Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Nature of Angels.

Mother Alexandra.

Mother Alexandra.
   As we begin our discussion on an­gels, we should understand that the term "angel" is loosely and inaccurately used, for in Greek it simply means "messen­ger." As Saint Gregory the Great points out, "The name angel refers rather to their office, and not to their nature. For these holy spirits of our heavenly fatherland are indeed always spirits, but cannot always be called angels for then only are they angels when by means of them certain things are announced!".
   Angels are pure spirit, but they do not necessarily lack a consistency, the nature of which is beyond our ken. When we see them we behold a reality. I do not believe that the angels materialize in the physical sense of the word, yet they do have a spiritual concreteness. They are not transparent like ghosts, but appear to those who see them as completely substantial.
   An angel has character, individuality, and a will of his own, much as we have; but in other ways angels do not resemble us. When, to make himself manifest to us, an angel takes on human semblance, he never is physically like a human being, but only a mental image of one. Saint John of Damascus wrote, "They take different forms at the bidding of their Master, God, and thus reveal themselves to men and unveil the divine mysteries to them". However, contrary to the impres­sion created by most Western art since the Renaissance, angels do not take the forms of beautiful women, plump little chil­dren, or weakly sentimental young men. When they appear to human beings, they usually appear in the form of a strong, awe-inspiring man-the "man of God."
   Like us, the holy angels are created in the image of God, as Saint Gregory the Great wrote: "Since the Lord created the natures of both men and angels to the end that they might know Himself, and willed that they should endure forever, He made them without doubt to His own image".
   Saint John of Damascus wrote, "An angel, then, is an intelligent essence, in perpetual motion, with free-will, incorporeal, ministering to God, having ob­tained by grace an immortal nature". Although they have free will, their will is completely attuned to God's will, because of their utter love and adoration of the Lord.
   Saint Basil the Great describes angels as "outstripping the limits of time, eternal and infinite . . . intellectual and invisible natures, all in orderly arrangement of pure intelligences, who are beyond the reach of our mind and of whom we cannot even discover the [true] names." Crystal clear and faultless, knowing no pain or frustration, unhindered by doubt or fear, neither male nor female, they are beauty, love, life and action welded into individual unutterable perfection. In a certain sense, if it can be so expressed, they are the individualized selfness of God's own attributes.
   The holy angels stand in the presence of God beholding the face of the Lord. Their being is sustained by God's goodness, and they participate in His might, wisdom, and love. They are uplifted by their perpetual praise and thanksgiving. Uplifted Godwards, from their beginning it has been the angels' greatest joy to choose freely for God and to give Him their undaunted flow of life in unending love and worship. The entire heavenly host partook from the first in the execution of God's will. They have ever stood bent on God's intentions, unerringly fulfilling His design.
   From earliest times, these angelic hosts were conceived as divided into three hierarchies, which are in turn di­vided into three ranks each; Saint Diony­sius the Areopagite called them "choirs." This is the most fitting term as their whole activity is like an eternal song of praise and thanksgiving to the Most High. All nine ranks are named in Scripture.

