What comes to mind when we think of angels? Heavenly beings, right? White flowing robes meant to symbolize their purity? Do we picture glowing wings giving them the ability to fly across the universe in a matter of nanoseconds? Let’s not leave out the obligatory halo portraying their sanctity. All of this is even depicted in the form of costumes for Halloween or school plays. From where do we derive this imagery? Is it accurate? Perhaps the movies, TV shows, stories, paintings, and images of popular culture have misled us.
So what has the Church taught about who and what they are? Interestingly, when we shed our glittery imaginary concepts, we can see that we are not that different from the angels mentioned in the Bible. In fact, in the Psalms, we read,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor. (8:4-5, NKJV)
The word angel simply means messenger, and this is exactly how they are portrayed in certain places in Scripture. We learn from many biblical examples that they deliver news to human beings on behalf of God. They are spirits sent to serve. Each example uniquely describes how they visit humans, not only in dreams and visions but converse face-to-face with humans beings.
The prophet Isaiah describes his vision of the Seraphim, six-winged heavenly beings, each set of wings with a different function: “with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:2-3)
The prophet Ezekiel had his own vision of cherubim, another kind of heavenly being described in chapter 10. “I looked, and behold, on the firmament that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne…Each had four faces and each four wings and underneath their wings the semblance of human hands.”
Yet another example of an angel is the famous Annunciation narrative, in which the Virgin Mary spoke directly with the angel, Gabriel who “announced” that she would be the Mother of God, as the Church has come to understand that title.
Dionysius the Areopagite, a 6th-century theologian and philosopher, and a saint of the Armenian Church, is known for his description of the angelic hierarchy. According to Dionysius, there are nine ranks of angels, and the lowest of these ranks are actually human clergy! Surely, surprising to our ears, but he specifically blurs the line between angels and humans.
Based on Scripture and insight from Church Fathers, what do we know about angels? We cannot dissect and understand them as would in an Anatomy class. Ultimately, like God, angels are indescribable creatures. Even St. Gregory the Illuminator, in one of his homilies tells us that the “angels who are as fast as human thought and know what the Creator is asking from them when He just glances at them, don’t even understand God!”
In a mysterious way, we portray angelic characteristics. When we remove the veil of our imagination, we can see that just like angels, we were created to worship our God and proclaim the Word of God into our broken world. Indeed Christ Himself is the Message. He is the news that the Angels delivered and the message the prophets prophesied. He is the Son of God, who was born into this world dominated by corruption and by way of His crucifixion, death, and resurrection, salvation was gifted to all of Creation, including us.
So together with the angels of God, let us continue to worship our Creator. He has made us, sinful human beings, worthy to worship Him with the angels. In every Badarak, before we sing the angelic song of unending praise to God from Isaiah (“Soorp Soorp”), the priest prays, “In one voice with the seraphim and the cherubim, we should sing holy songs and make melodies and, boldly crying out, shout with them and say…” Through Jesus Christ, heaven and earth have become one, and we sing with the angels, professing that He is truly among us.
When it’s time to take off our humanly created shiny masks, we shall see the image of God in ourselves.