‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). Traditionally these verses of the Bible are understood as pointing to the two worlds created by God — one invisible, spiritual and intelligible, and the other visible and material. We have already said that there are no abstract concepts in biblical language and spiritual realities are often expressed by the word ‘heaven’. Christ speaks of the Kingdom of heaven, and in the Lord’s prayer we say, ‘Our Father Who art in heaven... Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:9-10). It is obvious that reference is not being made to visible material sky. The Kingdom of God is a spiritual, not a material, Kingdom in which God abides, for by nature He is Spirit. And when we read that He ‘created the heavens’, this means the spiritual world and its inhabitants, the angels.
God created the angelic world before the visible universe. The angels are incorporeal spirits who possess reason and free will. St. John of Damascus speaks of them being ‘ever in motion, free, incorporeal, ministering to God’, of their rational, intelligent and free nature. He calls the angels ‘secondary spiritual lights, who receive their brightness from the first Light which is without beginning’. Located in direct proximity to God, they are sustained by His light and convey this light to us.
Angels are actively engaged in the unceasing praise of God. Isaiah describes his vision of God around whom the seraphim stand and proclaim: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Is.6:1-3). Yet the angels are also heralds sent by God to people (the Greek word aggelos means ‘messenger’, ‘herald’): they take a vital and active part in the life of every person. Thus the archangel announces to Mary that she will bear a Son called Jesus; angels come and minister to Jesus in the wilderness; an angel supports Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Christ Himself indicates that every person has his own guardian angel (cf. Matt 18:10) who is his companion, helper and protector.
According to the traditional teaching of the Church, not all angels are equal in dignity and closeness to God: various hierarchies exist among them. In the treatise The Celestial Hierarchy, attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the author counts three angelic hierarchies, each of which is divided into three ranks. The first and highest contains the seraphim, cherubim, thrones; the second, dominions, powers, authorities; the third, principalities, archangels, angels.
In is celestial hierarchy the upper ranks are illumined by the Divine light and partake of the mysteries of the Godhead directly from the Maker, while the lower ranks receive illumination only by devolution through the higher ranks. According to Dionysius, the angelic hierarchy finds its continuation and reflection in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of sacraments, clergy and the faithful. Thus, the ecclesiastical hierarchy partakes of the Divine mystery through the mediation of the celestial hierarchy. Biblical tradition speaks of the number of angels in general terms: there are a ‘thousand thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand’. The angels certainly outnumber human beings. St. Gregory of Nyssa sees in the image of the lost sheep the entire human race, while he takes the ninety-nine sheep who stayed in the hills to be the angels.