Sermon delivered on Sunday, July 26, on the feast of the Holy Archangel Gabriel.
The sermon looks at the ministry of angels.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the memory of the Archangel Gabriel. Gabriel is one of the most mentioned angels in the Gospels. He appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus, Who will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32). He announced to the priest Zachariah that God had heard his and his wife Elizabeth’s prayer and would bless them with a child, John the Baptist, who will be great in the sight of the Lord (Luke 1:8-20).
He appeared in a dream to saint Joseph, the caretaker of Mary and Jesus, and told Joseph not to divorce Mary, and later warned him of Herod’s intentions to kill all male babies and to flee to Egypt. And it was the Archangel Gabriel who met the women at the empty tomb, and told them to announce the resurrection to the disciples.
These are just some of the instances of Gabriel’s involvement in the history of salvation. Today, however, I would like to talk about angelic beings in general. I think there is a tremendous misunderstanding about who the angels are, what they do, and why they are important.
For example, the angels have nothing to do with the cute little cupids, who poke out their heads around Valentine’s day. Cupid is, in fact, a pagan god. He is a god of desire, erotic love, and attraction. He does shoot arrows at people, in order for them to fall for each other and commit an immoral sexual act.
Another name for a pagan god is demon. Therefore, when we pass around those little cupids on the valentine cards, and toys, and online messages, we pass around demons. If you really love someone, don’t give them demons. That may send mixed messages.
Another misconception about the angels involves human beings. Whenever a baby or a really nice person dies, perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “God has acquired an angel.” Well, no, He has not, that’s a bunch of non-Christian nonsense.
Whether it’s a baby that dies in a womb or is killed by abortion, whether it’s an infant who dies very young, or the nicest person you’ve ever known, perhaps your grandma or grandpa, irrelevant of age or stage of development, when we die, we stand before God as human beings. We do not change into another being.
Also, not all angels have wings, or rather, not all angels have just two wings. For example, in the Liturgy we say about the Cherubim and the Seraphim that they are many-eyed and six-winged. Some of them have many eyes, and some of them have six wings, "with two they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly" (Isaiah 6:2).
As much as we know about them, at the same time, we do not know much about the angels. I will get into what we do know, what has been revealed, but first I would like to mention what we don’t know. We don’t know how many angels there are. The Bible mentions, in various places, thousands and tens of thousands of angels. But we do not know their exact or even approximate number. We do not know whether the number increases or decreases. Meaning, are the angels born, and can they die or disappear?
We do know that the angels are, like us, God’s creation. They are part of the spiritual realm, mostly invisible to us. God created them for an active role in the governance of His creation (there is a reason why they are depicted almost everywhere on our icons and on the walls of our churches), they are part of His divine council (I will explain what it is a bit later), and each baptized Orthodox Christian has a guardian angel, assigned to us by God.
We do also know that there are nine ranks of angels and they serve at the throne of God. Closest to the throne are the Seraphim, then come the Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Powers, Authorities, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. All of these are the names of different groups of angels, with Archangel and Angel being the lowest rank, and closest to human beings.
God sitting on His throne and the angels around Him make up the divine council, God’s government, if you will, over which He presides. This divine council is depicted and alluded to in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, centered on the Incarnation of the Son of God, the nature of the divine council is transformed, where humanity, through Christ, acquires its rightful place in the divine council alongside the angelic beings.
Long ago, God appointed angels to govern different nations. Some of these nations worshipped the angels, and the angels desiring this honor, which belongs to God alone (we venerate the saints and angels, but we worship only God), accepted the worship of the nations. So, these angels, like the first fallen angel – Lucifer, satan – were cast out from God’s divine council. That’s how paganism was born, the pantheon of pagan gods is comprised of these fallen angels who desired and accepted worship from people. This is why we see quite a few places in the Bible where it says that all the gods of the nations are demons (Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 96:5, 1 Corinthians 10:20). They are worshipped as gods, but in actuality they are demons.
Even though some of the members of the divine council rebelled - satan and other angels who desired similar worship that God receives - the divine council itself was not destroyed. The role of the angelic beings who are a part of this council is not passive. In the pages of the Bible, we see some angels bringing the prayers for mercy and the tears of God’s people before the throne of God and offer them to Him. Requests are made to these angels to represent a person’s cause before the Lord. In short, angels are our intercessors.
As I mentioned, guardian angels are assigned to us at baptism, and we can and should pray for their intercession before God. After all, they are in the divine council, they are in His presence, they are assigned to guide us. The angels minister to everyone who inherits salvation – all of us, who believe and follow our Lord Jesus Christ.
At every service we ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies.” And in the Orthodox prayer books, there are prayers to the guardian angel, where we ask for his intercessions and ask forgiveness before him for our sins, sins that humiliate not only us, but him also.
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah says that he had a vision of the Lord (Isaiah 6), where he saw the divine council. He saw God sitting on the throne, and God was surrounded by the Seraphim, whose sole focus was on the constant giving glory, honor, and worship to the One sitting on the throne. This throne, however, is not like any other throne we may know. It is not fixed to one geographical location. Wherever the Lord is, there is His throne and the angelic hosts surrounding it, serving Him.
The angelic beings actively participate in our life, but we also get a chance to participate in the eternal worship enacted by the divine council. At the divine services, more specifically at the Liturgy, God is fully present, and where God is there are the angels serving Him. And at the Liturgy, we serve with them. The primary place where the heavenly realm intersects with the earthly realm is in the worship.
Let’s look at some of the iconography that adorns our church and see how it is the reflection of the divine council and how we fit into it.
In Isaiah’s vision, the Lord is “sitting on the throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). Look above the altar, what do we see? We see the Mother of God holding the infant Jesus. One of the symbols that we use in the Church for the Theotokos is the throne of God.
God not only chose to dwell in her womb and be born from her, but when she holds Him on her lap, she becomes the throne of God. She is the one who holds God. And who surrounds them? The angels. Some of them are actually depicted with six wings (even though it looks like the iconographers were not brave enough to depict the many-eyed Cherubim).
And then a little bit lower on the walls in the altar, we have Jesus holding the Cup and the Bread; and He is flanked by two angels. Recall the hymn we sing right before the Great Entrance, when the Holy Gifts are placed on the altar table – “Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim…” – participating in the Divine Liturgy makes us similar to the Cherubim, one of the closest ranks of angels to the throne of God.
And how does this hymn end? “…That we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly upborne (escorted, accompanied) by the angelic hosts.” The King of all enters in order for us to receive Him, by partaking of His Body and Blood, becoming part of Him and Him becoming part of us.
In all of this, the angels in the spiritual realm and we in the earthly one participate together. That’s why we have the apostles on either side of Christ, Who is holding the Cup and the Bread. The apostles don’t just wait to receive Communion, they (and we) participate in the divine worship with the angels, giving glory and honor to the One sitting on the throne. Worship is an unending part of the divine council, and we enter into it every time we celebrate the divine services.
While God reigns from His throne and shows mercy and kindness, He involves the angelic beings in His governance of His creation. So, angels are not just some cute little things with wings, part of the decoration of postcards or churches. They are present before God, they are His messengers and participants in the life of the Church. And they are always present where God is present. And that means, first and foremost, in the divine worship with us. Or rather, we get a chance to join them in glorifying the Lord.
Therefore, to God, Who is enthroned high and lifted up, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
If you'd like to read more on the subject of angels and the divine council, below are some of the articles used in preparation for the above sermon: