"Bright Seraphs, Cherubim and Thrones.".
A recent Hollywood movie features an angel by the name of Seth who chooses to plunge to earth and become mortal for the love of a woman. She is subsequently hit by a truck and dies, but Seth comes to the conclusion that a night with her in sensual pleasure is worth, well, eternity. City of Angels is but one aberrant portrayal of angels among many now flooding our secular culture. Such portrayals are harmful, says an article in the October 4th National Catholic Register, because these perverse renderings of traditional Catholic beliefs are more likely to draw unsuspecting Catholics into New Age ideas than such bizarre concoctions as goddess worship and crystal-gazing. While the fascination with angels springs from a genuine longing in the modern world for the sacred and the spiritual, it's helpful for Catholics, in the midst of this "angel craze," to know just what the Church teaches about celestial beings. Below is the first of two articles which outline what angels really are, and what they really do.
When we read the Bible, we encounter angels on almost every page. From Genesis to the Apocalypse, we see them playing a role in the history of the world, of the chosen people and of individuals. For instance, we see, in the Old Testament, Cherubim guarding the entrance of the Earthly Paradise after the Fall; the dream of Jacob in which he sees angels going up and down the ladder of contemplation; the archangel Raphael accompanying young Tobias on his journey. In the New Testament, we see an angel appearing to Zechariah to announce the birth of his son, John the Baptist; the archangel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary to announce the great mystery of the incarnation; the angels appearing to the shepherds to proclaim the birth of Christ and praise God; Joseph's dream in which he is warned by an angel to flee to Egypt with Mary and the child; angels ministering to Christ after the temptations in the desert; angels appearing to the women on Easter Day.
We know by Christ's own teaching that "the little ones who believe in him" have guardian angels who "do always behold the face of the Father." In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul mentions principalities and powers together with angels, thereby suggesting the idea of a celestial hierarchy. Other Epistles of St. Paul also speak of "principalities and powers in heavenly places," adding further orders of angelic beings, such as thrones and dominions.
Finally, the Revelation of St. John tells the story of the great war that shook heaven, the war between the archangel Michael, with his angels, and Lucifer, the most beautiful and intelligent of all angels, whose name means 'bearer of light' or 'morning star', who, with his angels, rebelled against God. Lucifer was defeated by St. Michael and thrown down to the earth, "that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world -- he who was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him." (Rev. 12, 7-9).
The presence of angels everywhere in the Bible is not to the taste of many, who are not happy with the personal character given to the celestial spirits. As Cardinal Danielou points out in his book, The Angels and their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church:
There are two chief errors concerning this subject. The first comes from the rationalists who group angels and demons together as personifications of psychological realities and who would like to see in them a mythical interpretation of data to which psychoanalysis would furnish the key. Others, justifiably reacting against these tendencies, show a lively interest in the invisible world; but they seek to penetrate it by means of spiritism or theosophy, and by their imprudent attempts, they stray from the one single way of access which is given to us, Jesus Christ (Intro. vii-viii).
So, on the one hand, there are those who would send the angels to the couch of the psychoanalyst and, on the other hand, there are those who attempt to establish contact with spirits through Ouija boards and other such things.
What--or should I say who--are the angels? What is their nature? What is their relation to God and to man? What are the different choirs of angels? The Bible names them but does not determine their meaning. Do angels have different missions?
All these questions have been addressed over the centuries by great thinkers. The Fathers of the Church were particularly interested in the angels' missions in the history of salvation. Dionysius the Aeropagite was the first one to write a systematic treatise on the different hierarchies of angels: De hierarchibus coelestibus (The Celestial Hierarchies). Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, has a whole section devoted to the study of angels, their nature and their grace, their intellect and their love. The great Italian poet Dante devotes two cantos of the Divine Comedy to the angels. There is found an excellent summary of the traditional teaching of the Church on the matter. Not only does it have the advantage of being presented in fewer than 100 lines, but, because it is presented in poetic form, the images also speak to our heart and imagination. This is why I have chosen to use Dante as my guide for this presentation.
Dante and Beatrice have ascended to the ninth heaven of paradise, to the Primum Mobile, and there Dante sees a dazzling point of light surrounded by nine fiery circles:
One Point I saw, so radiantly bright, So searing to the eyes it strikes upon, They needs must close before such piercing light.
