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Lifted by Angels
The Presence and Power of Our Heavenly Guides and Guardians
By Joel J. Miller
Copyright © 2012 Joel J. Miller
All right reserved.
Chapter One Our Larger City
The Origin and Nature of the Angels
You know not altogether what angels are. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms
Say the word angel and people conjure many different images. Some picture ethereal-winged creatures in long, gossamer gowns, girlish and glowing. Others see squat, chubby cherubs with toy bows and arrows, childish and cloying. Movies and television offer us other worldly beings here to lend a helping hand, while pop music and our grandmothers dilute the word to a simple term of endearment.
I want to paint you a different picture, one using the pigments provided by the Scripture, art, services, hymns, and teachings of the ancient Christian church. The image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.
This realness strikes me as important. Plenty of people do not believe in angels. That's nothing new. The Sadducees of Jesus' day denied their existence too. But the Christian faith has always assumed the active presence of angels in the life of God's people. And what if that's right? Wouldn't that affect us? Isn't that affecting us now? I think so, and I hope in these pages to show how—particularly how angels bring us to and through a saving experience of Christ.
As it happens, I have always believed in angels. But my belief had long gone unexamined and unexplored. Angels for me were remote and two-dimensional, perhaps more like characters in a storybook than real persons. But then I encountered a passage from Augustine's City of God, quoted here at the start of the book, in which he suggested not merely that angels exist, but that we have a special relationship with them, that heaven and earth share a certain fellowship. That began to change things for me. Here was a vision of angels three-dimensional, immediate, and personal. For the ancient Christians this was easily assumed and readily believed, and perhaps by the end of this journey it will be the same for us.
Our course is fairly simple. In the present chapter we will look at what the early saints believed about the origin and nature of the angels. What are they like? What do they do? From there chapter 2 takes a turn. More than a plot complication, the fall of Satan and his angels represents a cosmic calamity. Chapter 2 explores this disaster as well as the fall of humanity and our subsequent alienation from God. Chapter 3 covers the dramatic story of Israel and how God used angels to nurture and protect his chosen people so they could bring forth Christ, the Lord of the angels. Chapter 4 concerns his triumph over Satan along with our participation in that victory and reconnection with God.
These chapters are in a sense historical in that they follow a narrative of past events. The later chapters are more personal, describing the times and places that our lives most commonly intersect with angels in the present. Chapter 5 examines the role of guardian angels, how they shepherd and protect us, and their role in guiding us on our path to God. Chapter 6 explores worship and how angels accompany us in our prayers, praise, and participation in the sacred mysteries. Finally, chapter 7 takes us to the end of things. The ancient Christian conviction was that angels accompany us individually when we die and also accompany Christ at his second coming.
As these seven chapters unfold, I hope we glimpse the contours of a sweeping and dramatic story of redemption, a story our ancient forebears believed wholeheartedly, a story in which the angels play a crucial role. Should we expect less? After all, asks the apostle Paul about angels in the first chapter of Hebrews, "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?"
Angels have been the subject of great and wild speculation from the beginning. Because they dwell in realms unseen, they seem distant and curious. Their very inaccessibility fuels our interest and wonder, which unfortunately comes at the expense of their seeming foreign and apart. They are anything but.
Augustine famously envisioned the created order split in two camps, one of light and the other of darkness, one of love and devotion to God and the other of pride and alienation from the Creator. He termed these camps "the city of God" and "the city of the world," the former serving as the title for one of his most enduring and influential books. City of God, written in the early fifth century, is an ambitious work, covering a vast amount of material, including the origin and destiny of the angels.
Augustine presents us a picture of immediacy and proximity. In discussing the relationship between angels and humans, he says that we should not "suppose four cities, two of angels and two of men." Rather, "[w]e may speak of two cities, or communities, one consisting of the good, angels as well as men, and the other of the evil." Heaven isn't so far off. Its borders cross our very own, and we share our city with angels. No surprise then that Augustine elsewhere suggests we consider them our neighbors.
It's also no surprise that Augustine insists they are part of the church. For this reason, traditional Christian communities that keep liturgical calendars celebrate various feast days for the angels. They are enumerated and enrolled with us, brothers in a shared confession.
