-- “Angels dancing in the sun,” Giovanni di Paolo (ca 1403),
Musée Condé in Château de Chantilly
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2.13-14).
The great vocation of the angels is to work, tirelessly and endlessly, for the salvation of the universe, and especially of humanity. Humanity is special. Human nature is central to all nature. It alone occupies the material world and the spiritual world. It is not correct to say that humanity is God’s central concern, because God’s concern is infinitely present: you can’t put “more” or “less” on something that is “infinite.”
But because humanity is the center of creation -- including the non-physical creation -- then the cosmic transfiguration of the universe begins in and radiates out from humanity.
There is only one human nature, and that nature is perfected, of course, in Jesus Christ.
But there is a near-infinity of angelic natures: each angel is its own nature (you cannot say “he” or “she” of an angel, since it is bodiless).
The reason for this wild, terrifying array of single angelic natures is because each angel is a “messenger” of God’s glorious presence in and through all of His Creation. Each angel reveals a happening of God’s grace, His loving concern for humanity and the world. St Gregory Palamas wrote that “Before us and for us God created the angels whom He sends to serve those who, as Paul says (in Hebrews 1.14), would inherit salvation ... The manifold and numberless multitude of the angels was created for the sake of man” so that through the angels, the divine presence of beauty and peace (i.e., the “Glory”) might radiate into all of reality (Homilies 3 & 36).
Think of every angel as being an announcer of one of the many, infinite “Names” of God, which are like the uncountable colors in the spectrum of a prism that reveals a single ray of sunlight into a rainbow spray of colors ranging from ultraviolet to infrared.
St Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that “the angel is an image (i.e., “icon”) of God, a manifestation of the unmanifest light, a pure mirror, most transparent, unblemished, undefiled, spotless, receiving whole ... the bloom of the good-stamped deiformity, and unmixedly shining back in itself, as far as it can, the goodness of the silence in the sanctuary” (The Divine Names, iv.22,724B).
God does nothing by magic. Everything, all being, is the constant Personal "work" of the One Being -- the Trinity -- Who alone can say "I am." His presence is what "holiness" is, and thus "holy" is what "beautiful" is. God's glory is beautiful, and the angels are the "magnifiers" of that beauty to every soul.
Beauty, indeed, will save humanity and the entire universe -- and the angels' entire work is toward that delightful, eternal magnification. Nothing is magic: all being happens by divinity.
The angels only take on a physical appearance because God reveals them that way to the human (or even animal -- I’m thinking of Balaam’s donkey here) soul. Angels do not actually “have” wings (why would they need them anyway?) or harps and they do not stand on clouds. When Renaissance artists painted angels with wings, not a single one of these great painters and sculptors thought that angels had these things. This was “art,” after all, and was not to be taken literally, or “photographically.” We all know that icons are not “photographs,” and Renaissance artists in the West (and many other artists from other areas and times) utilized these physical portrayals of angels as symbol.
The chief task, and most important -- if not only -- work of the angels is to serve salvation, which is the cosmic transfiguration -- the deification -- of the entire universe, the Creation (both seen and unseen worlds). It is true, as St Gregory the Theologian taught, that various bodiless powers (i.e., "angels" in general) "embrace different parts of the world, and are appointed over different districts of the universe, as God knows, who ordered and distributed it all" (Orations 28.31). But even so, there is not a single angel (even the one that oversees the spinning of the Andromeda Galaxy -- a mere 2.3 million lightyears away) that is not completely conscious of and committed to the theosis salvation of every human being.
After all, "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15.10). And: “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 18.10).
The angels serve salvation. That, precisely, constitutes the rumor of them.
In this concern, we understand how radically different the “culture” is of the “angelic civilization.” In his work on The Divine Hierarchy, Dionysius describes an angelic society that has no violence or domination. There is no “bossing around” that we’re so used to in this world. This is the meaning of Jesus’ odd, difficult saying to the Sadducees in Luke 20.35-36: “But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
This has less to do with marriage and more to do with how the post-resurrection life of heaven is so much beyond the power-mad, death-oriented culture of this world. Marriage in this fallen world is stained and toxified by power and violence, where this sacramental life is polluted by property-contracts and rules of domination.
