Have you ever thought about the angels? Most of us, I’d suspect, usually don’t, unless we find ourselves in a difficult situation, and then remember to ask our guardian angel for help. Thinking about the angels isn’t something easily done in the culture of the world in which we live. Many people, when angels are mentioned, get an image of a golden-haired person in a long white robe with white wings. Of course, as the “traditional” beginning of the Christmas shopping season is less than a week away, soon we’re going to be surrounded with this sort of image of the angels.
Our Orthodox fathers teach us something different; an aspect of which can be seen on the deacon’s doors – the side doors into the altar, one on either side of the royal doors. The door to the right quite often is an icon of St. Michael the Archangel, dressed for battle; while the door to the left is quite often the archangel Gabriel, who, while not in armor, is nevertheless a figure of power, much different from the angels on Christmas cards and atop Christmas trees. The fathers teach us that, before God created the heavens and the earth, the nine ranks of angels were created. They are not material beings, as we are; they are spiritual beings, super-intelligences, able to take on the appearance of having being, and so to interact with the material world. The fathers also teach that the foremost of these created beings, Lucifer, the “bringer of light,” led a revolt of some of the angels after having beheld God’s plan for creation, and especially for mankind, to be created in the image and after the likeness of God. These rebellious beings, cast out of the heavenly realm, became the demons, with Lucifer, renamed Satan – the Adversary – as their leader; opposed by the holy archangel Michael, the leader of the bodiless hosts.
Because we are created in the image and after the likeness of God we are, as the Psalmist says, but a little lower than the angels. One thing we can deduce from this is that we are not as intelligent or as powerful as the angelic beings. Why, then, do we not worship them? Why, then, are we not subject to them as part of the dominion of God?
The answer is at once both simple and instructive. It is the nature of the angels to serve. In the case of the angels who did not rebel against God, they remained faithful servants of God. Indeed, the word “angel” derives from “messenger” – the angels are the messengers of God. Among other things, this means they are servants. In the case of the demons, they chose to serve themselves, rather than to serve God. What is striking about this is how much we have in common with the angels. We are also called to be the obedient servants of God; and yet consider how often we choose to serve ourselves, instead of doing the will of God! Every time we go to confession, every sin we admit there is evidence of how we have followed the example of the rebellious angels, rather than keeping faith with God.
It is said of many of the saints that they lived among us as “angels on earth.” This means, in part, that they gave no thought to the things of this world, but lived in a bodiless way, as much as is possible for us to do. They lived only to serve God; and quite often this was expressed by their serving those made in the image and after the likeness of God, giving instruction with love to assist others in the pursuit of the salvation of their souls. In this way, both by teaching and by their deeds they served us as a way of serving God.
Brothers and sisters, it is our calling to follow the example of the holy Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers of heaven, and to be the servants of God. Of course, one of the greatest examples of this is found in the holy and blessed Lady Theotokos, who, when told of her part in God’s plan for the salvation of the world by the archangel Gabriel, responded by surrendering herself in the fullness of her being – body, mind, and spirit – in order to give birth to our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. As with the angels, and with the Mother of God, so it is meant to be with us. We are given the opportunity to bear Christ, as did the Theotokos; and to present Him to the world, as she does, as she is most often depicted in the icons. Not only should Christ be seen in and through us, in what we say and in what we do; but having followed the example of our blessed Lady who said, “Behold the handmaiden – that is to say, the servant – of the Lord,” we are to follow the example of the holy angels and archangels; who, despite their power in comparison to our own, are the servants of God. This is what we should understand, and cultivate in our own hearts – that the joy of the servant is in serving. So let us rejoice in the presence of the angelic hosts, and let us serve each other in humility and love, and so become more and more like angels on earth.
By Fr. John McCuen