On November 8th, we commemorate the Synaxis of the Holy Archangels and all the Bodiless Powers. This is a special time to remember the unique place of the angelic powers as created beings who glorify God, teach us to glorify God and minister to us and aid in our salvation. The bodiless powers are a central part of the invisible warfare going on all around us. It is therefore vital for our success in this warfare to understand what the Church teaches us about them and how beneficial they are in our lives
The Bodiless Powers, commonly referred to by most people as Angels, have been regarded in various ways by mankind since the earliest times. Often times they were seen as gods and creators of the visible world. In the fourth century, at the local council in Laodicea in its 35th Canon, the holy Fathers rejected the worship of Angels as gods and reminded the world that they were to be venerated as bodiless members of God’s creation. Also, in the fourth century the official date for the commemoration of the Archangels became the eighth of November. November was the month chosen because of a widely believed tradition that the world was created in March, and November is the ninth month after March. The ninth month after March was chosen because of the nine orders of Angels that were the fi rst created beings. The eighth day of the month was chosen because the Day of the Last Judgment is called the Eighth Day by the Holy Fathers. After the end of this age (characterized by the seven days of Creation) will come the Eighth Day, and then “the Son of Man shall come in His Glory and all the holy Angels with Him.” (Matt. 25:31)
St. Dionysios the Areopagite, who was converted by St. Paul while preaching in Athens on Mars Hill and a disciple of St. Hierotheos of Athens, wrote about these nine orders in his book: “Celestial Hierarchies.” The nine orders of Angels are as follows: godly Thrones, six-winged Seraphim, many-eyed Cherubim, Dominions, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels and Angels. Within these nine orders there exists three ranks: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones—Dominions, Authorities, Powers—Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. They form a hierarchy of angelic beings, serving in varying promixity to the throne of God. The closer the order stands before the throne of God, the more it shares in the divine likeness and illumination. God reveals His will to the highest hierarchy and they relay the message to the other ranks. Although we do not know how many tens of thousands of angels there are, we do know the names of the seven leaders (given the title of Archangels but higher than the rank of archangels) who stand before the throne of God: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Selathiel, Jegudiel, and Barachiel. Some also add an eighth, Jeremiel, to this number.
The commander of the entire Angelic army is Michael the Archangel. His name means, “who is like God.” When Satan, the fallen Archangel Lucifer, fell away from God and deceived half the hosts of other bodiless powers to revolt with him, it was the Archangel Michael who arose and cried out to the unfallen Angels, “Let us attend! Let us stand aright; let us stand with fear!” The entire Angelic army that was still loyal to God replied, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory!” When we sing these words in the Divine Liturgy, we sing them in imitation of the angels in their obedience and glorification of God.
Among the Bodiless Powers there rules a perfect unity of mind, of soul, of love, and of nature. Although all of the Angels are equal in nature, they are not equal in rank and order as described above, yet there exists total obedience of the lesser powers to the greater and of all to the holy will of God. All the Angels, according to the Apostle Paul, are ministering spirits, “sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation.” (Heb.1:14) The “bodiless powers” are immaterial and noetical. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, “They reside in places above the universe and beyond the firmament, dwelling in a condition consistent with their bodiless natures, that is they are light, clear, agile, unencumbered by space and time, perpetually moving.”
Put in another way by St. John of Damascus, Angels are an incorporeal race, a sort of spirit or immaterial fi re, or in the words of the divine David: ‘He made His Angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fi re’ (Ps.104:4); and by this He has described their lightness and ardor, enthusiasm, eagerness and acuity with which they serve Him for Whom they long; and how they are borne to the regions above and are quite free of all material thoughts. An Angel, then, is a noetical essence, perpetually in motion, with a free will, incorporeal, subject to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence.
