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What's the Deal with Angels?
Since we can't see angels, some people choose not to believe in them. This doesn't mean that they're not real, or that we can't know or understand something about them.
By Angelo Stagnaro
I will never forget Sr. Mary Gregory. She was the most wonderful kindergarten teacher in the world. She was the first theologian and angelologist I ever met.
My mother had already taught me about my Guardian Angel and about how he protects me but Sr. Mary Gregory taught me that when I sleep at night, my Guardian Angel places his wing over me so that nothing can ever hurt me while I sleep.
Even now I tear up in thankfulness to my Guardian Angel and Sr. Mary Gregory.
In his book, Angels and Demons, Peter Kreeft ponders the question as to why modern people refuse to believe in angels — even Christians who know that Christ specifically admitted they existed on several occasions in Scriptures.
The author suggests that there are several reasons including the inability for people to presume that only empirical data constitutes the truth. That is, since we can't see angels, some of us choose not to believe in them. But this doesn't mean we can't know or understand what they are. The example Kreeft gives is how easily we can see and intellectually understand the difference between a five-sided figure (i.e., a pentagon) and a six-sided figure (i.e., a hexagon.) We can't, however, sense or imagine the difference between a 105-sided figure and a 106-sided figure. We don't have the ability to distinguish between them simply by looking, as they both look like circles to us. Despite this, we can understand the difference between the two and even measure that difference accurately.
Apparently, there are things we can understand though we can't see them. We also can't see qualities like good and evil either but we can intellectually understand them. We can imagine our brains, but not our minds or personalities but we can know them intimately and even study them.
Another reason Kreeft cites for the refusal to believe in angels is unthought-out physicalism, that is, the belief that there is no other reality to the universe other than observable physical reality. Those who hold to this theory refuse to believe in the existence of souls. They believe that death is final because with the death of the brain, so goes the mind/personality.
A healthier and more realistic paradigm is to think of humans as being both angel and animal—both spirit and body. He is the lowest spirit, lower than the angels. He is also the highest body, materially speaking—the dumbest angel and the smartest animal. We are between angels and animals—we are a unique rung on the cosmic ladder.
Unless we embrace both sides of our cosmic inheritance, we'll never know ourselves. If we think of ourselves as only animals, we fall to a disgraceful (literally) state in which our animal natures are of prime importance. Eating, sleeping, sex, competition and violence can never inspire, let alone make people happy. We must always strive higher and not be content with our animal nature.
What About the Wings?
It might be a lovely Hollywood sentiment but angels don't actually have to earn their wings as did Clarence, the "angel-in-training" from the classic Christmas movie ‘It's a Wonderful Life’.
Christian religious art and popular culture portray angels as having wings but this is not to say that they actually do. After all, as they are extremely powerful creatures unimpeded by neither space nor time, they don't really need wings. This is, however, how they are portrayed in Scriptures. The Book of Revelation portrays the Four Living Creatures (Rev 4:6-8) — which are angelic beings — as being winged. The Old Testament also describes cherubim (Ezekiel's Merkabah vision, Ezekiel 10:6-9) and seraphim (Isa 6:2) as being winged. However, the quintessential, definitive answer to this question comes from St. John Chrysostom:
They manifest a nature's sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature."
Angels have been represented in art as having at least one set of wings since the time of Theodosius I (d. AD 395) as is evidenced by the Prince's Sarcophagus which was discovered in the 1930s at Sarigüzel, near Istanbul. The coffin clearly displays winged angels.
Either way, it's lovely to have winged angels atop my Christmas tree every year.
And the Halos?
A halo, also known as a nimbus, aureole or gloriole, is a circle of light that surrounds a person's head in artistic representation. In his Celestial Hierarcies, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite teaches that the grace of God illuminates the saints and angels. The halo thus represents the light of divine grace which suffuses the holy soul in union with God.
