by V.K. McCarty
Commanders of the heavenly hosts,
we who are unworthy beseech you,
by your prayers encompass us beneath the wings of your immaterial glory,
and faithfully preserve us who fall down and cry to you:
Deliver us from all harm, for you are the commanders of the powers on high!
(Troparion for the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers, Tone 4)
As the angels are gathering for the great Feast of the Synaxis of the Archangels, those of us wary of believing in angels at all may question their very nature. Yet we are standing as close to a mighty explanation as Psalm 104:4, and to Psalm 103:20-21 for the powerful efficacy of their ministry revealed. God who “makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flaming fire,” as the Psalmist says, is both terrifying and gorgeous to behold. That the angels of God “excel in strength, do his commandments, hearken to the voice of his word…and do his pleasure,” identifies them as front-facing essential workers in the economy of Salvation and in our lives among the faithful.
“Take a close look at a branding iron,” Basil the Great teaches us, “and the nature of angels’ holiness will become plainer: Remember that fire is required to heat it; yet, we would not claim that the branding iron and the fire are the same substance. The angels are a similar case; they are essentially aerial spirits, composed of immaterial fire, as it is written, ‘He makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flaming fire’ (Ps 104:4). Angels exist in space, and when they are seen by those who are worthy, they assume an appropriate physical form” (On the Holy Spirit, PG38.138A). For us then, in our deepest prayer and praise, we are able to see the divine illumination of angelic appearances in the same manner as viewing, perhaps, a rainbow, which can truly appear visually and radiantly upon occasion, and can powerfully signify God’s promise in Scripture, but has no physical body.
The seven Archangels we celebrate at the feast are named in the Apocryphal Old Testament text, the Book of Enoch, which lists their functions as well: “These are the names of the holy angels who watch. Uriel, who is over the world and over Tartarus. Raphael, who is over the spirits of men. Gabriel, who is over Paradise and the serpents and the Cherubim. Michael, to wit, he that is set over the best part of mankind and over chaos. Saraqael, who is set over the spirits, who sin in the spirit. Remiel, whom God set over those who rise. Raguel, who takes vengeance on the world of the luminaries” (Enoch 20:1-8). Notice how all the archangel names end in “EL”—that is because their names all represent celestial attributes of God in Hebrew.
Four of the principle archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel—are traditionally believed to guard the four metaphysical corners of the Great Throne of God, and of the cosmos. Archangels are “God-fearing embers, enflamed by the fire of the divine nature,” as Vladimir Lossky describes it. “They spread through the universe, the fire of inaccessible Divinity, ceaselessly chanting the hymn of the Trinity: Holy, Holy, Holy our God.” (Meaning of Icons , 108). How fortunate it is, then, for us that the Liturgy is far more explicit in describing and affirming the angels and archangels than even the teaching of the Church. Every Sunday, we worship with the Trisagion, repeating threefold the words of the angels, joining in the praise of heaven and earth chanting together: “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us!” The Liturgy of Chrysostom also exclaims: “Holy is God who is worshipped and glorified by the multitude of holy angels and archangels invisibly trembling before him.” Likewise, the Liturgy of Basil praises God Almighty who “established armies of angels and archangels for the service of thy glory.”
From the Byzantine Liturgy of Saint Basil comes this little prayer gem: “Lord and Master, Our God, who hast appointed the orders of Angels and Archangels to minister to thy glory in heaven: grant that your Holy Angels may enter in with us to join in our service and glorifying of thy goodness, and unto the ages of ages.” And although hardly Orthodox, there is even, intriguingly, a “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel” in the James Joyce novel, Ulysses, rather telling of his authentic fear of evil spirits: “Blessed Michael, the archangel, defend us in the hour of conflict. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil (May God restrain him, we humbly pray): and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust Satan down to hell and with him those other wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen” (Ulysses , 80).
St. Dionysius was not the first to examine in mystical depth God’s angelic beings; but, his speculation that the role assigned to angels “formed the missing ontological link between the visible and invisible world” (J Pelikan, Spirit of Eastern Christendom , 142), made a significant contribution to the theological and philosophical study of angels, as we know it today. He made much of how near to the glory of God some of the angels are, and he identified a system of categories according to that proximity, with seraphim and cherubim closest to the Throne of God. Like the rainbow, showing us reflected light in arcs of color, this ancient writer outlined the categories of angels, and how they demonstrate the pathway of union to God, revealing the steps of spiritual progress: of purification, and then illumination, and eventual unification with our Almighty Creator.
Within the masterfully expressed Dionysian vision, the celestial hierarchies of Heaven originate from the Godhead of the Trinity as its transcendent source. They radiate outward, shedding divine light through nine orders of angels, whose celestial service is meant to draw us toward full participation in the life of heaven. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights,” he explains in the Celestial Hierarchy: “this is the Light which, by way of representative symbols, makes known to us the most blessed hierarchies among the angels…so that God might lift us in spirit up through the perceptible to the conceptual, from sacred shapes and symbols up to the simple peaks of the hierarchies of heaven…If one speaks then of Angels, what is meant is a certain perfect arrangement, an image of the beauty of God which sacredly works out the mysteries of its own enlightenment…for it is purifying, illuminating, and perfecting” (Cel.Hier. 1, PG3.120B, 121B, 124A, 165 B-C).
Holy Scripture shows us that people have been interacting with angels since their first days in the garden of Paradise. Throughout the entire arc of God’s salvation history from Creation to Resurrection, angels have signaled divine presence, with powerful assurances of God’s protection and encouragement. Angels have provided as well the fearful onslaught of God’s intimacy in messages to mankind, from the Pentateuch to the Gospels. In Bible stories, one after the other, angels are revealed as “a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God” (Lk. 2:13), and are described as not only numberless, but of luminous magnificence transcending gender. Remember, too, that Jesus himself speaks of angels and experienced angels; he grew up in a Jewish culture which recognized many celestial messengers—angels without wings—bringing God’s Word and wisdom to the faithful.
Of this divine gift of God’s reflected presence, Gregory the Theologian explained: “Since Good must be poured out and go forth beyond itself to multiply the objects of its beneficence, God first conceived the heavenly and angelic powers. And this conception was a work fulfilled by his Word, and perfected by his Spirit, and so the angelic splendors came into being, as fire of an immaterial and incorruptible kind” (Oration 38, On the Nativity of Christ, IX). It was, perhaps, in developing the concept of angels, with its assumption of spiritual progress and the profound goodness of God, that the Church Fathers took one of the more innovative steps beyond the Platonic world-view which they inherited.
“Finally, ponder this,” says our kindly St. John of Kronstadt, a recent Russian saint in the pantheon of Church Fathers; he blesses us with this wisdom: “The Lord created the angels as wise, powerful, eternally holy, and pure with divine truth…Think then, dear Brothers and Sisters, how close the angels are to us…Therefore, emulate the angels, especially since you are created in the image of God; this gift is common to angels and to mankind. Honor the angels, my friends, imitate their holiness, their love and devotion to God, and you will be worthy of a blessed life in heaven together with them.” (Sermon on the Synaxis of the Archangels)
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.