01 December 2013

Finding angels on Christmas trees,
bookshelves, and the Christmas story

Angels above a Christmas scene in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Long before Advent arrived, many of us had probably started our Christmas shopping, checking out the tree, and planning the carol singing. Angels are going to appear everywhere: on the wrapping paper and the cards, topping the trees, hovering above the cribs, and featuring in the words of traditional carols:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
glory to the new-born King …
[Hymn 160]

O come, all you faithful…
come and behold him,
born, the King of angels …

while mortals sleep the angels keep
their watch of wandering love
[‘O little town of Bethlehem,’ [174]

On Christmas night, all Christians sing,
to hear the news the angels bring …

Silent night, holy night …
Heavenly hosts sing allelulia

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
… the angel of the Lord came down

The Incarnation by Eleftheria Syrianoglou ... a ‘table icon’ on olive wood in an exhibition in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And the angels appear in many other popular carols and hymns, including: In the bleak mid-winter [162], Ding dong! Merrily on high [155], God rest you, merry gentlemen [158], Infant holy, infant lowly [163], It came upon the midnight clear [164], and so on.

Saint Luke begins his nativity narration with the story of an Angel of the Lord appearing to Zechariah in the Temple to tell him of the future birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1: 8-20). Soon afterwards, the Angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary at the annunciation in Nazareth (Luke 1: 26-38). An angel of the Lord advises Joseph not to be afraid to marry the pregnant Mary (Matthew 1: 20).

When Christ is born in Bethlehem, an angel brings the good news at night to shepherds on the hillside, and is then joined by more angels, a “multitude of the heavenly host,” singing:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those
whom he favours
[Luke 2: 8-18]

An angel of the Lord tells Joseph to take Mary and the Christ Child to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2: 13), and later tells him to return with his family (Matthew 2: 19-20).

The Visitation of Abraham ... a fresco on a wall in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Angels also feature in the Resurrection story. An angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone on Easter morning. He tells the women at the tomb not to be afraid but to go and tell the disciples that Christ is risen (Matthew 28: 1-7; Mark 16: 1-7). Saint Luke’s Gospel tells us there were two angels at the empty grave that Easter morning (Luke 24: 1-7). After the Ascension, two “men in white” – usually presumed to be angels – tell the lingering disciples to return to Jerusalem (Acts 1: 10-11).

So, angels play central roles in the Christmas story, and provide a narrative link between Christmas and Easter, between the incarnation and the resurrection and ascension.

Finding Biblical angels

Books about angels usually sit alongside ‘New Age’ books rather than serious theology in bookshops (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Although angels appear throughout the Bible, many people either regard any talk of angels as superstitious nonsense, not rooted in earthly experience, or they remove angels from the Christian narrative and make them part of ‘New Age’ nonsense.

You only have to look at shelves labelled “Spirituality” in book shops to realise that angels are seldom written about by sensible and respected theologians, and most books about angels might as well be placed on shelves alongside books about ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ crystal stones and Feng Shui.

So, as we plan our carol services and prepare to place that angel on top of the Christmas tree, how are we to recover the story of angels that makes sense for Christians yet keeps our feet firmly planted on the ground?

The Congregation of All Angels, by a nun from the Monastery of Agia Irini, in an exhibition in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The angels who appear throughout the New Testament must have been fearsome in appearance, for they constantly have to advise people: “Fear not” or be not afraid” – from the Virgin Mary and Joseph to the shepherds on the hillside and the women at the tomb.

Yet we have reduced angels from being strong and awe-inspiring beings to chubby-faced putti from Italian baroque churches. We even talk about pretty children being “cherubs” and “little angels” – hardly the type of beings to make us tremble with fear.

Bede, in his History of the English Church, tells that when Pope Gregory the Great saw a group of fair-skinned, fair-haired English children on sale in the slave market in Rome and was told they were Angles, he declared: Non Angli, sed Angeli, “Not Angles, but Angels ... “for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven.” The encounter led Pope Gregory to send Saint Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to England.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s statue of the Archangel Michael on the wall of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is a clever pun that was used playfully by the church historian Henry Chadwick when he was editing his book Not Angels but Anglicans (2000). However, it helps to confirm the images of angels as fresh-faced and child-like, rather than the fearful and terrifying beings like the Archangel Michael in Jacob Epstein’s sculpture on Coventry Cathedral.

Father Ian Graham of Holy Trinity Church, Oxford, asked recently: “Who is the opposite of the Devil? A large number of Christians answer God. No. The answer is the Archangel Michael, and that should put him in perspective.”

The Lichfield Angel ... a carved limestone panel, from ca 800 AD, may have formed the corner of the shrine of Saint Chad, who died in 672 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But there is a difficulty in talking about angels in today’s culture, for any talk of angels often ranks with “being away with the fairies.” That cultural difficulty is compounded by the Biblical accounts where angels appear in martial, hierarchical and monarchical contexts. The word angel means messenger or envoy, both inside and outside Scripture. If we translated angel as messenger or envoy, would it bring a new immediacy ad meaning to Biblical passages?

Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels. Professor Sebastian Brock of Oxford points out that many Syriac writings in the Patristic era say the angels were created on the first day, along with heaven and earth. But the first appearance of angels is in Genesis 3, when two cherubim or winged beasts – rather than putti – are placed to block Adam and Eve returning to Eden.

‘Praise him all ye angels of his’ ... a window in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Bible tells us the names of some of the archangels, including Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. The Biblical passages that speak of angels range from Abraham’s visitors at Mamre and the angels in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel, to the heralds of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and the angels in Acts, including those in the stories of Philip and Cornelius.

‘Angels Heavenly and Fallen’

An angel carved on a prayer desk in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Earlier this year, I took part in a summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS), with the title “Angels, Heavenly and Fallen.”

Professor Marcus Plested introduced the thinking about Angels and Demons – not in the writings of Dan Brown but in the writings of some of Early Church writers, including Macarius, Evagrius Ponticus and Dionysius the Areopagite.

Putti at the base of a monument at the west end of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dionysius says we should be more interested in what they do than what they look like, and more interested in how they lead us to God, for angel is a title that indicates a messenger, who announces God’s message and good news and who points to God.

In his Celestial Hierarchy, he orders the ranks of the angels into three groups of three, with nine titles, all of which are scriptural:

1, Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones – the angels closest to God;

2, Dominions, Powers and Authority;

3, Principalities, Archangels and Angels – the angels closest to us.

‘I go to prepare a place for you’ ... an angel in a window in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At the summer school, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia warned us not to expect angels to appear as they are shown on icons: “Do not expect to see a winged figure in Byzantine court dress. An angel might well appear in a mackintosh and a trilby hat.”

The icon writer Aidan Hart spoke about the development of angels in Eastern and Western iconography. The earliest image from ca 180 shows the Annunciation in a catacomb in Rome, with the angel clothed in a toga like a Roman citizen, and until the late fourth century, angels look like humans, without wings.

An angel in stained glass in a church in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From about the fourth century, angels are seen as winged mythological figures, appropriating depictions of Nike, the goddess of victory, for angels fight battles against demons. Wings also became a way of showing that angels are created beings, with limited abilities as they move between the heavenly realm and the human world.

From the fifth century, angels look like Byzantine courtiers, who acted as counsellors, were masters of ceremonies, controlled access to the throne, and were intermediaries, diplomats and messengers –roles similar to those of angels. But because many courtiers were eunuchs, angels came to be depicted without beards.

By the sixth century, angels were wearing garbs first confined to the emperor but then also worn by their delegates and closest bodyguards. The Archangel Michael and other angels are depicted in Byzantine military garb with swords, with staffs representing authority, and with peacock wings as a symbol of everlasting life.

From the eleventh century, the Archangel Gabriel is shown not in a military uniform but in a courtly toga-style robe, while the Archangel Michael has a staff for authority and an orb for wisdom.

The seraphim are six-winged creatures above the throne (see Isaiah 6), two wings covering their faces, two covering their feet, and two for flying as they cry out: “Holy, Holy, Holy ...” They are often depicted supporting the dome in a church or above the doors of the icon screen, for they guard the gates of Paradise.

Angels and evangelists on columns at the porch in University Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Cherubim often look like seraphim, but they are many-eyed, guard the entrance to Paradise with flaming swords, and guard the Ark of the Covenant and the veil of the Holy of Holies. They are identified by Ezekiel with the “four living creatures” (Ezekiel 1: 1-14), although these four are also identified with the four evangelists: Saint Matthew (man), Saint Mark (lion), Saint Luke (ox) and Saint John (eagle).

The heavenly hosts may also be depicted as stars. But the depiction of angels reminds us that worship on earth is also participation in the worship in heaven.

Christmas makes a difference

A sacramental-looking angel in Saint Matthew’s Church, Great Peter Street, Westminster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Sister Magdalen expressed her worries about ‘New Age’ and occult interests in angels. Angels and humans are both creatures of God. But, she said, the Incarnation makes a radical difference, for Christ came not as an angel but became human – a child born in flesh into a poor family.

She says angels are in awe that humans can take part in the Body and Blood of their Lord sacramentally. Angels love and serve human beings, and rejoice at our repentance. But humans can live and develop, and learn by love to embrace all humanity so that we sanctify the whole of creation in ourselves.

And that is at the very heart of the Christmas message.

An angel marking a Maxwell family grave in Kilmore, Co Cavan ... their ancestors were once the landlords of Newtownbarry, now Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay was and these photographs were first published in December 2013 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Putti on the Venetian-era Morosini fountain in the centre of Iraklion, capital of the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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