So who are these neighbors of ours, these other siblings? Holy Scripture provides the first brushstrokes, but the image is one both mysterious and complicated, even from the outset. We twice encounter angels in an opening passage of Genesis. Start with the second instance, which concludes the story of the fall. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God cast them from the Garden of Eden and positioned an angel or pair of angels—cherubim is plural—with a whirling blade of fire to prevent their return. That flashing sword calls to mind the psalmist's words, those about God making his "ministers a flame of fire."
The Genesis account gives no description of these angels, but scholars remind us that the word cherub is actually a linguistic cousin of gryphon. Whether picturing an eagle's head and wings with a lion's body gets us close or not, the storyteller clearly has in mind creatures fierce and formidable, nothing so easily mistaken as models for greeting-card illustrations.
It's a frightening close to a grim chapter, though still not so chilling as the first angelic encounter. This one is even more disturbing for its subtlety and malevolence. Here the angel comes masked by a serpent. He is a fallen angel the leader of a whole host just like him, and he tricks Eve into disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit.
So mere pages into the biblical story we are presented with a complex picture of the angels and the wider neighborhood that we share. In just one passage, the third chapter of Genesis, angels are depicted both as guards serving at the Lord's behest and as deceivers trying to foul humanity and rupture our relationship with the Creator.
But we have also come into the story midstream. To better understand our relationship with the angels, we must go farther back.
This larger city of ours is one older than reckoning, and its origins lay beyond the haze of a distant horizon. Some of the early writers peered into the mystery and caught a glimpse of the start of things. In their books and homilies, they provide us a glance of our own, including a look at the creation of the angels.
Gregory Nazianzen, the fourth-century theologian, poet, and archbishop of Constantinople, saw the goodness of God as the impetus for creation. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit require only themselves in an eternal relationship of mutual love, he explained. But love naturally seeks objects, and so an uncreated God naturally creates. "Good must be poured out and go forth," said Gregory, beyond the holy Trinity itself, "to multiply the objects of its beneficence." He considered this generosity "essential to" or characteristic of "the highest goodness." Thus God "first conceived the heavenly and angelic powers. And this conception was a work fulfilled by His Word, and perfected by His Spirit." And so we have the angels.
A Syrian monk who lived a few centuries later, John Damascene, echoed this explanation. He said that "in His exceeding goodness" God "wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy his benefits and share in His goodness, [so] He brought all things out of nothing into being and created them, both what is invisible [such as the angels] and what is visible [such as ourselves]."
While Gregory's and John's observations fit the character of the Creator as revealed in Scripture, it's worth noting that Scripture itself makes only oblique reference to the creation of the angels and does not overtly reveal God's motives in creating them. Surprising as it may seem, no biblical author treats the subject—or for that matter anything else about the angels—at length. Everything we know, everything we encounter here in these pages, is instead gathered from scattered insights, arranged by theologians, preachers, hymn writers, and iconographers in a mosaic, cemented by time and tradition.
Do not let this seeming inattention to angels in Scripture disconcert. The Bible was of course written for humans and deals primarily with the story of our communion with God—its loss in Adam, restoration in Christ, and realization in the church. Angels feature in our story just as we feature in theirs, but they are not wholly the same tale. Though our lives intersect, they have their own trajectories.
That does not mean we are incapable of knowing more of their story, only that we must recognize the limited and speculative nature of our knowledge. We question; we probe; we listen; we theorize. Augustine considered all of this "a useful exercise for the intellect, if the discussion be kept within proper bounds, and if we avoid the error of supposing ourselves to know what we do not know." As far as he was concerned, varying interpretations and speculations were all worthy of consideration and contemplation, provided they were also edifying and hewed to the core doctrines of received Christian teaching, what is called the rule of faith.
Operating accordingly, these ancient writers reached as far over the horizon as they could manage.
The Bible does not explicitly say when the angels were created, but the Scripture is also quiet about the arrival of water, air, and fire, as Basil the Great noted in The Hexaemeron, though we know that God created them as well—and that he even uses the silence of the text to prod our curiosity and investigation.
For Basil, who lived in the middle years of the fourth century, the angels were created prior to the physical world, and "the mode of the creation of the heavenly powers is passed over in silence" because the biblical writer "revealed to us only the creation of the things perceptible by sense."
