THE golden icons of the Eastern Church are famously still; Christ and the saints gaze out at us from images that contain no flicker of movement. But one great exception is the icon of the annunciation, which is frequently given pride of place on the royal doors of the icon screen. The Angel Gabriel enters from the left in strong forward motion, his wings flexed, his legs stretching his robes, his knees bent, his feet practically running. He is an angel in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Mary turns where she sits, her hand flies up in surprise, and she almost drops her spindle of scarlet thread. Gabriel has just swooped down from heaven with the most joyous news ever told, and the bright colours and quick movements of the icon buzz with it.
THE Angel Gabriel has always known how to make an entrance. I first noticed this when I was about four, watching the nativity play at my Presbyterian church. The angel arrived for his big scene by being thrust through a doorway and on to the stage by an unseen Sunday-school teacher. Over the door was a naked light-bulb which pinged on, suddenly lighting up little Gabriel’s tinfoil wings, the tinsel halo, the voluminous white nightie.
The juxtaposition of the light bulb and an angel brings to mind the theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s assertion that “it is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Bultmann, like the Sadducees of Jesus’s day, did not have a lot of time for angels.
Indeed, Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts have come in for a fair bit of this kind of “demythologisation” in recent years. And these stories positively crackle with angels. In addition to Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, there is an angel to announce John the Baptist’s conception; an angel to urge Joseph to marry Mary; an angel to address a band of stunned shepherds; a whole multitude to sing a burst of praise; and an angel to tell Joseph to return from Egypt.
THIS clustering of angels (the English word is derived from the Greek for “messenger”) at the opening of the Gospels tells us that the event to come falls outside of normal human experience. The angelic company turns an ordinary Bethlehem hillside into a temporary outpost of heaven, saturated with glory, worship, and divine presence.
This event creates ripples in time which expand across the whole surface of scripture. They reach back to the fugitive Jacob on his lonely hillside at Bethel, trying to get some sleep with only a stone for a pillow, and his dream of a ladder up to heaven on which angels ascend and descend.
The ripples extend to the lowly parents of Samson, to whom an angel appears in a field and tells them they will at last have a child. When they ask the angel’s name, his reply is utterly disarming: “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” The ripples of Bethlehem find Isaiah, who sees the Lord surrounded by the seraphim (angels with six wings) crying “Holy, holy holy!” as the temple fills with smoke.
Angels answering to a wide variety of description and modus operandi fill the scriptures from beginning to end. We see angels riding horses, ascending on flames, hurling millstones, opening locked doors, delivering cakes, carrying pots of ink, and striking down armies.
There are terrifying angels, with faces like lightning, feet like polished brass, and voices like the sound of a multitude. Rather than “wings of drifted snow”, the angels on Jacob’s ladder ascend like builders, by climbing. But the angels of Revelation fly in abundance, announcing ruin and redemption.
IN THE 2000 years since the canon of scripture closed, the theological and artistic response to the breadth and depth of the angelic world has been hugely varied. In Jewish tradition, from the time that the book of Daniel was written, there was a huge expansion in speculation about angels. Exegetes became preoccupied with calculating their size — one tradition claimed that an angel, Sandalfon, was so much taller than other angels that it would take 500 years to walk the difference.
According to other rabbis, the angels defer to humans, waiting in silence for the people of Israel to recite the shema (”Hear, O Israel. . .”) before singing their own songs of praise.
Meanwhile, in the Byzantine world of the sixth century, the mystical writer Dionysius the Areopagite wrote a small book, The Celestial Hierarchy, which offers a detailed breakdown of the executive branch of heaven. Dionysius divides the angelic population into three hierarchies, each of which is subdivided into three ranks of angels.
The first hierarchy, which abides in the immediate presence of God for ever, includes seraphim, cher-ubim, and thrones. The second group, which is ruled by the first, includes dominions, powers, and authorities. And the third group, which rules over all human hierarchies, is made up of principalities, archangels, and angels.
It is obvious to a modern eye that The Celestial Hierarchy is a rather over-zealous attempt to get the divine bureaucracy into the kind of shape that a Byzantine potentate would appreciate. And, of course, it has been criticised for compromising the place of Christ as the mediator between God and humankind. Nevertheless, the idea took wing, and Christian thinkers throughout the Middle Ages began reshuffling heaven into different angelic departments.
Thomas Aquinas (among others, including Dante) followed Dionysius’s ninefold scheme, but, in the end, all the speculation about the lives and habits of angels caused a backlash. The scholastics, it was said, had reduced themselves to arguing over angels dancing on the head of a pin, the criticism most wittily put by the English writer William Sclater in 1619, when he said that the philosophers spent their time arguing over “how many angels might sit on a needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points”.
PERHAPS the dead end of speculation about angels came in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Swiss flying-saucer enthusiast Erich von Däniken produced a book, Chariots of the Gods? He claimed that the vision of the cherubim in the opening chapters of Ezekiel — which includes shining creatures with four faces, wings, wheels full of eyes, and flashes of fire — were the prophet’s attempt to describe a visiting spaceship, piloted by alien astronauts.
The story was splashed across the tabloids at the time, and generated further headlines when a NASA engineer, Josef F. Blumrich, set out to disprove von Däniken’s theory, but ended up a convert. Blumrich decided that Ezekiel’s creatures looked like a lunar lander he had designed a decade previously, and went on to produce detailed plans of the cherubim “mother ship” in his book, The Spaceships of Ezekiel.
ALTHOUGH the angel narratives of the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been twisted into strange shapes in some corners of modern culture, they remain powerfully and positively symbolic. From Robbie Williams’s hit single “Angels” to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, the idea of angels offers a folkloric kind of hope that there is a beautiful world beyond ours; a perfect life beyond this one. “The rumour of angels”, to use the sociologist Peter Berger’s memorable book title, offers a point of contact between genuine faith and today’s culture.
Certainly, at Christmas, the angels over that Bethlehem field, in their great and numinous flood of light and love, in their overwhelming heraldry of God, offer a meditation to balance against the horrors and uncertainties of 2016. All Christians are evangelical, in the wide and generous sense of inhabiting, celebrating, and sharing the evangel of Jesus. The song of the angels is a reminder to keep the angelical in the evangelical.