heads in prayer. In the landscape behind the two of them, along with their wheelbarrow and tools, is a steeple of the church, the place from which the bell tolls indicating it is time to pray the Angelus.
When I was pastor of The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish at Saint Mary’s Ridge, Wisconsin, a beautiful rural area of the Diocese of La Crosse settled by devout German Catholic farmers; parishioners would retell the stories told to them by their grandparents about the Angelus bell that would ring at noon. When the bell tolled, it was reported that a person could scan the many fields along the ridge and observe teams of horses, connected to various implements, stopped in their tracks. In those days, the Angelus was so much a part of rural life that as soon as the first toll of the bell was heard, the horses stopped themselves without having to be told to do so by their drivers. What a wondrous sight it must have been to look out over the fields and, there, see your neighbor praying the same prayer you were praying at the same time of the day. What a powerful witness and source of encouragement this must have been for those farmers.
We must never underestimate what God is able to bring forth from our witness to the faith, especially through prayer. The witness of a young girl praying the Angelus was the beginning of the conversion, from Hinduism to Christianity, of Sister Nirmala, superior of the Missionaries of Charity; the religious order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa. In an interview appearing in the January – March 2003 issue of Mission Today: A Journal of Missiological and Ecumenical Research, Sister Nirmala answered the question, “How did you come to know Jesus Christ?” with the following,
“I did not wish to convert to Christianity. I had no idea what it was about, and I was very happy being a Hindu. However, in my city there was no institute for girls, so I was registered at Patna Women’s College, a Catholic institution.
A few days after being there, a Hindu girl, who was an American student, knelt down and began to pray, when the bells rang. I remained standing and looking at her, and something happened, a gentle movement in my soul and I felt that the living Jesus came to me. From then on, I began to ask a lot of questions about Jesus, and after six and a half years I came to Calcutta, met Mother Teresa, and was baptized.”1
The Angelus is a prayer, which sanctifies our day at sunrise, noon and sunset. The prayer is Christocentric, underscoring the mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word. It also possesses a thoroughly Marian character in its commemoration of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary.
The historical genesis of the Angelus is rather complex. There was a tradition in the monasteries of Europe during the Middle Ages to ring a bell at dusk as a kind of salute to the Virgin Mary. This custom was then embraced by cathedral and parish churches, where, at the sound of a bell, the faithful were encouraged to pray three Hail Marys in honor of the Virgin visited by the angel, which was believed to have occurred during the evening.
The morning Angelus grew out of a practice of ringing a bell in the morning, honoring Mary as the “Morning Star,” and seeing in her the bride who “comes forth like the dawn … resplendent as the sun” (Song of Songs 6:10).
The Angelus prayed at noon was the last to develop. In all likelihood, it had its origin in the custom of ringing a bell at noon on Fridays in memory of our Lord’s Passion. This further developed with the prescription of Pope Callistus III, who ordered the daily ringing of the bells at noon with the praying of three Our Fathers and Hail Marys, asking for divine protection from the Turks who were threatening Christendom.
The praying of the Angelus, at least two times a day, by the Marian Catechist allows for a participation in the sanctification of time. This sanctification, which manifests itself to a greater degree in the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, is founded in the understanding that Christ has established dominion over all creatures, including the creature of time. By reserving a portion of time in regular sequence, day after day, to honor Christ and his Mother, this dominion shows forth in the world and in the life of the Marian Catechist.
At the heart of the Angelus prayer is the proclamation of the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God. By His Incarnation, God in the person of His Son unites Himself to our human nature in order to take upon Himself the just punishment for mankind’s sinful disobedience — the punishment of suffering and death. God in His divinity could not experience suffering and death, but insofar as His divinity is perfectly united to our human nature, He can and does take on our sins and, in fact, dies on a cross.
On one of the shelves in my parish office are two statues that sit beside one another. One is Mary holding the newborn infant Jesus in her lap. The other is the Pieta, the sorrowful Mother holding the lifeless body of the God-man. Those two statues together symbolize for me what constitutes the Redemptive Incarnation. There, at its heart, is found our Blessed Mother. The praying of the Angelus allows Marian Catechists to contemplate this great mystery of God’s Redemptive Incarnation through “the eyes of Mary.”
The late Father John A. Hardon was a true master of the interior life. He understood what is needed by the faithful, for their spiritual nourishment, as they carry out their Christ-given mission in the world. He commended to his catechists the daily praying of the Angelus. The Angelus is a simple and beautiful prayer that embraces and celebrates the great mystery of God’s love for each and all of us. May all Marian Catechists pray it with faith and devotion.
1Mission Today: A Journal of Missiological and Ecumenical Research Jan-March 2003, Vol.V, No 1, 73-74.
2For a very well documented commentary on the origin and genesis of the Angelus see Angelus Domini: Celebrations of the Annunciation (Chicago: Friar Servants of Mary, 1986).
V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord,
V. And the Word was made flesh,
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
V. Let us pray.
Originally publshed in the Tilma, January 2004.