Angels

November 6, 2014 Length: 20:31

Elissa discusses angels and what children can learn from them in Sunday school.

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Welcome to Raising Saints. First of all, I’m excited to announce that we’ve set up a Raising Saints blog right here on the Ancient Faith site. If you click the little “blogs” button at the top of the main page at ancientfaith.com, you’ll find that Ancient Faith is hosting a number of really great blogs now, and I’m honored to be included. The blog is also called Raising Saints, so it’s easy to find, and it will be focused on passing the faith on to our youth, at home and in the parish, just like this podcast. But the cool thing about the blog is that we’ll have a comment section so that we can discuss topics together. I look forward to hearing from you, and I encourage you to come online and comment on the blog, telling us about your experiences teaching: what’s working, what’s not working for you. I’d love to create a Raising Saints community where we can share ideas and answer questions and benefit from one another’s inexperience.

Some of the posts will stand alone, treating subjects that I have not covered in the podcast, and others will relate directly to a specific episode, perhaps offering supplemental information or links, or maybe responding to questions I’ve received after the episode is complete. I hope you’ll check in at the Raising Saints blog sometime soon, and I especially hope you’ll be commenting and join in the conversation.

Now, that said, it is November now, and the time is coming to celebrate the synaxis of the holy angels. So this seems like an appropriate moment to bring up one of the favorite topics of the children I know: angels, and for certain boys, angels who fight demons. Children have active imaginations, and they have precious little control of the world around them, so they can struggle with a lot of fears. Teaching them about angels can be very useful. What’s more, especially in the elementary years, in our Sunday school, we’ve seen many boys who can be called back to attention with any suggestion of warfare between angels and demons. It sounds funny, but there just seems to be an age where boys love that battle between good and evil, and I have to admit that I’ve used that fascination more than once to restore a boy’s focus.

There’s a lot to teach about angels, and it’s a good topic to open up with our kids, especially because they pick up a lot of wrong information about angels around here: here in the United States, where our popular culture has some strange and very incorrect notions about what angels are. I love the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart, but seriously: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings”? What? According to movies like this and the popular understanding in America, when people die, if they’ve been good, they sprout wings and become angels in heaven. The process seems to involve some harp-playing and bell-ringing.

But we Orthodox know things, like: Angels aren’t human. In fact, they’re bodiless, so they’re not subject to hot and cold like we are. They aren’t even subject to time and space. They’re part of what we mean when we say in the Creed, “Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” They’re part of the invisible creation of God.

We also know that they don’t generally look like ladies with wings, or even like babies with wings. Some of them are six-wingéd and many-eyed; some of them are like animals with wings. And the ones whose forms are more human are super tall, far taller than the tallest people. If you haven’t talked to your kids about it yet, you should. Angels are not dead people with wings. They are something else entirely.

Now, we Orthodox know something else, too, that we sometimes forget. Heaven is not up in the clouds, and the angels are not the only things who flit back and forth between heaven and earth. We know that the kingdom of God is here; it’s at hand, and Christ is present with us always, as are his beloved saints. The angels are among us, too. They’re a part of that cloud of witnesses that intercedes for us and loves us. We’re especially aware of the angelic presence in the Divine Liturgy. We understand that there’s a special kind of intersection of heaven and earth in the holy sacraments. In our Church, we would say that heaven bends down to kind of graciously include us when we do the services.

Mystically, when we face the altar, we’re facing God, and we think of the Eucharist Isaiah witnessed. He opens his sixth chapter with:

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. The house was full of his glory. Around him stood seraphim. Each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to the other and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory! The lintel was lifted up with the voice of those who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.

According to Isaiah, our Lord is on his throne and is surrounded by six-wingéd seraphim. They fly and sing out, “Holy, holy, holy!” You can hear the echoes of our own hymn: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth”—which is to say, “Lord of hosts”—“heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”

The angels come in many forms, and they serve many purposes, but one of their most beautiful roles is to fly in circles around the Lord, singing his glory. When we call out, “Holy, holy, holy!” we are joining them in their song.

Just as they sing in smoky, incense-filled circles around the Lord, we gather in the clouds of incense and sing out his praises. We’re not remembering what Isaiah saw as much as we are joining it. In the mystery that is Liturgy, we become a part of that angelic worship and join in. That alone is an honor worth stopping and considering.

When our middle school class learned about the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “hallowed be thy name,” and we thought of those seraphim, circling the Lord and singing his praises: “Holy, holy, holy!” they cry out. They magnify him. They glorify him. They hallow his name. Can’t we join them? Can we pray, “Hallowed be thy name” or sing out, “Hosanna in the highest” and join them? Well, of course, we can, and indeed some of our saints are called angelic because they’ve managed to begin to live like angels.

