Angels came to those who had kept their hearts focused on the sacred and were familiar with holiness.
One of the most haunting elements in the drama surrounding the Nativity of our Lord is the part played by angels. We are accustomed, of course, to the pictures and images of angels in Annunciation and Nativity scenes. Hence, it is difficult for us to keep alive much sense of awe, much less of dread, with respect to the sudden appearances of these glorious fellow creatures. But here they are, suddenly on our stage, arriving from a realm that is separated from ours not by mere light years, but by whole modes of being. The fabric of our world has been pierced from the outside.
The term “fellow creatures” strikes a presumptuous note, however. Who are we, poor sublunary mortals and sinners, to claim fellowship of any sort with these bright immensities? If we share the humility and clarity of vision of the patriarchs and the prophets, we will do what they did: fall on our faces when these ministers of the Most High come near us.
And yet the angels themselves, if we may speak thus, would insist that, glorious and terrible as they are, they are, precisely, fellow creatures with us. They are never to be mistaken for the Divine Majesty itself. They may be infinitely higher up the scale of being than we are; but between that whole scale of creatures and the Most High himself, there is a distance and a difference so utter that the distance between seraphim and flatworms dwindles to insignificance.
And, paradoxically, we creatures of mortal flesh here on earth—we humans—enjoy a dignity that no archangel nor cherub, nay nor the seraphim themselves, enjoy. It is that this flesh of ours has been raised to incomparable glory by having been taken on by God himself in the mystery of the Incarnation in which, to borrow the language of the Athanasian Creed, we find not so much a bringing of the Godhead down to man as a taking of the manhood into God. For this reason, by the way, we find in the hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” a human being addressed as “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim.” The words refer, of course, to Mary. While an angel was given the task of announcing to our flesh that it was to be glorified in the Incarnation, the task of bearing the Incarnate God was given to this flesh of ours.
But of course in the city of God it never comes to a matter of jockeying for position, or of comparing credentials, or of sniffing at questions of dignity and precedence. No angel will ever quarrel with any of us about comparative dignity, and, until we know something we don’t know now, our posture in front of them had better be prone.
I sometimes find myself peering into the dimness of what we mortals are permitted to know about angels. Of course, the first and perhaps most important thing to be observed is that our knowledge of angels amounts to almost nothing. We just do not know much about them. Insofar as they appear at all on the stage in the Bible, they are like the wind itself: we don’t know from whence they have come and whither they have gone. Suddenness and peremptoriness seem to mark their appearances. We are not at all prepared for their entry: the drama is going along, quietly or turbulently—that does not seem to have the slightest effect on the angels’ appearances. Then, all of a sudden, bang in the middle of the stage, dominating the scene utterly, there is an angel, with no apology or by-your-leave, or any of the complicated protocol that might mark the entrance of a herald from even the greatest Oriental potentate.
The chief characters in the Bible find themselves hailed by these mighty spirits: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, Elijah, Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, and Peter. And in virtually every case the human reaction is at the very least one of awe, and probably of terror. The Bible stories do not always describe the arrival of an angel as attended by dazzling light or braying trumpets, nor the angel as particularly gigantic in size or specially frightening in appearance. Any of these qualities would arouse awe and terror in us mortals. But sometimes the story simply says an angel appeared to so-and-so. We have no reason to believe that the apparition had anything visibly terrifying about it. But we find that Zechariah or Mary or whoever it may be in the story in question is nonetheless filled with fear. What may we conclude from this?
Of course, any of us may experience a start if we look up from our dishpan or our desk and find someone standing next to us without our having been aware that anyone had come into the room. But in these cases the shock is small and momentary and then we say, “Ah, it’s you”; or, if it is a stranger we may say something like, “Um—can I help you?” wondering all the while how he got there and hoping that it is the meter man.
