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El Greco. Annunciation. Before 1570Jacob Epstein - St Michael Subduing the Devil (at the entrance to the Cathedral of St Michael, Coventry, England)


 

Angels

The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels

September 29th


 

In his first inaugural address, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln spoke of "the better angels of our nature." (This was, incidentally, in the final paragraph of the address, in which he also used the phrase "bonds of affection," a phrase which has become familiar in modern Anglican discourse. Lincoln was speaking of the ties that bind the several states in the federal Union at a time when some were preparing to break those bonds. The phrase has more recently been applied to the increasingly fragile association of national Churches known as the Anglican Communion.) In speaking of angels, it appears that Lincoln was speaking figuratively, rather than literally, as he sought a way to convince his fellow countrymen to set aside suspicion and to assume the best, rather than the worst, about one another's motives and intentions. Figurative uses of the term "angel" are common. A person who is especially kind or good, especially a child, might be referred to as an "angel". There is a widespread popular notion that when the dead arrive in heaven they become angels. In the classic film, It's a Wonderful Life, we are told that bells ring on earth every time an angel gets his wings--these angels being deceased humans who have passed through a probationary period before graduating to full citizenship as angels in heaven (so much for the Communion of Saints!).

We suspect that these colloquial and figurative uses of the term "angel" are rooted in an uncertainty about and, quite probably, a discomfort with the true nature of angels. In our experience, many people reject the existence of angels out of hand. Their objections often appear to arise from an intellectual objection to the existence of anything that cannot be seen or verified "scientifically," which, we might note, puts God in a somewhat tenuous position, as well. However, we suspect that a deeper objection for many, if not all, has to do with the realization that angels are not merely the Christian version of a fairy godmother who goes around smiling sweetly and doing nice things for people. At some of the principal appearances of angels in the Bible, the first words out of the mouth of the angel are, "Fear not!" It is not necessary to tell people not to be afraid, unless they are afraid, or think they have some reason to be afraid. When we contemplate the story of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds of Bethlehem, we hear the words, "Fear not," but it is likely that what we see (in our mind's eye) is a child, perhaps our own daughter, or the child of a friend, dressed in a flowing white gown and aluminum foil wings. The effect on us is to feel warmth and affection. Fear is the last emotion that would occur to us. And then we immediately fast forward to a vision of a sky full of twinkling stars and angels singing "Glory be to God on high!" Beauty and wonder are the things we imagine--but it is very likely that the shepherds were frightened half to death and needed to be calmed and reassured before it was possible for them to hear the truly wonderful news the angels brought. We recall a story told in class by the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan. He told us how one evening his young son was agitated and unable to sleep and came to his father for comfort. The problem, he told his father, was that there was an angel in his room. The famous scholar did not dismiss his son's story as a bad dream, the product of an active imagination, or even a ploy to delay going to bed. Rather, he took the boy seriously, and assured him that the angel had come to protect him, not to harm him. The child's fear was genuine, and understandable. The father's belief was also genuine, and no one in that class of graduate students had any doubt about that.

"We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen...." or, as the older translation puts it, "all things visible and invisible." Is the Creed referring merely to those technically "unseen" aspects of creation which are discernible to some of the senses but not to the naked eye, such as the wind, which blows where it will but cannot be seen, or to microscopic matter, whether animate or inanimate, which is so small that it is virtually invisible? Or were the Fathers of Nicaea and Constantinople referencing a realm of creatures of another order, either in heaven or perhaps even existing side by side with us in this world in an unseen, spiritual state?  Scripture and the Liturgy leave little doubt about the answer to that question. When it deals with angels at all, popular culture tends to reduce them either to the putti of Renaissance art, adorable pudgy "cherubs" adorned with wings, or else the more stately, but delicate, and almost always feminine, winged adults in flowing robes. This is a far cry from the biblical cherubim, fearsome four-faced creatures who are ever-watchful by the throne of God and who were set at the entrance to the Garden of Eden to guard the way to the Tree of Life when Adam and Eve were cast out. Far, too, from the archangels named in canonical and apocryphal Scripture, who are not characterized by gender and, in any case, are hardly delicate. Jacob Epstein's monumental Michael at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral (above left) is formidable in his triumph over Satan in the apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. And even the usually playful putti seem distressed by the appearance of Gabriel in El Greco's painting of The Annunciation (above right).