Icons of St. John the Forerunner traditionally show him with enormous angel wings and skinny, with bedraggled clothing and wild hair because of his great asceticism. His renowned fasting so freed him from bodily passions that he became like the angels who, being bodiless, are not struggling with bodily passion. When we cleanse ourselves with the sacraments and when we defeat our passions and free ourselves to truly and freely worship, human beings become ever more angelic and more able to sing God’s glory.

I tell my students, “It’s like you have a mirror in your soul, and sin clouds it and makes it dirty and tarnished. As it’s polished with prayer and fasting, with the sacraments and with the holy healing we receive from the Church, it is better able to reflect and radiate the light of God.” Bringing in a mirror and a flashlight is a great way to demonstrate what we mean. You can darken the room and shine the flashlight onto a dirty mirror… and onto a clean mirror. And you’ll see the difference in how the light is reflected. God’s light is bright, and when it reflects off of our mirrors and off of the angels’ mirrors it somehow grows.

Even though God is already infinite, there’s an effect when he has glorified those who surround him singing. When we say “we magnify you” or “hallowed be thy name,” that’s the kind of glorification we mean. So what popular culture might have degraded to angels playing harps in the clouds is actually one of the most beautiful tasks of the angels: to glorify and magnify God in song. And we share in that task when we sing those hymns in our Divine Liturgy.

So also during the Divine Liturgy we sing the cherubic hymn just before the Great Entrance. This hymn recognizes the participation of the angelic hosts in the procession. As the altar boys and the priest process with the offering of prosphoro and wine, the angels accompany them. Translations vary, but we sing:

We who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.

We recognize that the angels are here with us invisibly, and we belief that they join us throughout the Liturgy and most especially at the altar, when the bread and the wine become the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are even priests who have seen them there. But of course people don’t often see angels. They’re invisible and bodiless, so they move among us, unseen, and usually unfelt.

But our saints sometimes see them, and even your average run-of-the-mill person might have been surprised by one. At the Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendalia, Texas, a carving in the iconostas commemorates the day when a simple laborer, hired by the monks, was outside painting the new gates they’d installed. As he worked, he suddenly became aware of two enormously tall bright figures on either side of him. They approved of his work and left as quickly as they’d appeared. The very holy archangels, for which the monastery is named, came by and approved of his work.

This is the most common description of angels. They’re very tall, and they glow brightly with the uncreated light of God. It can be terrifying to see them, which is why the Bible is peppered with angels whose announcements begin, “Do not be afraid.” They glow with God’s light. Angels are like lamps that can be filled with God’s light and radiate it.

But of course, angels have free will, and they can choose to stop radiating that light, and this is the part of the story that begins to get the boys in my classes very interested. One of the brightest angels was Lucifer, whose very name has its roots in light. He was brilliant with God’s light. Like all the angels, he was built to be a bearer of that light, a great lamp. But he was not content to serve God, and he chose instead to rebel. There was a great battle in heaven, and one-third of the angels followed Lucifer in the rebellion. Ultimately it was the Archangel Michael who, at God’s behest, took Lucifer and hurled him out of heaven.

No longer filled with God’s light, Lucifer looked different. If you can show your children an icon of an angel and an icon of a demon, using perhaps the devil taunting Joseph in the icon of the Nativity of Christ or the icon of the Ladder, which shows angels and demons in the same icon, they’ll quickly recognize that when they’re living in harmony with their own nature, angels are tall, and they’re filled with light, but when they turn away to live in a way that is not in accord with how they were created, they stop radiating God’s light, and they become shriveled and very, very dark. It’s interesting, because we can change, too, depending on if we’re living in the way that God intends us to live, in accordance with his will or not.

So Lucifer, who becomes Satan or the devil when he leaves God’s side and rebels, is both outside of the kingdom and actively opposed to it. When God created man, he took the clay of the earth. He used material or matter to create a being with a body. Now, angels are bodiless, so that’s a big difference. God made us out of stuff, out of the dirt of the earth, and he said, “Let us make man in our image.”

Each of us is an icon of Christ. God comes down to earth, and he walks alongside us, incarnate in a flesh-and-blood human body. When he ascends to heaven he brings his resurrected human body with him, literally elevating us to the heavenly kingdom. As Athanasius famously said, “The Son of God became man, that we might become god.” Our Creator, our God, made us out of dirt, in his own image, and invites us to fulfill that promise by coming to him and being filled with his love and his light. We’re invited to theosis, while Lucifer or Satan sits outside of the kingdom, angry.

He is bodiless, while our fragile bodies are vulnerable to heat and cold, to hunger and exhaustion and illness. He has no bodily passions, though we are so easily overcome by ours. He is angry to see that while he is outcast, we are invited into the great banquet. Even though his exile is of his own choice and he does not, in fact, wish to be in the kingdom of God, to serve God, but instead demands his own kingdom, even though he doesn’t want what we have, he is outraged and utterly disgusted that God would so love his mud creation.

