On Thursday there is an important feast celebrating the Archangel Michael and the angel Gabriel and six other angels. The word for “archangel” in Greek is “archangelos”, meaning “chief messenger”; and the word for “angel” is “angelos” meaning “messenger”. So angels are essentially messengers of God, messengers who are trying to bring us some important gift that is relevant to our lives. The feast in the Church calendar later this week is called the “Synaxsis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers,” that is “the Gathering” of these angels, a gathering in which we are invited to participate. How can we participate with angels and bodiless powers that we cannot see? A tough question.
Let’s begin by looking at the presence of angels in the Bible. Perhaps that will give us some clues about how angels might be important for us today. The first angels to be mentioned in the Bible are the cherubim, the small angels, mentioned in Genesis, chapter 3, verse 24, whom the Lord stationed with a flaming sword “to guard the way to the tree of life”. Later, in Exodus chapter 25 one figure of a cherub was made out of gold and placed at each end of the mercy seat within the ark of the covenant; and these two cherubim with their outstretched wings were intended as a sign that God draws near to Him those who were once alienated from Him. It appears that these cherubim in the Books of Genesis and Exodus were signs of the presence of God, both protecting paradise from those with evil intentions and inviting those with good intentions to draw near to the Lord. The cherubim were messengers who did God’s will, so it was appropriate to refer to them in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 9, as “messengers of glory”.
In both the Old and the New Testament angels arrive suddenly and unexpectedly to help people out of difficult situations as in Genesis 16 when Hagar, the mother-to-be of Ishmael, is told in the desert to return to her mistress Sarai, and then again in Genesis 21 in the desert, when an angel saves Hagar and her son Ishmael. Better known is how in Genesis 22, an angel stops Abraham from killing his son Isaac, or in Exodus 3 how an angel of the Lord appears to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush”. Now these angels appeared a long time ago; and although Abraham and Moses are real people, who faced and resolved real problems, it is not easy to understand what the significanceof angels is to us today.
It would appear that angels are sent by the Lord to protect us and to guide us, just as those same angels protected many people in the Old and New Testaments. Father John McGuckin calls angels “intermediaries who serve God’s will by mediating with humankind”—to mediate with mankind, that is, to resolve any problems that humanity has with God or with life itself. That is a good definition, but it is also important to understand that angels mediate with each of us as individuals. Angels work out for each of us how we can best relate to God; and then angels guide us, often without our knowledge of their action, into that relationship to God, that situation in life that God wills for each of us. In the Divine Liturgy we ask the Lord to grant each of us “an angel of peace, a faithful guide and guardian of our souls and bodies”.
Now, this idea that angels guide and guard us was strongly promoted by the third century Greek philosopher, Origen of Alexandria; but Origen was not a saint,and his understanding of angels and of people was at times rather confused. Origen thought that each human being had a pre-existence in heaven before they came to earth; and the role of the guardian angel was to guide human beings back to heaven from whence they had originally come. However, there is no Biblical evidence nor Church tradition that supports such a strange idea. Rather, the Orthodox Church’s understanding of angels is based upon the teaching of St Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century theologian from Cappodicia, in what is now Turkey, who argued convincingly that God made three creations—the angels of the first creation, animals of a second creation, and human beings who were a “mixed creation”—part spirit and part flesh. This was in keeping with the Biblical approach, as set out in the book of Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 16 in which through Christ “all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible”. That is the teaching of the Orthodox Church about angels: we have the spiritual capacity to reach for and to be guided by angels, but we remain human beings anchored on earth until we die.
Father McGuckin refers to angels as “deliverers of revelation”. Now that was certainly what happened to Holy Mary when the angel Gabriel told her about how the birth of Christ was to happen. The Theotokos replied, “May it be done to me according to your word”. That was the word of an angel that Mary was trusting. Strikingly, St Bede, who lived from 673 to 735, the foremost scholar of Anglo-Saxon England, has pointed out in Book One, section 24 of his Homilies on the Gospels, that: “It was not as one incredulous at the angel’s words that [Holy Mary] demanded to know how these things could be fulfilled, rather she was certain that what she was then hearing from the angel [Gabriel] and what she had previously read in the sayings of the prophet [Isaiah] necessarily had to be fulfilled, and so she inquired about the way in which it was to be accomplished”. St Bede offers us here a remarkably powerful and realistic understanding of the life of Holy Mary—that in her reading of the Old Testament and in her prayer and reflection, she knew Christ was coming, but she did not how or when. Therefore, when the angel Gabriel told her what was about to happen, she immediately believed him but also sought to understand how she would be involved in the birth of Christ.
We can do the same, as we each seek to deepen the life of Christ within us. We can trust angels to deliver revelations to us about how we should live our lives. We can trust angels each Sunday and each feast day when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy as we sing together the cherubic hymn at the Great Entrance: “We who in a mystery represent the cherubim [that is, the little angels], and sing the thrice holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all [that is, Christ] who comes escorted by the ranks of unseen angels.”
None of us are angels, but as the cherubic hymn phrases it, we can “represent” them—that is, we can stand for and with them. In the midst of the mystery of the Eucharist, the mystery of how bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, we can “lay aside all earthly cares” and receive Christ “who comes escorted by the ranks of unseen angels.” Whether or not we see these cherubim, we can trust angels to deliver truth to us—in the Divine Liturgy, in the Bible, in our relationships with other people, in our understanding of how best to live our lives.
To conclude, like Holy Mary, the shepherds in the field near Bethlehem also saw an angel, probably Gabriel again, but unlike Holy Mary, the Gospel of St Luke, chapter 2, verses 9 to 15, tell us that the shepherds “were terribly afraid”. However, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people… and suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’.” Whether or not we see angels like Holy Mary and the shepherds or hear the heavenly choir before we die, we can still be confident that angels are present in our lives. We can join the shepherds and say, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” In other words, we can welcome the reality that at baptism Christ has been born within each of us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to
God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.