Marc Chagall--Wrestling with the Angel 16, Etching, 1956Andrei Rublev, Old Testament Trinity, 15th centuryThere is another important application of the term "angel" which must not be overlooked here, though it is not our primary subject. There are occasions in Scripture when angels appear on earth who are not actually angels. The most significant instance of this is the visit of the three men to Abraham by the oak of Mamre in Genesis 18. The story is sometimes (intentionally?) vague in its identification of the men. At a point in the story, the Lord himself speaks to Abraham. Is the speaker one of the three men or not? It is not clear, but at the beginning of the next chapter, only two of them travel on towards the doomed city of Sodom and the two are explicitly described as angels. Christian tradition has generally interpreted this appearance in trinitarian terms. No mortal may look directly upon God and survive, but God does occasionally appear in person, taking the form of an angel or, in the case of Abraham's visitors, three angels. Later in Genesis (chapter 32), Abraham's grandson Jacob is confronted in the night by a man with whom he wrestles until daybreak. The man does not prevail and Jacob refuses to let him depart until he has blessed him. The man (or angel as tradition almost always identifies him) not only blesses Jacob but gives him a new name, Israel--"he who strives with God."  

 

Gustav Doré: White Rose - Illustration to Dante's Divine Comedy, Paradiso. Plate 34. Dante and Beatrice and the Heavenly Host of Angels (Canto 31: The Saintly Throng in the Form of a Rose)
 

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain,
Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels' choirs,
Refrain:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Alleluia! alleluia!


O higher than the cherubim,
more glorious than the seraphim,
lead their praises,
Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the eternal Word,
most gracious, magnify the Lord, Refrain

Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
ye patriarchs and prophets blest,
Alleluia,
alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
all saints triumphant, raise the song, Refrain

O friends, in gladness let us sing,
supernal anthems echoing,
Alleluia,
alleluia!
To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One, Refrain

          Words: Athelstan Riley (1858-1945), 1906
          Music: Lasst uns erfreuen
                      
(
Geistliche Catholische Kirchengeäng, Cologne, 1623)
 

Athelstan Riley's familiar hymn is a virtual catechism of the ranks of sentient creatures, visible and invisible, who worship God, each according to its order. The first verse is about the heavenly beings, generally referred to as angels and also known generically as "watchers" (who never sleep) and "holy ones" (signifying their eternal existence in the presence of the Holy One). There are nine choirs of angels, beginning with the seraphim who are closest to the throne of God and continuing through the ranks to the angels, the ordinary (if such a term may be used of celestial beings) messengers of God. It is, to be sure, a highly speculative construct, but it is actually based on various scriptural sources. Indeed, throughout the history of the Church there has been much interest in the angels and all of the details of their existence. In the fifth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite wrote his Celestial Hierarchies, one of the earliest treatises of angelology which provided a map to the hierarchy of the heavenly hosts. Later theologians had similar constructions, but sometimes offered variations on his scheme. The specifics are not enshrined in dogma. Nevertheless, beyond the fundamental affirmation of the creeds regarding the existence of things visible and invisible, there is a fundamental principle which is implied if not directly stated in the creeds. This principle is found in the Collect for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels:

O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by thy appointment they may help and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 

Francesco Botticini - Assumption of the Virgin (detail), c.1475

The principle is order--a wonderful order, awesome and exciting to perceive and to be a part of. Creation, including the many aspects of it which are not visible to the human eye, is more than a random potpourri generated from the mind of a whimsical God. It has order, and with order comes purpose. The inhabitants of creation are connected with one another in an order that spans this world and the heavenly spheres. And the purpose of that order is twofold: service and worship--service and worship of God, and mutual service and responsibility to one another according to the master plan, as it were, of the Creator. At the top of this order, and at the center of the circle is God. Radiating out in expanding circles are the various heavenly choirs: seraphim, cherubim, and thrones; dominions, princedoms, and powers; virtues, archangels, and angels. To these are added the people of God in the earthly sphere. At the top, or center, again is God in the person of his incarnate Son and with him, above all others both in heaven and earth (higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim) is Mary, the Mother of God's Son; then the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Covenant and the apostles and martyrs of the New, together with all saints and finally, completing the tally, we who still dwell below, as it were, in this life.


