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Question 22

Hello, Father Christopher  What form do angels have? In some parts of the bible such as the book of Isaiah they are described as having wings and icons depict them so. Do they have a particular form and are the fallen angels really dark in appearance?    


Answer to Question 22


Angels are spiritual beings, they don't have a material body and therefore do not have bodily needs. They are sexless, in other words, because they have no body they are neither male nor female and cannot multiply nor have any such desire. They do not decay or die and, as with the creation of man, they also were created in God's image with the gift of free will and independence, having the possibility to choose between obedience or disobedience to God. 


St. John of Damascus says of the angels: An angel is an intelligent essence and rational, in perpetual motion, with free-will, bodiless, ministering to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature: and the Creator alone knows the form and limitation of its essence. But all that we can understand is that it is spiritual and bodiless. An angel is spiritual and bodiless in relation to us, but when compared to God who alone is incomparable, the angel is found to be dense and material. For in reality only God is bodiless and spiritual.


Angels receive their light and holiness from God. They do not constitute of themselves a source of light and holiness, but receive the light and holiness from the Holy Spirit. Thus they are called secondary lights and the higher ranks of angels transmit this light to the lower ranks and to men.  The angels are immortal, but like the soul of man which also is immortal; this immortality is not by nature, but through the grace of God. All that has a beginning also has an end: only God is without beginning and without end. Only God is truly eternal, or rather above the eternal for as the creator of time he is not under the dominion of time, but above time. 


Angels can move from place to place at great speeds, but as created beings, they are circumscribed, they are not omnipresent, in other words they are not in two places at the same time. When they are in Heaven they are not on earth: and when they are sent by God down to earth they do not remain in Heaven. Also as spiritual beings they cannot be restricted by walls and doors. Angels are the most perfect spirits, superior to man in their spiritual powers; but even they, like all creation; are bound by their limitations. Their mind has a much more exalted quality than that of the human mind and in power and strength they transcend all earthly authorities. (II Pet. 2:11) Their strength is witnessed at the Resurrection when the angel, with ease, rolled the stone away from the tomb, yet would have needed many human hands to move it.


They have no need of tongue or hearing, but without uttering words they communicate to each other their own thoughts and counsels. Angels vary between themselves according to rank and illumination. St. Dionysius the Areopagite, a disciple of the Apostle Paul says that there is a spiritual hierarchy of the heavenly bodiless powers. There are nine ranks of angels which are known to us from scripture, which are divided into three groups of three. The first and highest group and those that stand closest to God consists of angels known as the Six-winged Seraphim, the many-eyed Cherubim and Thrones. The second group are known as Dominions, Powers and Authorities and the third group as Principalities, Archangels and Angels.  Many Church fathers like Sts. Ignatius the God-bearer, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Dialogist, John of Damascus and others all agree that the ranks of angels are nine. We know the names of these ranks through Holy Scripture.


The existence of angels and archangels is witnessed throughout Holy Scripture. The Book of Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel and the Psalms mention the Cherubim, The Book of Isaiah the Seraphim. The other ranks of angels are known to us from the Epistles of St. Paul to the Romans, Ephesians and Colossians. That these names refer to created beings is clear from the Epistle to the Colossians which says: "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him." (Colossians 1:16)


The Book of Isaiah describes the Seraphim as having six wings: “And round about Him stood seraphims: the one had six wings, and the other had six wings; and with twain they covered their face, and with twain they covered their feet, and with twain they did fly. And they cried one to another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth: the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6: 2-3)


The Book of Ezekiel describes the Cherubim as having eight wings: “This is the living creature that I saw under the God of Israel by the river of Chebar; and I knew that they were the cherubims. Each one had four faces, and each one had eight wings; and the likeness of men’s hands was under their wings. And as for the likeness of their faces, these are the same faces that I saw under the glory of the God of Israel by the river of Chebar: and they went each straight forward.” (Ezekiel 10: 20-22)


The Book of Revelation also describes the same creature but with six wings. (Rev. 4:7-8) The other ranks of angels are not described as having wings and whenever they have appeared to people and conversed with them, they have always appeared in the form of man without wings. The wings in religious art are symbolic of their swiftness and speedy flights from place to place.  Saint John Chrysostom explained the significance of angels' wings: "They manifest a nature's sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate the sublimity of their nature.