Each nation has its own guardian Angel (Deut.32:8), as does each individual Christian. In fact, we are given a guardian Angel at our baptism: “Yoke to his life a radiant Angel who will protect him against every attack of the adversary, from evil encounters, from the noon-day demon and from evil visions.” The Book of Psalms also says that each of us have an Angel whose charge is to protect us: (Ps.91:10-12) In Heaven, they always behold the face of God, sending up to Him the thrice-holy hymn and interceding with Him on our behalf, seeing they rejoice over one sinner that repents. We must keep in mind that whatever we do, openly or in secret, we do in the presence of our guardian Angel, and that, on the Day of Judgment, a great multitude of the holy Angels of heaven will be gathered around the throne of Christ, and the thoughts, words and deeds of every man will be laid bare before them. The Angels also bear our prayers to God and contend with the devil for the souls of those who fall asleep. Angels will also accompany the Lord Jesus at the Judgment and gather the elect, casting evil-doers into hell and entering the elect into the heavenly Kingdom.
From everything that we have said about our Church Tradition regarding the angelic powers, we can see that they are with us in a very real way. The lowest hierarchy of the angels was created specifically to glorify God by ministering to those who are the “heirs of salvation”, that is, humanity. These incorporeal beings are present with us in the divine services, they invisibly protect us from harm and they are sent by God to interact with us and reveal to us His holy will.
The Archangel Gabriel in particular has the role of making known God’s mysteries to humans. Where Michael is the chief commander, Gabriel is the chief messenger of the good news of Salvation and the illuminator of prophecies and truth. His name means “God is mighty.” He was considered to be the angel who revealed to Moses the creation of the world and all the other contents of the Book of Genesis, the angel sent to help Daniel understand a vision, the angel who revealed to Joachim and Anna the conception of the Theotokos and to the Prophet Zacharias the conception of his son, John. He also appeared to the Theotokos in the temple and to the myrrh bearing women at the tomb after the Lord’s Resurrection.
A beautiful story within our Holy Tradition concerning the Archangel Gabriel is the feast of the Synaxis of the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos “Axion Estin” or “It Is Truly Meet.” This feast, celebrated on June 11th, commemorates the appearance of the Holy Archangel in the guise of a simple monk to the disciple of a certain elder living in a hermitage belonging to the Monastery of Pantokrator on the Holy Mountain. During Orthros, after the monk had chanted the customary hymn, “Higher in honor than the Cherubim …” the Archangel chanted the same hymn, but with the following prelude: “It is truly meet to call you blessed, the Theotokos, the ever-blessed and all-immaculate and Mother of our God.” Marvelling at the hymn’s beauty, the monk asked the visitor— who appeared also to be a monk—to record this new text in writing, which the Angel did by miraculously inscribing the words on a piece of slate, using only his finger, and immediately he vanished from sight. This slate was brought to the main church of the Holy Mountain, the Protaton, and from there to Constantinople, to the imperial court and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as evidence of the miracle. From that time until this day, this version of the hymn to the Most Holy Theotokos is chanted in the Divine Liturgy in all the churches. The icon itself, before which this hymn was first chanted, is called “the icon of the Axion Estin” and is kept on the Holy Mountain.
There are many other references to the angels and their presence among us and before God in the Divine Liturgy. In the Cherubic Hymn we sing “Let us who mystically portray the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity…” After the Great Entrance we finish this hymn with “That we may receive the King of all, who is invisibly escorted by the angelic orders.” During the Prayer of the Holy Anaphora, the priest prays on behalf of all, “We also thank You for this liturgy which You have deigned to accept from our hands, even though thousands of archangels and tens of thousands of angels stand beside You, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring on their wings, Singing the victory hymn, shouting, crying aloud and saying:” then the people sing the thrice-holy hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabaoth: heaven and earth are full of Your glory…” The priest again prays, “With these blessed powers…” And soon after we sing the Megalynarion or “It is Truly Meet”, which was taught to us by the Archangel Gabriel as described above.
Our Church includes the Bodiless Powers amongst the Saints. For this reason, we name our children after them, celebrate their feast days and adorn our churches with their icons. They are both an integral part of salvation history and play a vital role in the present work of the Church. We are therefore encouraged to engage them in prayers, like the one at the end of the Small Compline, and to seek their guidance and aid throughout our lives. Although we cannot ordinarily see them with our physical eyes, they are nevertheless all around us, intimately connected with our lives and working for us and with us unto our salvation. As we say at the end of the Compline, “O holy Angel of God…intercede with the Lord in my behalf, that He might strengthen me in the fear of Him and make me a worthy servant of His goodness. Amen.”