They have been by many religions to depict an attributed inherent holiness to those thusly depicted. The Egyptian pagan god Ra was depicted as having a solar disc behind his head in statuary created in the 13th century BC. Homer refers to warriors in the Iliad as sporting halos. Light was said to emanate from St. Dominic Guzman's forehead. Even historical secular and military leaders have been depicted with halos including Persian and Ottonian kings, Russian czars, Mughal emperors and Rajput and Sikh rulers. Chinese emperors often had themselves depicted thusly in imitation of the Buddha. Whatever their origin, the halo represents an aura or glow of sanctity. The first Christian iconography which depicts halos dates to the 4th century with the earliest iconic images of Christ.
God the Father, though rarely depicted in iconography, is sometimes distinguished by the use of a triangular halo to represent the Trinity. Medieval patrons who were depicted in paintings while still alive were sometimes given square halos. It's not uncommon to see a cruciform halo on Christ and other saints. The Blessed Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted with a halo in the form of 12 stars which is derived from the Book of Revelations. (Rev 12:1) This symbol has subsequently been appropriated as the symbol of the European Union. Arsène Heitz, the flag's designer, acknowledged in a 2008 interview that he derived the design of a circle of twelve golden stars from the Book of Revelation. As Heitz was considering a design to submit for the EU, he was reading the history of the Blessed Virgin's apparitions in Paris' Rue du Bac, known today as the Virgin of the Miraculous Medal. In fact, he belonged to the Order of the Miraculous Medal, which would explain his intimate acquaintanceship with the symbol.
An interesting version of the halo is the radiance depicted as emanating from the individual's entire body called an aureole or mandorla (the Italian word for "almond"). Our Lady of Guadalupe is depicted thusly as are depictions of the Risen Christ.
The Nine Hierarchies or Choirs of Angels
Sacred Scripture distinguishes nine types of angels: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. (Gen 3:24, Isa 6:2, Rom 8:38, Eph. 1:21, Col. 1:16) There have been many reworkings of the exact order of this hierarchy ever since St. Clement of Rome created the first angel list in the first century but the official one comes to us from St. Thomas Aquinas. From lowest to highest, they are:
Of the nine choirs of angelic beings, the angels are closest to this earthly plane of existence and to us as human beings. They act as intermediaries and facilitators for pray between us and God and for His response to us. They are the most caring and social and seek to assist those who ask for help. As spiritual, metaphysical beings, they are not hampered by space and time and thus perpetually have access to God and to each other. When we speak of guardian angels, we are, in fact, discussing this order or class of angelic beings.
Archangels are leaders. The word is derived from the Greek word αρχάγγελος (archangelos), meaning chief angel, a translation of the Hebrew רב־מלאך (rav-mal'ákh.) The word is only used twice in the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Jude 1:9. Only Archangels Gabriel and Michael are mentioned by name in the New Testament. These are the most often quoted angelic creatures in the Bible and the ones that most often interact with humanity. Archangel Michael, who is actually a princely Seraph, leads the forces of good at the Apocalypse. (Rev 12:7-9) The Archangels also serve as messengers for highly important instances in salvific history such as when Gabriel spoke to Mary at Christ's Incarnation and at His Infancy. (Mat 1:20, 2:13, Lk 1:11-20) Gabriel is needed to translate Daniel's prophesies. (Dan 9:21-27) He also appeared to Zechariah to announce St. John the Baptist's birth. (Lk 1:11) It was also Gabriel who asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to become the mother of the Lord and Savior of the Universe. (Lk 1:26) Raphael is also an archangel because he introduces himself to Tobit saying, he was one of the seven beings who stand before the throne of God. (Tob 12:15) This is reflected in the Book of Revelation. (Rev 8:3) Though Uriel is often offered as the name of a fourth archangel, his name doesn't appear in canonical Scriptures.