Seraphim

With regard to the heavenly choirs, those at the top of the hierarchy and those at the bottom receive the greatest attention in Scripture, that is, those closest to the throne of God and those most obviously involved with humanity. First there are the seraphim who surround the throne of God and sing the hymn that precedes the central prayer of the Holy Eucharist, for ultimately worship in heaven and on earth is all one. As all angels are pure spirits, physical descriptions of them derive from dreams and visions or from aspects of their character which suggest physical attributes or apparel. The seraphim are pictured, as in Isaiah's vision, as having six wings. Sometimes, they are pictured with bodies like a human body, but in other depictions, in spite of the fact that one set of wings is supposed to cover their feet, they are pictured as bodiless heads with six wings. In Orthodox iconography, seraphim and cherubim are both depicted as six-winged bodiless heads. The seraphim are red and the cherubim are blue.

Viktor Vasnetsov: Seraphim. Sketch for a fresco in the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev. 1885-96

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his feet, 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  Sabaoth [angelic hosts];
            the whole earth is full of his glory."
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4

'Petites Heures de Jean de Berry' - God surrounded by seraphim; France, 14th century


Cherubim and Ophanim

The seraphim are said to blaze so brightly that not even the other angels are able to look upon them. Equally intimidating are the cherubim, who guard the throne of God, and the third order, the ophanim who move and work in concert with the cherubim. The ophanim are the wheels described in Ezekiel's vision. In texts about angels they are also sometimes called thrones, possibly in an attempt to reconcile the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel who describes the throne of God as having wheels of burning fire. William Blake's fantastic artistic realization of these two orders of angels is based on Ezekiel's even more fantastic vision. Cherubim may also be represented as multi-winged, bodiless heads. Some artists have represented all orders of angels as human beings with wings and distinguish the orders by the symbols they hold or wear. The Cherubim may be shown standing on a wheel or, since they are associated with divine Wisdom, may hold a book. If the ophanim are not portrayed as wheels, they may hold a wheel full of eyes.

William Blake: The Whirlwind: Ezekiel's Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels; circa 1803-1805

[Then the Lord God] drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.  --Genesis 3:24

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures [the Cherubim, see Ezekiel 10:20]. And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; they went every one straight forward , without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back.... And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.  --Ezekiel 1:4-10


Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. The four wheels had rims and they had spokes; and their rims were full of eyes round about. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose.  --Ezekiel 1:14-19

 
"The Eyes in the Wheels," Sixth movement of 'Livre d'orgue', by Olivier Messiaen;
played by Willem Tanke on the main organ of the Grote of St. Laurenskerk in Rotterdam (Marcussen, 1973).

Then 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.... Then the glory of the Lord went forth from the threshold of the house and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.  --Ezekiel 10:1, 18-19

As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire.  --Daniel 7:9


Virtues, Dominions, Princedoms, and Powers

The order and precise nomenclature of the next four choirs varies with different writers. They are also less often portrayed in art and their symbolism is more varied. In his letter to the Colossians (1:16), St. Paul says of Christ, "for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers...." These angel choirs epitomize the active relationship between the heavenly and earthly orders. Virtues, also known as thrones, are the keepers of justice and order in the whole cosmos and are portrayed holding miniature thrones. Dominions are responsible for overseeing the duties of the lower angels and also preside over earthly nations. They are crowned and may carry a scepter, a sword, or an orb. Princedoms/Principalities bestow blessings in the material world and are the heavenly source of inspiration in art and science. Their symbol is the lily. Powers are the lords of conscience and the distributors of power among humans. They are the warriors of heaven, combating evil both in heaven and earth, and are dressed in armor and carry shield and sword.


