In December, winged humanoids invade shop windows, decorate the tops of Christmas trees… However, these creatures have not always had the appearance we know them to have.
Now depicted as flying people in diaphanous robes, angels, especially Christmas angels, have taken many forms. Disembodied spirits turned feathered guardians, they reflect the evolution of religious thought over thousands of years.
“Angelology is plentiful and interesting, but it’s somehow fallen into oblivion,” says John Cavadinichair of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
“When we think of angels, we see the creatures that adorn greeting cards,” he adds. “But many people, especially in antiquity, were interested in them”, in their appearance, their organization and their behavior.
In the Bible, angels (a term that comes from the Greek angelos “, which means “messenger” in French) are sent by God. The Holy Scriptures say no more, however, which has opened the door to interpretation.
“There is little information about them and that’s what’s fascinating,” says Ellen Muehlbergerprofessor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan.
“THE SAME SUBSTANCE AS GOD”
At the beginning of Christianity, some believers thought that Jesus Christ was himself an angel, explains the professor.
“We know this thanks to authors of the 4and century, who wrote negative descriptions of this belief” to refute it, she says.
Jesus officially lost his status as an angel in AD 325. BC, when the Roman Emperor Constantine Ier called the Council of Nicaea. During this, the bishops had the mission of transforming the varied and sometimes contradictory conceptions of God, Christ and Christianity into one and the same theology.
“The Council of Nicaea defined Christ as a totally divine being, of the same substance as God,” says Ellen Muehlberger.
“The decrees of the council were interpreted by Christians over the following decades as affirming that Christ was not an angel. They were completely different.”
THE BEAUTIFUL SPIRIT
During the first centuries following the birth of the Church, depictions of angels were as varied as depictions of Christ himself, or of Judas for that matter.
The Christian monk and ascetic of the 4and century, Evagrius the Ponticus, thus developed a theory explaining that the human essence is composed of three parts.
“Some of it is governed by hunger, sleep or sexual appetite. It’s kind of the bottom part,” says Ellen Muehlberger.
“The second part is that which governs the emotions, which allows us to be angry or to feel pride.
Finally, the third is the rational part. It is this part which, according to Evagrius, most resembles God and the angels”, continues the professor.
For Evagre, “anger was like a demon attacking us. If you could not protect yourself from these attacks, the totally rational angel at your side could help you”.
Other intellectuals held to this line of thought, claiming that angels were disembodied spirits, Ellen Muehlberger argues.
AN ANGEL FOR EACH OF US
Around the same time, there was a lively debate about who the angels served on Earth.
Thus, in the first Christian monasteries, many ascetics assumed that the very good students were supported by a divine guide or coach.
“For the monks, it was impossible for everyone to have a guardian angel. It was an indicator of moral success,” says Ellen Muehlberger, drawing on monastic letters from the time that explain the need for monastery residents to cultivate their own angels.
In town, a more democratic vision of angels predominates.
Bishops and other religious representatives are quick to assure their followers that they all have a guardian angel.
In Egypt, some bishops even suggest that some monks living in the desert and having renounced the pleasures of the flesh and founding a family, would be angels.
Egyptian monks reject this idea out of hand, for the simple and good reason that they “act like animals, not angels”, explains Ellen Muehlberger.
This populist vision of “I am not an angel and neither are you, but they are watching over us all”, finally prevailed.
No sooner had believers vaguely agreed on the definition of angels than intellectuals began to debate the organization of these heavenly messengers.
The Bible provides little information about angelic society, but the writers have a field day filling in the unknowns. This is particularly the case of the author of the book The Heavenly Hierarchy, written around AD 500. J.-C.
Taking up earlier ideas, this voluminous work classifies angelic beings into nine orders, listed below according to their importance: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. .
“It is not an official teaching of the Church”, emphasizes Michael Roottheologian at the Catholic University of America in Washington (USA).
“The fact that all these beings of different rank and incredibly varied are completely interdependent has contributed to the beauty of the universe. This multiplicity has favored harmony at the expense of dissent,” adds John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame.
According to Christian tradition, not all angels are angelic. This is particularly the case of Satan, an ancient angel named Lucifer.
In the eyes of Michael Root, the fact that angels can fall from grace is an important element, because it implies that these creatures have free will.
“Some medieval and early modern theologians believed in the existence of an opposing angel, a fallen angel who was assigned to each person in the same way as the guardian angel. However, this has never been part of official thinking,” he explains.
From the 2and and 3and centuries, Christian scholars such as Origen of Alexandria see the important role that fallen angels play, says John Cavadini.
“For Origen and many Church Fathers, angels participated in the governance of the universe according to the will of God”, describes the theologian.
“It meant that the fallen angels were involved in the betterment of the universe and that their involvement, however negative, should be taken very seriously.”
Although we spend less time today wondering about the appearance and intentions of angels than our ancestors, some tend to believe that heavenly messengers are among us and play a major role in their lives.
According to a 2008 Baylor University survey by the Gallup organization, 55% of Americans think they have been protected by their guardian angel during their lifetime.
“I’ve reviewed over 1,100 testimonials from people about their experience with their guardian angel,” says Carson Menckena sociologist at Baylor.
“These are often situations where they have a narrow escape like car accidents, especially those where a person has lost their life. There are also victims of assault, near-drowning or those who have had near-death experiences related to combat,” he continues.
“It’s random death that scares us. We can’t do anything to control it.”
“According to our study, the majority of people who survive such situations believe that it is thanks to their guardian angel,” he says.
The sociologist adds that, in most cases, the presence of angels is invisible, but felt. Yet for many Christians, their guardian angels are as real as those hanging in their Christmas tree.
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