On the Feast of Michael and all Angels, popularly called Michaelmas, we give thanks for the many ways in which God’s loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God’s creation far exceeds our knowledge of it.
The Holy Scriptures often speak of created intelligence other than humans who worship God in heaven and act as His messengers and agents on earth. We are not told much about them, and it is not clear how much of what we are told is figurative. Jesus speaks of them as rejoicing over penitent sinners (Luke 15:10). Elsewhere, in a statement that has been variously understood (Matt 18:10), He warns against misleading a child, because their angels behold the face of God. (Acts 12:15 may refer to a related idea.)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is occasionally reported that someone saw a man who spoke to him with authority, and who he then realized was no mere man, but a messenger of God. Thus we have a belief in super-human rational created beings, either resembling men in appearance or taking human appearance when they are to communicate with us. They are referred to as “messengers of God,” or simply as “messengers.” The word for a messenger in Hebrew is MALACH, in Greek, ANGELOS, from which we get our word “angel”
By the time of Christ, Jewish popular belief included many specifics about angels, with names for many of them. There were thought to be four archangels, named Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel.
|Michael (the name means “Who is like God?”) is said to be the captain of the heavenly armies. He is mentioned in the Scriptures in Daniel 10:13,31; 12:1 (where he is said to be the prince of the people of Israel); in Jude 9 (where he is said to have disputed with the devil about the body of Moses); and in Revelation 12:7 (where he is said to have led the heavenly armies against those of the great dragon). He is generally pictured in full armour, carrying a lance, and with his foot on the neck of a dragon. (Pictures of the Martyr George are often similar, but only Michael has wings.)||
Gabriel (the name means “God is my champion”) is thought of as the special bearer of messages from God to men. He appears in Daniel 8:16; 9:21 as an explainer of some of Daniel’s visions. According to the first chapter of Luke, he announced the forthcoming births of John the Baptist and of our Lord to Zachariah and the Virgin Mary respectively.
Raphael (the name means “God heals”) is mentioned in the Apocrypha, in the book of Tobit, where, disguised as a man, he accompanies the young man Tobias on a quest, enables him to accomplish it, and gives him a remedy for the blindness of his aged father.
Uriel (the name means “God is my light” — compare with “Uriah”, which means “the LORD is my light”) is mentioned in 4 Esdras.
It is thought by many scholars that the seven lamps of Revelation 4:5 are an image suggested by (among many other things) the idea of seven archangels.
What is the value to us of remembering the Holy Angels? Well, since they appear to excel us in both knowledge and power, they remind us that, even among created things, we humans are not the top of the heap. Since it is the common belief that demons are angels who have chosen to disobey God and to be His enemies rather than His willing servants, they remind us that the higher we are the lower we can fall. The greater our natural gifts and talents, the greater the damage if we turn them to bad ends. The more we have been given, the more will be expected of us. And, in the picture of God sending His angels to help and defend us, we are reminded that apparently God, instead of doing good things directly, often prefers to do them through His willing servants, enabling those who have accepted His love to show their love for one another.
The major post-New-Testament source for Christian ideas about angels is a writer (probably a fifth-century Syrian monk) who signed himself “Dionysius the Areopagite.” His writings were taken to be those of a convert of the Apostle Paul, mentioned in Acts 17:34. Accordingly, when he wrote on angels (or any other theological subject), he was assumed to know what he was talking about. His writings had a considerable influence on the portrayal of angels in art and in the popular imagination.
What Are The Nine Choirs?
The Apostle Paul writes:
[Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father,] far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion,…. (Eph 1:21)
For by him [the Son] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Col 1:16)
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers… shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38f)
For we contend not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against evil spirits in the heights. (Eph 6:12)
…that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:10)
And you are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and power (Col 2:10)
And having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:15)
Early commentators tended to take “principalities, powers” etc. as the names of various kinds of angelic beings. Since demons are considered to be fallen or rebellious angels, the quotations from Ephesians 6:12 and Colossians 2:15 are no problem.
Dionysius states that there are nine orders (or choirs) of angels, three triads of three each, in order from highest to lowest as shown in the following table.
The lowest order, called simply angels, are God’s messengers and envoys to (and guardians of) the human race. The highest order, the seraphim, devote themselves to contemplating God, beholding Him face to face, and loving and praising Him. Each order helps to reveal and declare God’s glory to the order below.
Pope Gregory I, in his Homilies on The Gospel, lists the same nine choirs, but with a different ranking. Dante in the Convivio gives still a third ranking, but affirms the ranking of Dionysius in the Comedy, canto 28. Aquinas discusses the matter in the Summa Theologia, part I, Q 108.
The term “angels” can refer either to all nine orders, or only to the lowest order, just as the term “soldier” can refer to anyone in the army, or only to the enlisted men (as opposed to the officers). For a little more information, see the book The Discarded Image, by C S Lewis.
Many readers will be familiar with the hymn by J Athelstan Riley beginning:
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.
Oh, praise Him! Oh, praise Him!
Note that this hymn lists the nine choirs, using the ranking of Gregory.