Synaxis of the Holy Angels
Today we celebrate the synaxis, the gathering, of the Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Hosts. The angels have been, and continue to be, a fairly prominent feature in the minds and imaginations of mankind… but there are so many misconceptions and mythologies surrounding the angelic hosts. Let us take some time this morning to better understand the Orthodox teaching of the angels.
In our daily prayers we recite the Nicene Creed in which we proclaim God as the Creator of everything visible and invisible. And this is exactly true… for God is indeed the Creator of both the visible world: the earth, the sun, the stars, and all living things which we see and know. And He is the Creator of the invisible world: the world of the angelic beings.
God, Who is the Source of all things good and beautiful and true, creates only goodness, beauty, and truth. Before the creation of the visible world, God created the angels. And God, Who is the Source of love, bestowed free-will upon his angelic creations, so that they might freely participate in that relationship of love with their Creator. True love requires freedom so that one may freely choose to love. Of course, the risk in that freedom is that one may choose to turn away. And this is what happened with one of the brightest of the angelic lights named Lucifer, who in his pride sought to usurp the throne of God – rejecting God’s love in favor of his self-love. The scriptures and holy tradition tell us that there was a rebellion among the angelic ranks with Lucifer leading a multitude of angels against God. The Archangel Michael led the ranks of faithful angels in defeating the rebellious angels, who were cast out of heaven and became what we now know as demons. It is important to understand that the demonic realm was not created by God… only goodness come from God… evil is the rejection and absence of good.
And so, the invisible spiritual world consists of the angels and the demons. Each have made their choice of good or evil, of service to God or rebellion against God. Since the angelic world exists in eternity, not in temporal time, their choices are fixed. This must be a lesson to us… while there are limitations associated with our mortal lives and our experience of the linear sequence of past, present, and future – this is also our great gift and advantage: for as long as we exist in this temporal realm, we have the opportunity to repent, to choose the good, to choose to serve God. Once we breathe our last, this becomes our ‘Amen’… our ‘so be it’… and the choices we have made in this life determine our eternity.
The angels are thus not confined by the limitations of this physical world. They can travel vast distances instantaneously, to appear where it is necessary for them to act according to the will of God. One of the key duties of the angelic hosts is to serve as messengers of the Most -High – and we see this throughout scripture, perhaps most notably in the appearance of angels announcing Christ’s coming.
The angels are immortal, however, their immortality, like mankind’s, completely depends on the will and mercy of God.
Despite the near perfection of angels, the Orthodox Church teaches that they still have limits. For instance, Scripture tells us they do not know the depths of the essence of God, which is known only to the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11). Moreover, they do not know the future, which is also known only to God (Mark 13:32). Angels are also incapable of fully understanding the mystery of redemption, which they “desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12) but cannot. They are even incapable of knowing all human thoughts (1 Kings 8:39), and cannot perform miracles on their own but only by the will of God (Ps. 71:19). Lastly, they cannot be omnipresent. Scripture depicts angels as descending from heaven to earth or ascending from earth to heaven, which gives us reason to believe they cannot be on earth and in heaven at the same time.
It has also been revealed to the Church that there are nine ranks of angels. St Gregory the Dialogist writes: The existence of angels and archangels is witnessed throughout Holy Scripture; it is principally the books of the Prophets which mention cherubim and seraphim. The names of yet another four ranks are listed by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians (1:21) […] and also in his Epistle to the Colossians (1:16) […] Thus, when to those four of whom he speaks to the Ephesians—that is to the principalities, authorities, powers and dominions—we add the thrones, mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians, that adds up to five ranks of angels; and when to them we add the angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we can see that there are nine ranks of angels. Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Powers, Dominions, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels – these are the nine ranks in the angelic world.
The angelic orders exist to serve God – praising Him, serving Him, and doing His will. What is remarkable as well is that the angels also exist to serve and assist mankind – acting as messengers of the Most-High and intermediaries between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm.
Certainly, one of the most immediate and personal aspects of the angelic realm for every baptized Orthodox Christian is the assignment and the presence of one’s guardian angel – an angel assigned by God at one’s baptism to guide and guard each person throughout their life. What a remarkable privilege this is! And, sadly, it is one of the most neglected aspects of our spiritual life.
Do we realize that our guardian angel is beside us at all times? This should be a source of the greatest consolation and encouragement to us! And, at the same time, it should also be a source of the greatest concern and care for us… that we would not do anything to grieve our guardian angel. What kind of activities do we do? What kind of movies do we watch? What kind of things do we say? Dear brothers and sisters in Christ – if we could see our faithful friend and guardian angel by our side, we would surely live more carefully so as not to drive him away.
Let us rejoice today in this celebration of our spiritual allies – the archangels, angels, and all the bodiless hosts. May their dedication and service to God be our inspiration… drawing our hearts and minds a little higher in angelic service and love for God.