About this Point a fiery circle whirled, With such rapidity it had outraced The swiftest spheres revolving round the world.
This by another circle was embraced, This by a third, which yet a fourth enclosed; Round this a fifth, round that a sixth I traced.
Beyond the seventh was so wide disclosed That Iris, to enfold it, were too small, Her rainbow a full circle being supposed.
So too the eighth and ninth; and each and all More slowly turned as they were more removed Numerically from the integral.
Purest in flame the inmost circle proved. Being nearest the Pure Spark, or so I venture, Most clearly with Its truth it is engrooved. (Par. XXVIII, 16-39)
What Dante sees is God, the Point of Light, surrounded by nine concentric circles, which move the more swiftly as they are closer to the centre. These nine concentric circles represent the nine angelic orders. The first order, the one nearest to the point of Light, is the swiftest:
Behold the circle nearest to it and know It owes its rapid movement to the spur Of burning love which keeps it whirling so. (Par. XXVIII, 43-45)
It is love that moves the first circle of angels around the Point, which is immobile, and this first movement is transmitted to the rest of the universe, through the different orders of angels. This is why the angels were called by ancient philosophers the movers of the spheres or the moving Intelligences.
Beatrice goes on to name for Dante the nine angelic orders:
..."The Seraphim and Cherubim The first ring, and the next, to thee displays.
In eagerness to grow the more like Him (God), Their path they follow, and succeed so far In measure as their vision is sublime.
Those other loves which circle round them are, Since they declare God's judgment, called the Thrones: They brought the first three to an integer.
The bliss of all--set this among thy knowns- Abounds in measure as, with sight, they plumb The depths of Truth where all disquiet drowns.
The second Triad which is flowering yet In this eternal never-fading spring, Ne'er by the Ram in his night-raids beset,
With its perpetual Hosanna-ing Sings winter out in triple melody, In three-fold bliss with its treble ring.
The divine beings who form this hierarchy Are Dominations, Virtues, one and two, And, last, the Powers, whose order makes them three.
The dances which remain display to view Princedoms, Archangels, and one circle more With Angels' jubilation is filled through.
And all these orders upwards gaze with awe, As downwards each prevail upon the rest, Whence all are drawn to God and to Him draw. (Par. XXVIII, 98-128)
Before I go on to discuss the different choirs of angels, I would like to remind you that the word 'angel' means 'messenger'. As messengers of God whose mission it is to manifest the things of God, all these, whether Seraphim, Cherubim, or Archangels, are called angels. However, angels from a higher order have a particular excellence and they take their own particular name from that excellence.
Dante's classification of angels followed Dionysius, who divides them into three hierarchies, each containing three orders, i.e., the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones (first hierarchy); then, the Dominations (Dominions), Virtues and Powers (second hierarchy); and finally, the Princedoms, Archangels and Angels (third hierarchy).
This classification is slightly different from the order given by St. Gregory. His order is known to all of you, because it was adopted by the author of the splendid hymn 'Ye watchers and ye holy ones/ Bright Seraphs, Cherubim and Thrones..../ Cry out Dominions, Princedoms, Powers, / Virtues, Archangels, Angels' choirs...'
Dante explains why he chose Dionysius' order over Gregory's:
When Dionysius with ardent zest Pondered these orders of angelic bliss, he named them in this way, the true and best; But Gregory then differed over this, and when his eyes were opened on this scene
He smiled to see how he had gone amiss
And that a mortal man on earth could glean
Such secret truth need not astonish thee.
Paul who in Paradise such things had seen
Gave his full tidings of the mystery.
(Par. XXVIII, 130-132)
It was believed in the Middle Ages that the author of the book on the celestial hierarchies was none other than Dionysius, the disciple of St. Paul. St. Paul 'was caught up in paradise', as we know from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. According to Dante, he must have seen there the true order of the angels and told his disciple Dionysius. This is why Dionysius is the authority to be followed on this matter.
St. Thomas Aquinas spends quite a bit of time explaining the different names of the different choirs of angels and also, the logic of the order given by both Gregory and Dionysius (which we will consider in the next issue).
Dr. Marguerite Kussmaul is a Teaching Fellow at the University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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|Title Annotation:||angels and the bible|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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