A Field Guide to Angels: An Advent Almanac
Advent 2022 begins Sunday, November 27th.
Every year, when they were little, my children donned cardboard wings in the Christmas pageant. And through the centuries gilded angel wings have graced a bazillion Christmas cards.
Pretty, poetic symbols. Anachronistic theology of the Middle Ages. Superstition in the scientific age. Right?
Yet every Sunday we confess that “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” This creedal formulation of the Genesis story is woefully silent about the explicit nature of this heavenly domain. Yet angels are a prevalent Biblical motif, which demand serious, if not literal, theological interpretation.
Angels’ status within the Christian traditions of East and West ranges from the fundamentalist to the mythological. For centuries theologians of the West have wavered between belief and unbelief. Both Hebrew and Christian scriptures reverberate with references to angels, under one name or another. The Bible offers no consistent or systematic definition of angels. It only tells us a multitude of stories, that blessedly allow for a multitude of interpretations. Some interpreters have reduced them to merely human messengers. Others including the Gnostics, with their abhorrence for matter completely spiritualized the angels.
The Gnostics opened the door for a plethora of spiritual, angelic speculation. The apocryphal works of Enoch and Jubilees abound with angelic imagery which later flowered into the elaborate angel hierarchies of the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas’ scholastic reflection on the nature of angels was based on Dionysius of Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchies. The orders and ranks of angels became the staple of Catholic doctrine and theology, gathering dust for centuries.
Yet as early as the second century, there have been those who doubted the reality and purpose of the angelic hosts. Origen questioned whether anyone but God could be capable of incorporeal existence. And by the 19th Century for the West angels had become virtually extinct and more likely the topic of coffee-table books than serious theology. Karl Barth called Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchies “the greatest fraud in church history.”
Jurgen Bultmann dismisses them as pure mythology. Liberation and political theology demotes them to symbols of earthly power. Recently in the West, only Walter Wink, a New Testament scholar and theologian, has taken angels seriously as manifestations of power.
The Eastern Church, by contrast, has never abandoned its belief in angels. Michael Pomazansky, in his Dogmatic Theology, characterizes angels as “pure and fleshless spirits. They are beings not only comparatively higher and more perfect, but they also have a very important influence on the life of humankind, even though they are invisible to us.” Pomazansky finds the angels are still involved in the whole of God’s creation. Angels of the Nations still preside in the divine counsel. Guardian angels still guide and protect individual human beings. Angels belong to the “invisible” dimension of creation; angels are created but immaterial. Understood in this light, humans are the mediators whose lives intersect the two worlds. “It is their God given task to reconcile and to harmonize the realms, to bring them to unity, to spiritualize the material. Angels then do have intercourse with humanity in the created and social orders — but it is humanity’s doing.”
Yet even the Orthodox of the East have called into question the precise definition of the angelic orders in Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchies. The only legitimate angelic orders are to be found in scripture. Their rank and hierarchical powers are ultimately only for God to know with certainty.
So just what are we 21st Century Episcopalians supposed to make of angels this coming Christmas? This little Advent “field guide” invites you to ponder this question by exploring scripture, literature, poetry, art, pop culture, and theology. Examples of each are contained between its covers. Follow through it sequentially or dip into it experientially, whatever best feeds your soul.
Scroll through the interactive “Field Guide to Angels: An Advent Almanac” with beautiful original illustrations by parishioner Margaret Wohler. Or click on link below to download and print one of your own.
Advent Christmas Spirituality The Episcopal Church Advent Angels Christmas Clergy Margaret Wohler Parishioners Podcast Seasonal Devotional The Rev. Joan L. Peacock Visual Art
eecvoices View All →
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog
You must be logged in to post a comment.