The Reverend Beau McLaurin Davis, Sr.
For those of you that do not know: my grandmother passed away this past Monday evening. We drove down Tuesday afternoon to set everything up, and then the funeral was on Friday. I did not do the chapel service, only the graveside. That made me nervous. She went to a Baptist church out in the countryside, the minister there was not her favorite, and I am not quite sure how well educated he is. The temptation that too many people give into whenever they speak about a sweet old lady or a young person who dies is to say, “Heaven got another angel.” It seems comforting, doesn’t it? Your grandmother is not only high-fiving Jesus, but she is also sitting on a cloud with wings on her back and a harp in her hand. That imagery is supposed to make you understand that your lost one is in a better place, but it makes that better place out to be something it is not. On top of that, it disregards the Bible in order to conflate the Christian afterlife with a myriad of pagan imagery. It also disregards the fact that you are as God created you to be, and that is in no way an angel. Today is Michaelmas, or the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. ALL ANGELS: that makes you think about what that really means, doesn’t it?
If the popular imagery is correct, then you either get tortured by creepy imps with pitchforks for eternity, or you ascend into the clouds (just out of sight) and are reincarnated as a part-bird, part-musician beast! The Greeks saw their Gods as living in the clouds at the top of Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus isn’t even that tall, but the occasional circle of obscuring clouds served as a perfect example of where they viewed their deities to dwell: just out of sight, and watching over them closely. In the Book of Genesis, Nimrod leads his people to build a great tower in order to reach God. In South Park they built a ladder to Heaven in order to talk to their dead friend. What is the problem with all of this? If you don’t already know, then ask anyone who has been on an airplane: not a single birdman in that skycover. There is a reason for that: God isn’t in a physical location like up in the clouds (according to cartoons) or on the planet Kolob (like the Mormons teach). God is transcendent and noncorporeal, meaning that God is everywhere and also God is physically nowhere. Likewise, ever see an angel walking around? It is the same case: angels are noncorporeal, but not transcendent.
What does an angel look like, then? Chances are, you are thinking about grandma in the clouds. Plump babies with wings are commonly thought to represent cherubs, but in fact those are neoclassical depictions of putti: the helpers of Eros, the god of love. However, the depictions of angels in scripture are somewhere in the range of surprisingly shocking to drastically disturbing. The very fact that angels always command, “be not afraid!” whenever they first appear should be a great example of how our loved ones will not become these powerful tools of the creator.
According to the Bible, there are several types of angels. The Christian apologist Pseudo-Dionysius wrote further on the subject of angelology, and in such created the detailed understanding of the angels which we use today. He defined that there are nine choirs of angels: (in order of importance) seraphim, cherubim, ophanim (or thrones), dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels. Cherubim are best described in the beginning of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, wherein he described flying creatures with six wings who tend to God the Father directly. Cherubim are not fat babies, but instead winged terrors which guard the gates of heaven and the Garden of Eden. Ophanim are those wheels of fire which came to Ezekiel in a vision of cherubim, and possibly the wheels which carried Elijah into heaven. These three orders are the servants of God. The second classification of angels guide all matter for our Lord, and serve as governors of creation. Dominions are said to govern the lower choirs of angels; virtues perform those miracles which we usually associate with angelic intervention; and powers maintain the order of the cosmos. The third classification of angels deals with those choirs which have direct oversight over humanity. Principalities protect groups of people (nations, institutions, and the Church). Archangels intercede for the benefit of great numbers of people, as well as act as the protectors of the faithful. Angels intercede in the affairs of individuals. These lower six choirs are all usually depicted as great and powerful humanlike creatures.
Beside the frightening depictions of the three highest choirs of angels, the majority of humanity’s interaction with angels in scripture come in the actions of the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. Uriel is found in the Fourth Book of Esdras, and guides Ezra in giving answers to his questions to God. Raphael is Tobias’s benevolent guide on the journey he takes in the Book of Tobit. Gabriel is the messenger of God which announced the pregnancy of both Elizabeth and Mary (as well as being “the Angel of the Lord” in every instance). Michael, whose name we celebrate today specifically, is said to be the leader of the heavenly forces which protect humanity, cast the devil into hell, and will ultimately defeat evil in the last day.
What does this all mean to you? Firstly, you are not alone. We are surrounded by the forces of God always and in perfect order. We are protected by things which we cannot even comprehend, because God loves us. Secondly, if you were to see an angel, it would not look like Della Reese in Touched by an Angel. You will not mistake your interaction with anything else. You will know and it will tell you. Finally, you are not an angel. God created us all as we were meant to be. You are now, always have been, and always be a human. You are God’s greatest creation, and through him you will always remain so: even in the life to come.