Recently, I was speaking with one of our parish’s Church School teachers about the nature of angels and how we convey this to our children. One of our first tasks, I believe, is to overcome the caricature that has developed over the centuries over the appearance and role of angels. (Do adults also need to be liberated from this same caricature?)
That caricature imagines angels to be puffy and fluffy “cherubs” that are basically rosy-cheeked floating babies. Cupid-like, they carry bows and arrows that appear harmless enough. They are often naked, but at times they appear to be covered in what can only be described as a celestial diaper. How these Hallmark card fantasies, based on Renaissance and Baroque-era deviations from the sacred and profound iconography of the earlier centuries both West and East, can be associated with the “Lord of Sabaoth” and the celestial hierarchy of angels that surround the throne of God with their unceasing chant of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is something of an unfortunate mystery.
The Scriptures and the Holy Fathers only describe powerful celestial beings that serve God and fulfill His will for the well-being of the human race and our salvation. Angels are not eternal or immortal by nature. They are creatures, coming forth from the creative Word of God perfected by His Spirit. Saint Basil the Great teaches that angels were created before the visible world, based on Job 38:7 – “When the Stars were made, all my angels praised me with a loud voice.” These genderless beings are described by Saint Gregory the Theologian as “a second light, an effusion or participation in God, in the primal light.” And whenever a human being is visited by an angel and receives this heavenly messenger’s revelation, his or her first impulse is to bow down and worship this celestial visitor as a divine being! Warm and fuzzy feelings with any impulse toward cuddling and kissing are hardly implied in the biblical texts. Actually, our use of the term “angel” – based on the Greek angelos or “messenger”—is a generic term used to describe all of the many kinds of heavenly hosts described and named in the Scriptures. In fact, this celestial hierarchy, according to Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, is comprised of a triad of ranks, three angelic orders in each rank. The names are scriptural, but the triads have been conceived of by Saint Dionysios:
First Rank: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
Second Rank: Authorities, Dominions, Powers
Third Rank: Principalities, Angels, Archangels
This structuring of the celestial hierarchy has had an enormous influence on the angelology of the Church.
Actually, Saint John Chrysostom tells us that even these names and “classes” do not exhaust the heavenly ranks of angelic beings. “There are innumerable other kinds and an unimaginable multitude of classes, for which no words can be adequate to express,” he writes. “From this we see that there are certain names which will be known then, but are now unknown.”
With his great ability to summarize and synthesize the Church’s living Tradition, Saint John of Damascus (+749) gives us this description of what an angel actually is in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. “An angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.”
I hope that even this very brief description of the true nature of the bodiless hosts of heaven – based on the Scriptures and the Fathers – will restore a genuine sense of awe and veneration before these incredible beings that only further amaze us with the creative power, energy and will of God.