Angelic Choirs  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In popular culture angels have a high potential for banality.  They provide visual motifs for sappy birthday cards and even sappier sympathy cards.  It is commonly thought that dead people as well as dead pets undergo a post-mortem transformation into angels.  Sometimes angels show up in movies or television shows as non-judgemental life coaches. 

For today's feast of St Michael and All Angels, I would like to share a bit of authentic traditional teaching on angels.  The Celestial Hierarchy is part of the corpus attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, dating probably to the late 5th/early 6th centuries.  The Dionysian works were among the few Greek texts to become known--via Latin translation--in the early medieval Western church.  The Celestial Hierarchy is the source of the notion that angels are not undifferentiated but rather organized into nine distinct classes or "choirs".  Readers of this blog will be interested to learn that Dionysius considered angels to be contemplatives, "...because they are full of a superior light beyond any knowledge and because they are filled with a transcendent  and triply luminous contemplation of the one who is the cause and the source of all beauty."

The above quote as well as the following descriptions of the angelic choirs are taken from Colm Luibheid (tr) Pseudo-Dionysius:  the complete works (Paulist Press 1987), pp 161-173.

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Seraphim
The holy name "seraphim" means  "fire-makers", that is to say, "carriers of warmth"...a perennial circling around the divine things, penetrating warmth, the overflowing heat of a movement which never falters and never fails...It means also the power to purify by means of the lightning flash and the flame.

Cherubim
The name cherubim signifies the power to know and to see God, to receive the greatest gifts of his light, to contemplate the divine splendor in primordial power, to be filled with the gifts that bring wisdom and to share these generously with subordinates as a part of the beneficent outpouring of wisdom.

Thrones
The title of the most sublime and exalted thrones conveys that in them there is a transcendence over every earthly defect, as shown by their upward-bearing toward the ultimate heights...and forever in the presence of him who is truly the most high...

Dominions
The revealing name "dominions" signifies...a lifting up which is free, unfettered by earthly tendencies...It rejects empty appearances,  returns  completely to the true Lord, and shares as far as it can in that everlasting and divine source of all dominion.

Powers
As for the holy "powers", the title refers to a kind of masculine and unshakable courage in all its godlike activities.  It is a courage which abandons all laziness and softness during the reception of the divine enlightenments granted to it, and is powerfully uplifted to imitate God.

Authorities
...they are so placed that they can receive God in a harmonious and unconfused way and indicate the ordered nature of the celestial and intellectual authority.

Principalities
The term "heavenly principalities" refers to those who possess a godlike and princely hegemony, with a sacred order most suited to princely powers...

Archangels
[This order] communes with the most holy principalities and with the holy angels...Its relationship with the angels is due to their shared order as interpreters of those divine enlightenments mediated by the first powers.  It generously announces these to the angels and through them to us insofar as we are capable of being sacredly enlightened.

Angels
For being closer to us, they, more appropriately than the previous ones, are named "angels" insofar as their hierarchy is more concerned with revelation and is closer to the world.

This entry was posted on Saturday, September 29, 2012 at Saturday, September 29, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

5 comments

Does anyone know of any examples in Byzantine art of the depiction of the 9 choirs of angels?

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