Now, not all accounts concur at the exact order of things, which, if you think about it, makes good sense, because heaven exists outside of time, and I can easily imagine that heavenly events do not fit well onto an earthly timeline. But two things are true: Lucifer chose to lead on his own rather than follow God, and he was angered to see that God would take mere clay and create human beings in his own image. Some accounts say that he fell long before humans were created, and as I understand it there are other accounts who say that his envy and anger for humans is what drove him to fall.

But ultimately, questions of time being what they are, the question is moot. The result is the same: the devil hates God and he hates us, and he and his demons will do all they can do trick us and twist us up. They’ll lie to us and manipulate us and do all they can to push us toward destruction and misery. So what are we to do? Well, we are to call up on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, for his holy name is enough to defeat them.

When Christ sent out his seventy apostles, Luke tells us that they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and on all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” In addition to the holy Church and its sacraments, God gives us angels to watch over us. They protect us. Remember: Michael and the angels defeated the devil and his demons, and they cast him down like lightning from heaven.

Their existence is not always so wild and battle-like. Sometimes it’s quiet. For instance, I’ve heard that when St. Pachomius was working to create the first prayer rope he was tying knots in a rope so that he could use it to count out his prayers. Every night he’d go to sleep, praying with that rope, and in the morning when he’d awaken the knots were all untied. He learned that the demons really hated this prayer rope, which is, of course, a good sign that the prayer rope is a good and useful item, and they were trying to foil him by untying it. Well, one night an angel came to him and taught him a way to tie a complex knot made up of nine—three times three—smaller knots. Together they form one knot that demons cannot untie. That’s how our angels are. They encourage us in holy endeavors, and they help us to outwit the wily demons.

When we’re baptized, we’re expressly assigned a guardian angel. It has also been taught that we have our angel from birth, but that they’re assigned to us in a special way at baptism. Perhaps in the same way that you have a life before you are baptized, but then are born into a new life, a better life, at baptism. We may have had an angel looking out for us, but who becomes united to us in baptism, like our godparents, who loved us before but now with this sacrament our relationship and our bond is sealed and holy.

Your guardian angel is always with you and watches over you. Notably, angels can see demons and they can fight them. That’s an idea my classes always love. They picture an energetic battle happening all around them, invisible and amazing. While there have been occasions when people have prayed and prayed and actually gotten their angel to tell them their name, most of us will not know our guardian angels’ names, but it’s interesting to note that all of the angels do have names.

There are prayers to the guardian angel, and we should learn them and teach them to our children. I’ll post a good one on the blog site in case you’d like to use it. Our angels are with us all day long. They do watch us all the time, and that means that they see us doing the most awful things. Whatever we think happens in secret is really happening under their watchful gaze. They see us when we’re mean or selfish, when we refuse to help someone in need, and when we snap at another child of God. They also see those times when we’re struggling and we offer up prayers, and then they come to help us. Maybe even the saints are there, helping us. And then we completely forget that it ever happened. We can be ungrateful and forgetful and weak, and the angels are seeing all of it. And you know what? They’re here to help us anyway.

Most of their help goes unnoticed, and it certainly goes without any thanks from us, which is something we might want to meditate on. Perhaps we should thank them. Perhaps we should apologize to them. There are beautiful prayers that do all of that, and we should learn them ourselves and know them by heart, and we should pass them along to our children.

A number of years ago, I wanted to teach my second grade class about angels, and I was searching online for good Orthodox information, and it was really hard to come by. There was a lot of material about guardian angels, but not about the angels in general, and what I found was very scholastic and difficult even for adults, let alone kids. I ended up piecing together bits of hymnography and Bible stories to develop that lesson. If you can find a copy of the akathist to either of the archangels, you will find an amazing amount of beautiful information about them. I love the akathist to Archangel Michael, and it offers beautiful descriptions of how he cast Lucifer out of heaven and how he escorts our souls to heaven. These akathists are wonderful for developing a love for the archangels, an appreciation for their role serving God. As you spend time in prayer, praising them and connecting with them, you’ll come to know them in a new way.

But there’s another great resource that is recently available, and if you want to teach about angels, you’ll really appreciate this book. Joel J. Miller is an Orthodox writer who published Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians. He researched angels thoroughly for this book, and he packs so much information in. And yet, it is a completely readable and utterly enjoyable book. If you’re at all interested in angels, I recommend that you pick up this book for your own edification and entertainment, and that you draw on the information he gives to pass along knowledge about angels to the children in your life. I’ll put a link to that book on the Ancient Faith blog, too. See you there.