A FEW YEARS AGO a Greek pilot had this harrowing experience. In mid-air his plane experienced system failure. The instruments disengaged, the engines cut out and there was nowhere to go but down. Suddenly the pilot saw the holy archangel Michael appear beneath the wings, holding them aloft. He couldn’t believe it. St. Michael guided the plane to safety, then vanished.
In our culture there is no room for incorporeal powers such as angels. We class them as myths, along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Their tales may provide pleasantly distracting entertainment, but we “know” that only the corporeal, the physical is real.
The Church, based on the witness of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, insists that incorporeal powers – angels – are very real, although generally unseen. They are created, as we are, but with none of the limitations our physical nature imposes on us. The angels are the invisible creation we mention in the Nicene Creed; yet they are not faceless forces: they are individuals differing according to their rank and function.
The great number of human beings who inhabit only this planet is nothing compared to the number of angels who inhabit the universe. As St Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “Imagine how great in number is the Roman people. Imagine how great in number are the other peoples who now exist and how many more must have died! Imagine how many have been buried in a century or in a thousand years. Imagine all mankind from Adam to the present day. Great is their number, but it is small in comparison with the angels.”
We find the presence of angels recorded throughout the Old and the New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah saw seraphim before God’s throne (Isaiah 6:2) and the prophet Ezechiel saw the cherubim (Ezekial 10:8). The prophet Daniel saw a thousand thousand ministering to God with ten thousand times ten thousand standing before God (Daniel 9 and 10). As we say in the Divine Liturgy, “There stand before You thousands of archangels and myriads of angels, cherubim and seraphim… singing, proclaiming, shouting the hymn of victory and saying ‘Holy!’”
The highest in rank of the heavenly powers who minister among us are the holy archangels Michael and Gabriel. Mentioned in several books of the Bible, they are referred to in our Church as the “captains” or “commanders” of the heavenly hosts. In the apocalyptic Book of Daniel Gabriel is described as coming to Daniel “in rapid flight at the time of the evening sacrifice” (Daniel 9:21). He prophesied that in the last days Michael, “the guardian of your people” (Daniel 12:1) would defend and deliver from their enemies “everyone who is found written in the book.” Thus in icons Gabriel is usually depicted as winged while Michael is clothed in a military uniform.
The angel Gabriel appears before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Forerunner and before the Theotokos to announce the birth of Christ. There are angels at His birth in Bethlehem and at His tomb in Jerusalem. Angels populate the garden in the Book of genesis (Genesis 3:24) and the heavens in the Book of Revelation. We call on them in the psalms to protect and help us and to lead us in blessing the Lord.
A Synaxis for the Heavenly Powers
On November 8 the Byzantine Churches celebrate a synaxis (assembly) in honor of the commanders of the heavenly hosts, Michael and Gabriel, along with all the heavenly powers. This feast was first observed in a church at the thermal baths of the Emperor Arcadius in Constantinople and spread from there throughout the Christian East as the principal commemoration of the incorporeal powers.
Another feast of St. Michael is kept on September 6 remembering the miraculous spring at Chonae in Asia Minor. A sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel had been erected by local Christians. Pagans sought to destroy it by diverting a stream from a nearby gorge against it; however a lightning strike split a massive rock diverting the stream again and preserving the shrine. Believers attributed the lightning to St Michael and considered the diverted waters forever sanctified.
Other Angels in the Tradition
There are a number of other angels named in Christian tradition, not to mention those in Jewish or Islamic lore. The Book of Tobit, found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Masoretic text, speaks of the angel Raphael, who identifies himself as “one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). Thus seven angels are often depicted in icons wearing priestly vestments.
The seven are named in 1 Enoch 20, a book highly esteemed by first-century Christians and still regarded as canonical Scripture in the Ethiopian Church. Besides Michael, Gabriel and Raphael it lists Uriel, Remiel (Jeremiel), Sariel (Selaphiel) and Raguel. Uriel and Remiel are also mentioned in 2 Esdras 4, another early work held to be canonical in some Churches. Uriel and Remiel were sent to explain to Ezra the signs of the times in which he lived. The presence of the archangels in our world was generally thought to indicate an approaching apocalyptic age.
Hail, Gabriel, announcer of the Incarnation of God! Hail, Michael, chief Captain of the bodiless hierarchies, who cry aloud, “Holy, holy, holy are You, O our Mighty God!”
From the Canon, November 8
Dionysius and the Angels
In the late sixth century a certain Dionysios, thought to be a Syrian pupil of the Greek philosopher Proclus, composed a number of works systematizing Scriptural teaching in a philosophical framework. For centuries he was confused with Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian convert of St Paul, and even St Denys of Paris. Since the nineteenth century he has been called by scholars Pseudo-Dionysius.
Dionysios’ Celestial Hierarchies arranged the Scriptural names for the incorporeal powers in a specific order, the nine “ranks” of spiritual beings in three “choirs”: those closest to God (thrones, cherubim and seraphim), those closest to us (angels, archangels and principalities) and those in between (authorities, dominions and powers). The names are found in Scripture:
- Cherubim (Genesis 3; Psalms 80 & 99; Ezekiel 10)
- Seraphim (Isiah 6)
- Archangels (1 Thessalonians 4; Jude)
- Angels (Romans 8; 1 Peter 3)
- Thrones, Authorities, Principalities and Dominions (Ephesians 1, 3; Colossians 1)
- Powers (Romans 8; Ephesians 1)
Dionysios felt that this list was far from exhaustive. “How many ranks of heavenly beings there are, what their nature is and how the mystery of holy authority is ordered among them only God can know in detail…. All that we can say about this is what God has revealed to us through them themselves.”