But to these angelic visitations, awe, fear, and terror even, seem to be the appropriate and inevitable responses. And surely this is important. What we see in the reaction of these people in the Bible who found themselves confronted by angels will give us clues to some important aspects of the whole Christian vision.
For one thing, we see in Gideon and the prophets and Mary and the others a capacity to be awe-struck. Now that may seem a gratuitous observation. But to see the force of this, we might try, by any method, to arouse old-fashioned awe, or admiration, in someone who is at home in our century. What has happened to a generation brought up under the ear-splitting din and brutalizing cacaphony of acid rock music played, always, at megadecible levels? And what is the effect on us all of the stultifying avalanches of sheer information and diversion and entertainment—ever louder, faster, more colorful, and bizarre—that pour into our laps from television? What is the effect in our imaginations of breathless travel, and of the ever more titillating pageantry furnished by cinema and glossy magazines? For people who live and move and have their being in the midst of all this, what chance has sheer otherness, sheer holiness, to flag them down? The capacity to be awe-struck is rare. There is plenty of boredom and suspicion and surfeit and cynicism about, but very little understanding of “awe,” or “admiration”—the ability to respond appropriately to sheer splendor, or to the truly admirable.
To test this in a small way, one might try waylaying a sampling of passers-by and asking them what their feelings were as they watched, say, the funeral of Lord Mountbatten on television a year ago. (This event would supply us with a good case in point of what we were after because it was a spectacle that included as much imagery as any twentieth-century person is likely to see that is like the language of the Bible, namely pomp and processions and trumpets and gold and so forth, all in the service of something entirely awesome and solemn.) Anyone familiar with Hebrew worship, or with the pictures in Isaiah or the Apocalypse, will have no trouble with this sort of thing. But what of your ordinary passer-by in the Chicago Loop? If you could find anyone who had been interested in the spectacle at all, you might find that his reaction was, “Well, it was okay, but it’s all a bit outdated, don’t you think?”
The point here, lest it seem that we are getting too far afield from the angels, is that the little we do know about angels attaches to their very fleeting appearances on stage in our story, and that whether they come as shining lights or disguised as ordinary mortals, they seem to have about them the unmistakable quality of the ineffable. They come, in other words, from heaven. They come, as it were, out to us, from the Holy Place, from the precincts of the Mysterium Tremendum. What, we may ask ourselves, is our own capacity to respond to this sort of thing? What sort of vision and sensibility and sensitivity and awareness are we cultivating day by day? What will impress us and regale us and fill us with awe? Will it be Mick Jagger or Saint Michael? Hustler or the angel Gabriel? What are our tastes? There was something in Gideon and Zechariah and Peter that was already attuned to holiness, it seems, so that when it came upon them, they were able to respond with exactly the correct response, namely, awe. Fear. It is for heaven to say to them and to us, “Fear not.” Until then we do well to tremble. That is the healthy starting point for us mortals. The cavalier and the sassy and the flip and the impertinent have no place at the door of the dwelling of the Most High from which these angelic visitants have come.
There is another point that seems significant. These people in the Bible who found themselves addressed by angels, and who responded with the right response: how did they learn that protocol? Had Isaiah had a course in angelology? Had Peter been rummaging through occult lore and spiritism? Was Zechariah a priest at the shrine of Saint Michael? No. In every case, the response of these people seems to have been a by-product of a prior humility and goodness. These people loved and served the Lord himself. Hence they recognized holiness when it appeared in angelic form, and their reaction was appropriate. They were accustomed to bowing before the ineffable. By contrast, we might think of characters like Belshazzar and Herod: in order to flag them down and divert their attention from their orgies and obscenities, you had either to spell out their doom in letters that would admit of no mistake, or to eat out their insides with worms.