   First come the Seraphim (Isaiah 6:2- 6), Cherubim (Ezekiel 1: 10), and Thrones (Colossians 1: 16). These are counselors and have no direct dealings with man, but are absorbed in unending love and adora­tion of God. No other creature is so in­tensely capable of loving God.
   Second come the Dominions (Ephesians 1:21), Virtues [Authorities] (1 Corinthians 15:26), and Powers (Ephesians 1:21). These are understood to be the governors of space and the stars. Our orb (sphere), consequently, as part of the gal­axy is under their dominion; otherwise, we have no direct contact with the second choir.
   Third come the Principalities (Ro­mans 8:38), Archangels (Jude 9), and Angels (many references). These have this earth of ours in their special charge. They are the executors of God's will, the perpetual guardians of the children of men, and the messengers of God. The Principalities combine divine lordship with perfect service. They guide the soul away from worldly pursuits to­wards the service of God. The Archan­gels have distinct individualities and are an order of celestial beings in themselves, partaking of the nature of both Principali­ties and Angels. Yet they are also mes­sengers, like the Angels. There are seven Archangels, the first four of whom are mentioned by name in the books of the Bible: Michael (Who Is Like God?), the leader of the heavenly host; Gabriel (The Man of God), the Angel of the Annuncia­tion; Raphael (The Healing of God), the chief of the guardian angels; and Uriel (The Fire of God), the interpreter of prophecies. The other three are named in various apocryphal writings.
   Here, in the utter simplicity of the interpretations of the archangelic names, we get momentary glimpses of their per­sonalities, through which their relation­ship to God becomes more apparent, as does their power and influence. The more we become aware of the angels of light, the more strengthened we are in our capacity for good, and the sharper becomes our ability to detect and resist the snares of our bitterest enemies, the angels of darkness.
   The Fallen Angels.
   Although our primary purpose is to deal with the "good" angels, we cannot fully comprehend their role in man's des­tiny unless we are familiar with the role of Satan, the "prince of this world," and his angels, the angels of darkness.
   Saint John of Damascus describes Satan thus: "He ... was not made wicked in nature but was good, and made for good ends, and received from his Creator no trace whatever of evil in himself. But he did not sustain the brightness and the honour which the Creator had bestowed on him, and of his free choice was changed from what was in harmony to what was at variance with his nature, and became roused against God Who created him, and determined to rise in rebellion against Him: and he was the first to depart from good and become evil." Thus he was cast out of heaven, and lost for all time the place for which he was created. Now he and his angels do unceasing battle with the heavenly hosts, led by the Archangel Michael, their standard-bearer.
   Satan's fall from heaven left him with a great consuming fury, for it is on earth alone that he has power. Satan is doubly angry because his power is limited to our world, and he knows fully that when our world is ended, his power to deceive mankind ends with it. His time for each one of us is shorter still, as his ability to reach us as individuals is limited to the lifespan granted us on the earth. Further­more, it is limited by our own will to listen to him, as Saint John continues: "All wickedness, then, and all impure passions are the work of their mind. But while the liberty to attack man has been granted to them, they have not the strength to overmaster anyone: for we have it in our power to receive or not to receive the attack."
   Angels and men.
The Angel holding a scroll written on it
Rev. 20: 11-13 about Judgement day.
   Angels are of a superiority all but incomprehensible to us, but they are a part of our lives, as the Scriptures abun­dantly testify. By God's boundless mercy, they are destined, in the great moments of history, to be the heralds of the Most High to man below; they are, as well, our guides, guardians, mentors, protectors, and comforters from birth to the grave. They call us, they coerce us to love and to obedience. They lead, teach, advise, punish, and reward. They guard and protect us; they become our companions on the road to heaven.
   Saint John Chrysostom describes their ministry thus: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? ... It is an angelical work, to do all for the salvation of the brethren ... And we, though servants, are yet Angels' fellow servants .... They are servants of the Son of God, and are sent many ways for our sakes, and minister to our salvation. And so they are partners in service with us ... And yet the space between angels and men is great; nevertheless he brings them down near to us, all but saying, For us they labor, for our sake they run to and fro: on us, as one might say, they wait. This is their ministry, for our sake to be sent every way."
   To worship the angels, in the heathen sense, is definitely wrong and forbidden by the Scriptures and the Church, but to pray for their help and to reverence them is quite scriptural. Prayer is the great bond of unity, the welding substance by which all God's creation stands as one before Him. Our personal angels and also the guardians of our different nations mingle their prayers with ours, carrying them to God on High.
   When Christians come together in corporate worship, angels are in our midst. It is not so much that they join us, as that we join them in their continual praise of God Most High. When we sing the Sanctus, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory; hosanna in the highest," we are participating in the song of praise the angels sing before God's throne-the highest song that any created being can offer (see Isaiah 6:3). The icons of angels on the iconostasis and elsewhere are not merely reminders, but the actual visible manifestation of the presence of angels in the house of God.
   To find the angels, to discover them, to come into intimate contact with them requires the humility of a Christian soul that is governed by the simplicity, the directness, the guileless curiosity of the unsophisticated child. Saint Augustine wrote, "It is not incongruous and unsuit­able to speak of a society composed of angels and men together. ... It is not in locality we are distant from them, but in merit of life ... for the mere fact of our dwelling on earth under the conditions of life in the flesh does not prevent our fellowship with them. It is only prevented when we, in the impurity of our hearts, mind earthly things .... We are brought near to them by faith, if by their assis­tance we believe that he who is their blessedness is also ours." This fellowship between men and angels is seen most clearly in the relation­ship of believers to their guardian angels.
   Guardian Angels.
   Each person, each parish, and each nation has its own guardian angel. Jesus spoke of this in Matthew 18: 10 in refer­ence to children, but as baptized Chris­tians we are all children of God; therefore we all have guardian angels. Origen com­ments on this: "To one angel the Church of the Ephesians was to be entrusted; to another, that of the Smyrneans; one angel was to be Peter's, another Paul's; and so on through everyone of the little ones that are in the Church ... and there must also be some angel that encampeth round about them that fear God."
   Our guardian angel is believed to be the spiritual image of all our true and good qualities; this renders him intensely personal and our very own specific angel. He is, accordingly, nearer or farther from us, as we are nearer or farther from our true nature. This belief is based in part on the story of Peter's escape from prison in Acts 12. When Peter appeared at the door of the house where they were gathered, the disciples, not understanding that Peter had escaped, said, "It is his angel", im­plying such a close connection between a person and his angel that one could be mistaken for the other. Even as our good characteristics are given us by God, so is our angel given to us, to protect and foster these traits, until we grow into the full maturity of our God-­given and God-like nature. He is indeed our guardian and our mentor, and beholds the face of God. As Saint Gregory the Great explains, "This also we firmly hold regarding the angels who are sent to us, that when they come they so outwardly fulfill their mission that never for a mo­ment are they withdrawn from divine contemplation. They are therefore sent and at the same time they assist before God's Throne; for though the angelic spirit is circumscribed, the supreme Spirit of God is not."
   Our angel is incorruptible and al­ways with us, but he may not always be able to reach us, because of our willful perversity. The evil angel, or demon, on the other hand, can only approach us as far as our bad qualities, or rather our indulgence in them, make him our shadow. When we are tempted to sin, our demon is on hand to encourage us to give in, just as our guardian is nearby to exhort us to resist. However, neither angel can actually influence our decision, because we are created by God with free will. We can and must choose either to give in to temptation or to resist it of our own will. Once we have made the choice to resist our angel, he will strengthen, uphold and protect us in our resistance, but if we choose to sin, we put ourselves beyond his reach.
   If we cling to our guardian angel throughout our lives, he will also be with us in the hour of death, to bear us to heaven. Therefore let us pray to our Guardian Angel: "Angel of the Lord, my holy guardian, who art given me of God to shield me: I earnestly pray thee, enlighten me this day and from all harm protect me, in all good things advise me, and on the path of redemption guide me".
   May God enlighten our minds and make us ever thoughtfully aware of the angel at our side.

Mother Alexandra (1987), The Holy Angels, St. Bede's Publications, Still River, Massachusetts, U.S.A.