Icon of the Pantocrator
Chapel of the Nuns of New Skete

(photo used by permission)


Archangels

With the archangels, we come to those angels who are known to have distinct individual identities. In the Old Testament, only one, Michael, is named, and there is another unnamed one who is presumed to be Gabriel. Others are met in the Apocrypha: Raphael in the Book of Tobit and Uriel in 2 Esdras. Two, Michael and Gabriel, are specifically identified in the New Testament. Several more are named in an apocalyptic book called Enoch (or 1 Enoch, or Ethiopian Enoch). The word angel (Greek: αγγελος) simply means "messenger." The Biblical angels carry messages between heaven and earth, as portrayed in Jacob's dream of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend. The apparent difference between archangels and angels is that archangels are known even to mortals by their names and also have more specific (and sometimes more cosmic) missions than angels of the ninth choir. It should be added that some authorities regard the choir of archangels as being extremely flexible creatures. That is to say, members of this choir are also believed, by some, to be members of other choirs. For example, Michael is called "Prince of the Seraphim", and, because they are said to "stand before the Lord", Gabriel and Raphael are also regarded by some as seraphim or cherubim. Alas, we have no hard evidence in these matters and leave them for others to sort out. Here we will concentrate on these celestial beings in their most widely recognized form as archangels.


Archangel Michael

He is called the prince of the heavenly host and his name means, "Who is like God?" It is Michael who leads the heavenly host in war against the devil and his minions. As such, he is the defender of the people of God against their enemies. Michael is portrayed as a warrior dressed in armor. He holds either a spear or a lance and also often holds the balance of justice because of his role in judging the devil at the end of time. Satan lies conquered under his feet. Some of the other archangels have their own feast days, as do the guardian angels, but Michael's feast day, "Michaelmas" on September 29th, is the principal celebration of the angels in the West and it commemorates Michael together with all of the angels. In fact, Rome has recently suppressed the separate celebrations of the other archangels (which were rather late additions to the calendar anyway) and combined them all for one big angel fest. The East celebrates two feasts of all of the archangels (see below) and also the Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Colossae on September 6th. Michael is believed to be connected to a number of springs which had healing powers (stealing a bit of Raphael's thunder as a healer, but apparently archangels are not a jealous lot.) One spring was particularly notable because of the circumstance of its appearance. When pagans attempted to destroy a shrine dedicated to Michael at Colossae by diverting a stream to flood it, the guardian of the shrine prayed to Michael. The archangel responded by appearing personally and splitting the rock to create a new bed for the stream and preserve the sanctuary. The waters of that stream were permanently sanctified and the event earned a permanent place in the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church. Michael's connection to high places should also be mentioned. Mountains and other heights are particularly resonant with the notion of power and dominance in ancient religions and Michael, as the commander of the armies of heaven, is naturally seen as holding the high ground. Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and Glastonbury Tor are some of the high places associated with Michael, often because of apparitions that took place there.

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a  nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. --Daniel 12:1

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: "Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down who accuses them day and night before our God.  --Revelation 12:7-10

San Miguel (Saint Michael) - retablo by Mary Jo Madrid, frame by Jimmy Madrid

Our favorite tradition for this feast says that when Michael expelled Lucifer from heaven, the rebellious one fell into a blackberry patch. Angry over his defeat and scratched by the thorns of the bushes, the devil spat and stamped on the blackberries and cursed them so they would not be fit to eat. For this reason, Michaelmas is the last day of the year for picking blackberries--and a good day to make a blackberry pie to celebrate the victory of heaven over hell.  There is an old Irish tradition of making a Michaelmas Pie, but no one seems to remember what was in it. So, the folks at the website Irish Culture and Customs came up with this recipe for blackberry pie, which we have tried and think is perfect for the occasion. In Scotland, St. Michael's Bannock is the specialty of the day. The people at Catholic Culture share a recipe for that confection.  Finally, the altar and the table at home might be decked with Michaelmas daisies. This is the nickname given to a type of aster that blooms from late summer into early October. Its proper name is Aster novi-belgii, but its more common name is the New York aster. Purple is the usual color for the ones named for Michael, but other colors are certainly acceptable.

