The Spice of Angels

Angels on the rood screenI was talking by computer link with St Peter the other day, about the M&S building programme, England’s cricket loss to Sri Lanka, and all those kinds of things, and during a lull in the conversation I asked him something which has bothered me for some time.

"Pete", I said (well, I go to his church and went to his school, so we are on first name terms), "Pete, what’s the story behind all these angels, or should I say, these "All Angels"?
"What’s your beef, Rog?", said Pete.
"Beef? No beef, I haven’t eaten it for years - no, Pete, what I want to know is why there are so many different grades of angels - more varieties than tickets on a Virgin train?"
"Well, we’re working with St Richard on that one, Rog, but this is the spice of it, at any rate:
There are plain old Angels (Standard Class), and they’re the workers, the visitors who pop up all over the Bible. Then you’ve got your Archangels (Business Class), they supervise your Angels (Standard Class), rather like your older sister still does you, at a distance. Hmm - next would be the Cherub (and -im) - they’re the Teletubby sort, I suppose, but a bit out of condition and not seen very much these days I would say (better ask St Michael). Another rare bunch these days is the Seraph (and -im), and if the Cherubim are the Teletubbies, Seraphim would be Spice Girls, of course - quite an act, they are. Let’s see now... Principalities and Powers, Fallen (Satan, he was God’s favourite; He still has a soft spot for him), and Guardians (they’re our social workers)...
"That’s very interesting" I said, a little overwhelmed, "but where do ordinary souls like me fit in?"
"Fit in? Oh, you..."

At this point, a box appeared on my computer screen: "Sorry, an error Type 666 has occurred, please save data and restart". Let down by my AppleMac link to St Peter, I turned to some HH-ROMs (hand held ROMS - or books). The Oxford English Dictionary lists nine grades of angelic beings:

  • angels
  • archangels
  • virtues
  • powers
  • principalities
  • dominations
  • thrones
  • cherubim
  • seraphim

This hierarchy was described by Dionysus the Areopagite, and supposedly reflected idealised positive human values - and demons represented the negative values.

Angels are described as divine messengers, the word deriving from the Greek angelos, messenger, and offer protection, guidance or spiritual insight. There are some vivid biblical references to angels - Jacob’s dream of the ladder with "angels of God going up it and coming down"; the visit of ‘The Angel of Yahweh’ to Gideon, and to Manoah, and Manoah’s wife, mother-to-be of Samson. Interestingly, Manoah wasn’t aware his visitor was an angel, and asked him to stay and eat, and asked him his name. The angel replied: ‘Even if I did stay with you, I would not eat your food...’ and ‘Why ask my name? It is a mystery’. Manoah and his wife lit a fire as an offering to Yahweh, the angel ascended in the flame, and they realised they had been visited by an angel.

Some angels are named, such as Gabriel, who visits the prophet Daniel and tells him "I have come down to teach you to understand" [Daniel 9:22], and Michael, who also visits Daniel, and could be called a guardian angel.

The Gospel narrators use angels as links between God and humans, too: "the angel of the Lord" appeared in dreams, and told Joseph not to be afraid, and to "take Mary as his wife", and again, after Jesus’ birth, to escape into Egypt, to avoid Herod’s massacre of male children, and a third time, after Herod’s death, to return to Israel. All the four gospels refer [Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:5-8; Luke 24:1-8; John 20:11-14] to the Angel of the Lord rolling away the stone door of Jesus’ tomb and telling Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, not be afraid, that Jesus is not there, but is risen.

No discussion of angels would be complete without reference to the Book of Revelation, revelations of an angel sent by Jesus, which refers to the angels of the seven churches, and is full of imagery of communication with them, the trumpets which are given to them, to blow and start the apocalyptic punishments: hail and fire mixed with blood, every blade of grass burned, the sea turning to blood, a third of living creatures wiped out... until the seventh trumpet, when "voices could be heard shouting in heaven, calling ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’" [Revelation 11: 15-16].

So where are the angels now? Are they simply a myth, a metaphor of God’s message, a connection between divine and human? Who knows? They are, however, a powerful, currently neglected group of beings with important messages for us in our spiritual search.

[I’m waiting for my next e-mail from St Pete.]

Roger Cowell

Why not also read Leslie's editorial on Angels, and Myra Chilvers' article about the ninety-six angels of St Peter's church?
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 27th September 1998