The Principalities are angelic beings whose main duty is to carry out the orders the Dominions give them. They also collaborate with the Powers, in matters of power and authority They also spread their blessings to the material world and all who live in it. As part of their blessings, they are the source of inspiration. They are mentioned throughout the New Testament. (Rom 8:38; 1Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:10, 15)
Powers are also known as "Authorities." They are warrior lords who combat evil spirits throughout Creation in defense of humanity. Their also oversee the distribution of power among humankind, hence their name. and are mentioned repeatedly throughout the New Testament (Rom 8:38; 1Cor 15:24; Eph 1:21; 3:10, 6:12; Col 2:15,1 Peter 3:22; 2 The 1:7) The Apostle Paul teaches that the Powers collaborate, in power and authority, with the Principalities. (Eph 3:10)
The word for Virtues is related to the Greek word for "might." In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas describes this class of angelic beings as governing and supervising all natural forces, cycles, movements and progressions thus maintaining the universe in its proper order. They are also in charge of implementing God's miracles, breaking with the universe's natural order and provide inspiration, courage, grace and valor to the Faithful as they are needed. In De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite expostulates about the Virtues saying:
The name of the holy Virtues signifies a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies; not being weak and feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to it; mounting upwards in fullness of power to an assimilation with God; never falling away from the Divine Life through its own weakness, but ascending unwaveringly to the superessential Virtue which is the Source of virtue: fashioning itself, as far as it may, in virtue; perfectly turned towards the Source of virtue and flowing forth providentially to those below it, abundantly filling them with virtue.
Dominions are Angels of Leadership and are also known as "Lordships" or Hashmallim. They regulate the duties of the angels acting as intermediaries between God and other angelic creatures. (Eph 1:21, Col 1:16) They also preside over nations/ethnicities.
Also known as "Ophanim" which, in Hebrew, means "Those of the wheel." They are also called Erelim. St. Paul of Tarsus mentions them in Colossians 1:16. John the Evangelist equates them with the 24 Elders mentioned in the Book of Revelations. (Rev 11:16) Daniel describes them as a fiery wheel-within-a-wheel. The wheels' rims are covered with hundreds of eyes. (Dan 7:9) They symbolize God's authority and justice and are spiritually closely connected to the Cherubim as described in Ezekiel:
When they stood, these stood: and when they were lifted up, these were lifted up: for the spirit of life was in them. And the glory of the Lord went forth from the threshold of the temple: and stood over the cherubim. (Eze 10:17-18)
People often confuse cherubs with putti. The later are those adorable little, chubby, angelic children portrayed in old paintings. Real cherubs look nothing like putti. Ezekiel describes cherubs as:
And in the midst thereof the likeness of four living creatures: and this was their appearance: there was the likeness of a man in them. Everyone had four faces and every one four wings. Their feet were straight feet and the sole of their foot was like the sole of a calf's foot and they sparkled like the appearance of glowing brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides: and they had faces and wings on the four sides and the wings of one were joined to the wings of another. They turned not when they went: but everyone went straight forward. And as for the likeness of their faces: there was the face of a man and the face of a lion on the right side of all the four: and the face of an ox, on the left side of all the four: and the face of an eagle over all the four. And their faces and their wings were stretched upward: two wings of every one were joined and two covered their bodies. (Eze 1:5-11)
Cherubim have several assigned duties. They guard the tree of life in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24) and God's throne. (Eze 28:14-16, Rev 4:6-8) They are also mentioned throughout Scriptures including in Exodus 25:17-22, 2 Chronicles 3:7-14, Ezekiel 10:12–14 and 1 Kings 6:23–28.
Seraphim means "the burning ones." They seraphs have six wings and their principle function is to sing and praise God. (Isa 6:1-7) They are the highest order or choir of angels because they attend and guard God's throne. Michael the Archangel is a seraph. The only Biblical reference is Isaiah 6:1-7. One of this class of angelic creatures takes a burning coal from a censor and touches it to Isaiah's lips to cleanse him from his sin. Once Satan fell, Michael became the most important of the Seraphim.
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