An old verse says:

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael's valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

 

Michaelmas Daisies (Aster nova-belgii)


Archangel Raphael

Raphael is one of the heroes of the Book of Tobit. His name means, "God heals." He appears in the guise of an ordinary mortal, calling himself Azarias, which means "God helps," and he poses as a distant cousin of Tobias, a young man who has been sent on a long journey by his father to recover the family fortune. Along the way Raphael/Azarias gives Tobias much good counsel and helps him in various ways. One night, as they are camped by the Tigris River, a great fish jumps out of the river and attacks Tobias. At the direction of Azarias, Tobias catches the fish, removes the liver, the heart, and the gall to be used at another time, and fixes the fish for dinner. Azarias explains that the heart and liver can be used to combat a demon and the gall can cure blindness. Eventually, Tobias is able to cure his father's blindness with the gall. And the heart and liver prove to be quite useful when he goes to the wedding chamber with his bride Sarah. Sarah had already married seven times, but on her wedding night, each time, a demon came into the bridal chamber and killed her husband even before the marriage could be consummated. Needless to say, this was a source of immense grief to Sarah and her family, and a considerable cause for concern for young Tobias. Indeed, Sarah's father was so pessimistic and also so embarrassed about the situation that he went out secretly in the night to dig a grave for Tobias so the body could be hidden before the neighbors knew what had happened. However, thanks to Raphael and the fish's gall, Tobias and Sarah survived the night and lived happily ever after. Saint Raphael's feast day is October 24th. A dish of smoked fish (minus the heart, liver, and gall!) would make an appropriate main course at dinner. It is a good day also to remember the sick, certainly in prayer, but also by visiting them and renewing offers of assistance during their illness. And it would be an appropriate day for parishes to recognize and celebrate married couples and their role in the life of the community.

San Rafael, museum reproduction, based on a 19th century bulto by José Aragón

When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobias in to her. As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobias got up from the bed and said, "Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us." And Tobias began to pray, "Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers, and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever. Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee. Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife as a helper and support. From them the race of mankind has sprung. Thou didst say, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; let us make a helper for him like himself.' And now, O Lord, I am not taking this kinswoman of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that we may find mercy and may grow old together." And she said with him, "Amen."  --Tobit 8:1-8

Now there was in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord* went down at certain seasons into the pool, and troubled the water: whoever stepped in first after the troubling of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.   --John 5:2-4

*Tradition identifies this angel as Raphael.


Archangel Gabriel

Gabriel is perhaps even more readily recognized than Michael. His role in the Annunciation to Mary of her impending motherhood is his most high profile appearance and marks him as the quintessential angelic messenger. Thus, whenever an angel delivers a message (for example, to Daniel (10:5), or Zechariah (Luke 1:11), or Joseph (Matthew 1:20)), Gabriel is assumed to be the messenger. Likewise, Gabriel is thought to be the angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem and also the angel who will give the "cry of command" at the coming of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Though frequently portrayed in art with feminine characteristics, there is no suggestion in Scripture of a particular gender identity for this archangel whose  name means, "God is my strength."  Gabriel's traditional feast day in the West is March 24th, the day before the Feast of the Annunciation. In the East, the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel is celebrated on the day following Annunciation. In art, Gabriel is often depicted holding a lily, symbolic of his close connection with Mary. In retablos of the Hispanic Southwest, Gabriel holds a monstrance with the consecrated Host of the Eucharist.

I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold of Uphaz. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude....  Then I heard the sound of his words; and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell on my face in a deep sleep with my face to the ground. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, "O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.... Then he said to me, "Fear not...."  --Daniel 10: 5-6, 9-12a

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus."  --Luke 1:26-31

San Gabriel -  retablo by Roxanne Shaw-Galindo


Archangel Uriel

One more archangel is often mentioned by name and found in church dedications, art, and lists of the principal archangels, Uriel, whose name means, "God is light" or "God is fire." The principle source of information about this archangel is found in the apocryphal Book of 2 Esdras. There he has an extensive role responding to questions raised by the prophet Ezra and helping him to wrestle with the problem of theodicy (the seeming contradiction between the goodness of God and the justice of God) which is a perennial issue in theological discourse. In another apocryphal book, Enoch, Uriel is the angel who warns Noah about the flood and this role of rescuer of those in danger is reprised in New Testament apocryphal writings where it is Uriel who carries John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth to safety when Herod's men massacre the Innocents of Bethlehem. In the 8th century, Pope Zachary restricted the veneration of angels to three, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, relegating Uriel and others to the footnotes of official angelology due to what was perceived as a dangerous popular tendency toward angel worship.