It is an old notion in the church (the Bible says nothing about it though Paul may suggest it in 2 Thess. 1:9) that the fire of hell may be the fire of the holiness of God experienced as agony by those who have never cultivated a taste (called sanctity) for that sort of thing. What was the difference between the Pharisees on the one hand and Simeon and Anna on the other? The one group, ironically, had no capacity at all to recognize the thing when it finally came: they hated it. The others, the old man and woman in the temple, recognized and loved it immediately because they had kept their hearts with all diligence and were familiar with holiness, if we may put it that way. They knew how to respond to the approach of God because they had known him all along, not because they were particularly adept in occult lore.
This must be important. It is not for nothing that we are told so little in the Bible about angels. They are, if we may speak abruptly, none of our business most of the time. Our business is to learn to love God and our neighbor, Charity, Sanctity. There is our whole work, cut out for us. There are ten thousand utterly fascinating diversions possible—all sorts of things to siphon our energy and attention away from the task at hand—everything from brutish pursuits like sheer lechery to arcane refinements like angelology.
I myself am one who would like to make his pilgrimage to Saint Michael’s Mount. The figure of that glorious archangel, doing battle with the Prince of Darkness: I love it. I love the vision of that mighty warrior, lordly and dread, fighting for us. There are very few pictures in all of myth and poetry equal to that of the archangel Michael riding out armed with the might of the Lord of Hosts, to crush Satan and his hordes. We may, it seems to me, let our imaginations reach as high as they can for imagery to bring to this event: all the flashing swords and snorting warhorses and glittering armor and fluttering pennons and sounding of alarums and excursions that ever regaled our childhood imaginations in tales of faerie and chivalry—those are all most appropriate.
And yet. And yet. Glorious as this is, we must take our cues from the way the story itself tells it. The Bible is the Book with the story in it. You have to follow how the author tells his story. You have to stick with his own emphases. You cannot go tooting off to write your own story and then call it his. And it is surely worth noticing that in Bible stories, almost no space is given to the angels. Their entries are sudden and brief, and then they exit. Michael himself is mentioned in only three books of the Bible, and in every case the reference is very brief and mysterious, as though we were given a glimpse through a cranny out onto huge vistas where heavenly dramas were in progress. Daniel mentions Michael as somehow assisting perhaps another angel (you cannot quite tell from the account) in getting past some evil power en route to Daniel with a message; in another place Daniel refers to Michael as a great prince somehow charged with the defense of the people of God. Then Jude gives us a most awesome and tantalizing glimpse of the archangel fighting with Satan, if you please, over the body of Moses. What sort of a scene is that? How we would love to know; think of the thrill of that story! But no: we are not to hear it yet. It is not part of our story yet. And then just once Saint John the Divine, in the Apocalypse, pulls back the curtain and lets us have a glimpse of Saint Michael leading his angels against the dragon and prevailing. What oratorios could be written about that. What epics. But again, no.
It seems sufficient that we be aware that our story here is part of a gigantic drama in which all heaven, earth, and hell strive. A Christian is aware of living under titantic mysteries that arch and loom above his head. That much, at least, he is given to know. And in that drama the angelic hosts participate. The Bible never spells out much about them. There is a fascinating literature of angelology. Tradition lets us imagine nine orders in the heavenly hierarchy, starting at the bottom with angels, whose ministry seems to be very much towards us, right on up the scale, through archangels, virtues, thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, to the cherubim who attend the worship of God, and the altogether mysterious seraphim. Even though most are mentioned in the Bible, the arranging of the so-called ninefold orders of angels is a neoplatonic business. We have no biblical warrant to make a cult of angels.
But it is salutary for us to mark and remember these glorious fellow creatures and their part in the divine drama. It does have an effect on us to know about them. It is humiliating for us to think of their splendor, and encouraging and consoling to us to think that some of them at least are appointed by God as ministers in our behalf, and it is thrilling to look into the Last Things and see Saint Michael there fighting for us. But all crowns and diadems and wreaths of glory will be cast down at the Last Day before the sapphire throne on which the Ancient of Days himself sits and before whom the very seraphim cover their faces.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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