This stuff is unnatural and is antithetical to marriage (and all human relations) -- a way of life that was established by the Creator before the Fall. It was the Fall that established the custom “And your husband shall rule over you” (Genesis 3.16), not God.
It was the Fall that established all patterns of domination, where everyone underneath serve the ones who are above them. The ones below exist for the ones above.
But this idea of rulership, or dominance, is completely overturned in the civilization of heaven. In that culture of God’s glory, of beauty and peace, those who are above are the ones who serve the ones below. Servanthood is all about conducting (i.e., “mediating”) the love of God, the light-filled grace, to humanity and to all of creation.
This is a reversal of our bad familiarity: where everyone on top crushes those below, and those on the bottom curse and pull down those above. There is only the perception of "this is mine, therefore not yours."
But in the real hierarchy of grace, those who are above stoop down and lift up. They pour themselves out to humanity and raise them up to perceive the divine glory. There is only “this is mine, and thus, this is yours.”
In the world, there is only the hierarchy of power and ownership. In heaven, there is only the hierarchy of servanthood and donation. That is the reason why we pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
That, simply, is why the angels sang “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man.”
They were only being what they were made to be.
They were only doing their job, with the highest joy.
For “Peace” is the word that best describes the culture of grace and the civilization of heaven. Not only is there an absence of violence and domination. But there is a complete servanthood of the greater given over to the lesser.
And the “Good Will to Man” is the fulfilled promise of the Goodness of God.
This “goodness” is the source and the presence of all “goodness.” “Goodness” is the same as “God-ness.” As far as the Eastern Christian Fathers are concerned, “Goodness” and “Love” are also the same thing.
The best thing about heaven -- the civilization of angels -- is that goodness is not only obvious, but it is also the only rule. There is no confusion or ambiguity. There is no doubt. There is no darkness or evil. There is only freedom: there is no bondage. There is no domination. There is no robbery or “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” There is no “zero sum” in heaven: there are no winners or losers, because everything and everywhere and every moment is good. There is no contractual economy, no commodification. There is only gift-exchange. There is only donation of self in love to the other.
In this world, goodness is not obvious. In fact, many folk tend to think that goodness is not even really possible. Here there is confusion and doubt. Here, someone’s gain is possible only at someone else’s loss. Here the rule is domination, oppression and bondage. And if I were not so much a canine advocate, I’d say this was certainly a “dog eat dog” world.
But human nature was made primordially only for goodness, and the human heart longs for the civilization of heaven. The human consciousness knows that all creation waits upon humanity to be reborn as the “sons of God.” If you think about it, sin is a horrifying rejection of what you are in your essence, your heart of hearts. Evil is completely un-natural, and is the root of all violence, oppression and darkness.
Evil is demonic. It is completely anti-angelic, and the angels -- who are committed to theosis -- long for Creation to be healed and purified of evil forever.
So “... when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4.4-5), the angels did what they always do: they announced the glad tidings.
The Peace of the Holy Trinity that reigned supreme and uninterrupted in heaven would now be launched on earth in the Body of Christ. The Goodwill of God that had been rejected by humanity was now fully received by the Human -- Jesus Christ -- Who was already God the Son.
Humanity was the center of all Creation. It was the highest beauty and the perfection of form for all things. Just so, Jesus Christ became the center of all humanity: and at this center, Peace and Goodness began to reign.
There is no human experience of Creation without an angelic announcement of God’s beauty and truth. This is true of the most majestic aspect of terrifying joy at beholding the starry sky in splendor, and just as much so in the humble, deeply beautiful moment of watching the happiness of a child. In these moments, there was always the rumor of angels.
All this joy and much more besides was climactically praised in the multitude of the heavenly host, for the greatest joy of all time and space was the birth of the Son of God as the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the Wisdom, Peace and Power of God.
No wonder the angels sang.
And it remains the great wonder they still do, and always will.
Listen to the rumored chorus, like the ringing of a Christmas bell. If you’ve known beauty, you’ve heard them. Keep listening. Keep watching. The rumor is all around you. Do not grow up, blind and deaf.