 
St Uriel, mosaic in St John’s Church, Boreham, Wiltshire - by James Powell and Sons of the Whitefriars Foundry, London (between 1888 and 1915)

Then the angel that had been sent to me, whose name was Uriel, answered and said to me, "Your understanding has utterly failed regarding this world, and do you think you can comprehend the way of the Most High?" ....And he said to me, "You cannot understand the things with which you have grown up; how then can your mind comprehend the way of the Most High?"  ...Then I answered and said, "I beseech you, my lord, why have I been endowed with the power of understanding? For I did not wish to inquire about the ways above, but about those things which we daily experience: why Israel has been given over to the Gentiles as a reproach; why the people whom you loved has been given over to godless tribes, and the law of our fathers has been made of no effect and the written covenants no longer exist; and why we pass from the world like locusts, and our life is like a mist, and we are not worthy to obtain mercy." --2 Esdras 4:1-2,10-11,22-24


More Archangels

Some authorities say that there are just seven archangels and they are the angels of the seven churches in Revelation. Others say that there are many more. In the Book of Enoch, in addition to the four archangels we have already mentioned, there are Raguel, Sariel, and Jerahmeel.  The Orthodox Divine Liturgy mentions "thousands of archangels," but icons usually identify just seven by name: Jegudiel, Gabriel, Selaphiel, Michael, Uriel, Raphael, Barachiel. The Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers on November 8th, and the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel on March 26th. Other apocryphal sources name Izidkiel, Hanael, and Kepharel, and rabbinic sources mention Metatron.  Finally, there is Satanel, or Satan, "the accuser," regarded by some as an archangel and identified variously with the Devil, Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc., and specifically mentioned by Jesus as falling from heaven (Luke 10:18). Of him, we need not speak here, as his work is of another kind altogether than that of the other archangels. 

Icon of the Synaxis of the Holy Heavenly Bodiless Powers
 

An Archangelic Prayer

A ninth century Irish prayer to the archangels. It includes several lesser known names among the archangels.

May Gabriel be with me on Sundays, and the power  of the King of Heaven
May Gabriel be with me always that evil may not come to me, nor injury.

Michael on Monday I speak of, my mind is set on him,
Not with anyone do I compare him but with Jesus, Mary’s son.

If it be Tuesday, Raphael I mention, until the end comes, for my help.
One of the seven whom I beseech, as long as I am on the field of the world.

May Uriel be with me on Wednesdays, the abbot with high nobility,
Against wound and against danger, against the sea of rough wind.

Sariel on Thursday I speak of, against the swift waves of the sea,
Against every evil that comes to a man, against every disease that seizes him.

On the day of the second fast, Rumiel – a clear blessing – I have loved,
I say only the truth, good the friend I have taken.

May Panchel be with me on Saturdays, as long as I am in the yellow-coloured world,
May sweet Mary, together with her friend, deliver me from strangers.

May the Trinity protect me! May the Trinity defend me!
May the Trinity save me from every hurt, from every danger.

 
Angels

The ninth choir is that of the beings who are the only ones properly known to own the title "angel." Their personal names are not known to mortals, though it may be assumed that they have names. Like all of the rest of the host of heaven, they are pure spirit, but they do at times appear to humans. They are the spirits who ascend and descend on a ladder in Jacob's dream, the choir that sings to the shepherds at Bethlehem, and the army that Michael leads into battle. While they are often portrayed with wings, St. John Chrysostom says that is a symbolic convention: "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."

There is one category of angels with a special function in relation to humanity: the Guardian Angels. It is widely, if not universally, believed that every person has a guardian angel whose job it is to protect and guide that person. Some believe that the guardian angel serves only through childhood, while others believe that they continue to watch over us throughout our lives. The guardian angels have their own feast day: October 2nd.
 

Icon of a Guardian Angel, by the hand of Judith Kaestner [Jesus said], "see that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven."  --Matthew 18:10

When Peter knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, "You are mad." But she insisted that it was so. They said, "It is his angel."  --Acts 13:13-15

 

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