The History Of Angels From Various Angles

November 12, 1998|By JOSEPH GALLAGHER

ANGEL food cake. Los Angeles. The Blue Angels. Michelangelo. "Angels in America." A little lower than the angels. Though I speak with the tongues of angels. Some have entertained angels unawares.

Our everyday culture does indeed entertain angels. But now that the Walters Art Gallery is featuring "Angels from the Vatican," a refresher course may be timely, especially about the Bible's contribution to angelology.

We owe the word angel to a group of Jewish scholars, working in Egypt a few centuries before Christ. They were translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and chose "aggelos" to stand for the common Hebrew word "mal'akh" (messenger), who was sometimes from God. Aggelos became angelus in Latin and then angel in English. Preachers of a happy message are ev/angel/ists.

In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, an angel is a go-between for God (known as Yahweh or El) in His dealings with human beings. The biblical Jews viewed the supreme being as "altogether other." They may have used the image of an angelic "third" party to represent God's presence or activity (an epiphany/theophany) rather than a real person.

When taken literally, these third parties were viewed as superhuman, but not necessarily as pure spirits. They sometimes appear as youthful males. In various ancient religions and philosophies, these intermediaries kept God from being soiled by direct contact with matter and helped explain how creation itself got soiled.

By the third chapter of Genesis, superhuman winged creatures called cherubim are assigned by God to keep Adam and Eve away from the tree of life. They weren't exactly messengers, but they came to be classed as super angels. The same goes for the seraphs, those "fiery" creatures found only in the sublime sixth chapter of Isaiah.

By way of an amazing exception to the ban on graven images, two golden cherubs were mounted over the Ark of the Covenant in the temple in Jerusalem. Often painted blue, cherubim have four wings, and the "red" seraphs six. Two cover their "feet," which may be a delicate substitute for other seraphic body parts. Otherwise angels in the Bible are not described as having wings.

By the 16th chapter of Genesis, the first angel as such appears, and speaks to Abraham's concubine Hagar. An angel keeps Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. An angel (the same one?) wrestles with Jacob, who dreams of a ladder to heaven traversed by angels.

In the full Bible, there are some 300 verses involving angels, mostly in the singular. The first angel in the New Testament appears in its very first chapter, reassuring the Virgin Mary's husband, Joseph. The last book, Revelation, has 76 references to angels.

Despite their name, angels aren't just messengers. Being a king, God needs a court, a heavenly army (Sabaoth), to sing His praises. These are sometimes called sons of God. The Epistle to the Hebrews calls them an "innumerable company."

In the Bible, all angels but three are nameless. Gabriel (El, or God, is strong) is mentioned four times in Daniel and Luke. Michael (Who is like El) is also mentioned four times in Daniel, Jude and Revelations.

There is also an angel Raphael mentioned in the Book of Tobias, a book not generally considered biblical by Protestants. Other angelic names come from nonbiblical sources, such as Azrael, the angel of death from the Koran.

It is striking that angelic names were given to the supreme artists Raphael and Michelangelo. The former popularized cherubs as cute baby boys, and Emily Dickinson speaks of certain ladies as "sweet cherubic creatures" far-cries from the prophet Ezekiel's awesome creatures (chapter 10). St. Paul forbade the worship of angels.

The Bible itself does not suggest an angel hierarchy, such as the nine choirs as described in some theologies or St. Paul's "principalities, powers, virtues, dominations and thrones." (Some scholars think these latter refer to human agencies, not angels.) Here again we have imaginative elaborations through the centuries.

The angel Michael was regarded as the defender of the whole Jewish nation. Jesus sanctioned the idea of individual angel guardians, at least for children: "Do not despise these little ones, for their angels in heaven are always beholding the face of my father." (Matthew 18: 10)

The most famous angelic pun is ascribed to Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). Seeing for the first time some fair Anglo-Saxon slaves in the Roman market, he asked who they were. When told they were "anglici," or Anglos, he disagreed, insisting that they were "angells" or angels.

Some years ago, Life magazine referred to those medieval scholars who supposedly argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. When I asked the editors to prove this hoary story, they said they couldn't. Still, it's a charming image. Better ones, no doubt, await at the Walters, where anyone named Angie, Angela or Angelica should be allowed to go to the front of the line.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 11/12/98

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