For others, the creation of the visible and invisible worlds was simultaneous. Connecting celestial powers and stars, some tied the angelic creation to that of the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Scripture lends credence to this view by frequently linking angels and stars. Revelation 19, for instance, features an angel standing in the sun, while the ninth and twelfth chapters liken both faithful and rebel angels to stars. In Judges, Deborah and Barak sang about stars making war on their enemies just a few verses from an angel doing likewise. And God, speaking from the whirlwind in the book of Job, called his angels "morning stars."
Augustine was not a fan of this view, confessing uncertainty about angelic involvement with celestial bodies. He looked instead to creation's first day. When God spoke light into existence, he created nothing that radiated light as we understand it. The sun, moon, and stars came later. Augustine suggested in a beautiful and poetic twist that this light was the sudden reflection of God's glory from the newly created angels as they contemplated their Lord. God is light, as the apostle John says in chapter 1 of his first epistle, and now in a red-hot moment there was something created capable of reflecting him. "Thus the angels," said Augustine, "illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became light ... by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made." While attending their maker, the angels glowed.
The seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian agreed. "[T]he [angelic] natures were created," he said, "by a verbal command, and this was light."
An icon of the first day that I've seen affirms this idea. It shows Christ as Creator, aloft above the deep. He extends his hand in the sign of the cross, as if to say that the very act of creation is one of blessing. "Let there be light," he declares, and above him beams what appears to be the sun, though it cannot be that, not yet. The glowing circle serves as a symbol for the angelic light; angels, having suddenly come into existence, whirl and fly within the disc. Monreale Cathedral in Sicily features a twelfth-century mosaic of this image. The scene shows angels bursting into existence at the words of Christ, while the inscription references the creation of light. The First Day from the Genesis Mosaic in the narthex of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice also captures this scene, though a bit differently. As Christ creates light, two spheres appear—one red, the other blue. The red indicates the uncreated light of God; the blue represents its denial or rejection. An angel stands behind the red sphere, partially red and partially blue. The image places the creation of the angels on the first day, as did Augustine, and also shows that some would reject the light, something we'll see here in chapter 2. Though the mosaic dates to the thirteenth century, its design is informed by a fifth- or sixth-century illuminated manuscript known as the Cotton Bible.
Angels are, said John Damascene, "secondary lights derived from that first light which is without beginning." Maybe it's one of the reasons James, the brother of Jesus and the first bishop of Jerusalem, called God "the Father of lights" in his eponymous epistle.
But God was not yet done. Pleased with these, his first creatures, "He conceive[d] a second world, material and visible," said Gregory Nazianzen, "and this is a system and compound of earth and sky, and all that is in the midst of them." Such is our world, and the angels were present with God as he created it. What's more, Scripture says they were exuberant and excited by the feat. They have always been in this sense like our eager, older brothers.
At first blush the angels seem very different from us. Scripture says they are like wind and fire, winged, and in some cases many-eyed.
They are spirits. In the language of the church they are "the honorable bodiless powers of heaven." Because they lack physicality like our own, they are described as incorporeal, rational, and noetic. Gregory Nazianzen called them "nimble intelligences." Basil called them the "pure, intelligent, and other-worldly powers." Sometimes the ancient writers spoke of them as fiery, as did Basil, who identified their substance as "an ethereal spirit ... an immaterial fire."
Scripture provides the same image. The psalmist spoke of angels as winds and flames. The thirteenth chapter of Judges gives us an angel ascending to heaven in the updraft of a blazing sacrifice, while the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel described an angel in the form of a man but adorned with flames and lightning and gleaming like polished metal. But these are only hints and flashes. The fullness of the angelic nature is mostly unknown to us. Only God, said John Damascene, "knows the form and limitation of its essence."
We do know that angels have limits like all created beings. They are not omnipresent like God. They are "circumscribed," to use John Damascene's word. Angels have boundaries, an outline of sorts, and the stories of angels in Scripture bear this out. If they are in one place, they are not in another. But being spirits, they are not bound by our physical world. They can move rapidly, and things like walls and doors and distances mean little to them.
Excerpted from Lifted by Angels by Joel J. Miller Copyright © 2012 by Joel J. Miller. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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