by Fr Jonathan Tobias
In yesterday’s trip to Hobby Lobby, it was amazing to see how many things you could get with plaques emblazoned with “He is the Reason for the Season,” and all sorts of artwork portraying angels with their announcement to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace, Good Will to Men.” I welcome this. I have no problem with this sort of commercialization. I think it is necessary to remind one and all that angels played a pivotal role in the events of the first Christmas.
But I suggest another necessary fact: just as angels played a necessary role in the New Testament Nativity story, they remain just as necessary for the Christmas celebration today.
Perhaps, they are even more important nowadays, as these times are most emphatically “un-angelic.”
Angels have been long dismissed from modern thought, pretty much assigned to the same wastebasket of history into which the “flat earth” and the “green cheese moon” have been thrown. At the beginning of the modern age, in the 1600’s, some philosophers started poking fun at the idea of even thinking about such beings. They dismissed such thought as idle speculation, about as useless as arguing over “How many angels can dance upon the tip of a needle?”
For your information, by the way, no one in the medieval church — Thomas Aquinas nor any of the Scholastics — ever posed such a nonsensical question. This famous (and irresponsible) question actually came from Reformation scholars and Enlightenment philosophers: neither sort had any room for angels or even rumors of angels: angels were not material and thus could not be observed, experimented upon, and defined. So therefore, in a “flat” sort of science, they were simply dismissed.
But the modern world, despite its technological prowess, cannot afford to be so blindfolded. There is more to reality than what can be scientifically proven or even proposed. Hope and meaning, truth and goodness and even beauty cannot be manufactured from elementary particles. To try to do so is to throw oneself deeply into the quicksand of Bunyan’s “slough of despond” (Pilgrim’s Progress). Which is a good description of a historic moment so afflicted by absurdity and nihilism.
After all, the most modern, secular (and anti-angelic) century was the twentieth. And that century was by far the most violent and destructive this world has ever seen.
There is a well-known Christmas song that tells of the phosphorescent news of the herald angels. As the melody builds toward the grand crescendo, the choir sings: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new glorious morn: Fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices …”
On that Holy Night, in the year zero at the fulcrum point of the ages, the world was also regarded as flat and dark. It was up to the angelic choir to sing the utterly different news that the darkness would be broken by light, and that a Shepherd had come to lead us up into the mountains of God.
Most religions believe in some sort of angelic presence. Oddly enough, even a modern secular philosophy such as scientific materialism has its immaterial “angels,” only these are called things like “artificial intelligence” and “fundamental constants.” Other religions speak of angels as agents of wrath and destruction.
Orthodox Christianity has angels in spades (at least it should) — but these angels of Holy Tradition differ from other frameworks. The biblical angels completely populate the non-material “space” of Creation, for one thing. And for another, the angels (and powers and principalities, etc), are committed to humanity. Every angel, every cherub or seraph, is in love with mankind and is pledged to help and rescue every person.
Not many people see angels, or at least see them clearly. The experiences of the Theotokos, the Apostles Peter and John, and the shepherds at the Nativity are exceptions, not the rule. But it is likely — even expected — that we have at least felt their presence. Perhaps it was at a sudden feeling of joy, or a pang of conscience, or a wholesomeness or peacefulness: in any case, an angel is always “directing” us along the way toward the glory of Christ (just like the gesture of the Theotokos calling us to look toward her Son, in the Theotokos Hodegetria icon).
But when angels are perceived, they are perceived according to their real form. To be sure, a lot gets “lost in translation,” as the human mind is limited and cannot “take it all in.” Despite these shortcomings, the form of angels and the form of humans really are related. While the angels are “bodiless,” just because they are creatures they, first of all, are limited, they are not omnipresent. Second, they can be “imaged” — thus the Seventh Ecumenical Council found that angels could be portrayed in icons.
That is why angels can be seen, or heard, or felt. There is not a single bodiless power that does not love humanity, that does not glorify God and point to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Glorification is the highest work of angels. Orthodox Christian theology sees no difference between glory and beauty, so whenever you experience true beauty (not just what is “pretty”), you are experiencing angelic artistic work. What is more is the startling fact that the language and music of angels are understandable — at least in part — by humans: “the measurement of man is the measurement of an angel” (Revelation 21.17). In all true wisdom and beautiful art — particularly music — the angels certainly sing.
In the Service for the Archangels, we sing “The earthly having wedded with the heavenly, O Christ, you have made one church for angels and humans, and we unceasingly extol You” (Ode 9). At the Incarnation, the desire of the Holy Angels for closer communion with their fellow noetic beings — humans, that is, us — comes to fruition: “Angelic companies precede Him with every principle and power.”
From the moment of their creation, before the creation of Adam and Eve, the angels were waiting. At the Nativity they began their celebration. “Anhely L’udi Veselo Prazdnujut! Angels and people join in celebration!” Indeed.
This is exactly why it took an angelic choir to announce the Good News first of all: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.”
The angels’ entire mission is to reflect the brilliance of divine goodness and to convey precisely the reason for the season. They have never stopped.
* * *
Fr Jonathan Tobias is a lecturer in pastoral theology at Christ the Saviour Seminary (American Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox Diocese). He resides near the Atlantic shore of North Carolina with his wife of nearly forty years.