Since it’s Michaelmas (aka, the Feast of Michael and All Angels)….

Published September 29, 2020

I thought I would offer a bit of my draft of the book on the Creed I’m working on.

The Creed I am addressing is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The core of it was drafted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, though it was obviously building on earlier forms of the Creed, notably the Apostles Creed which emerged in the Second Century (I go into some detail about this in the book).

This version of the Creed is primarily a response to the Arian heresy and so goes into mega-detail about the nature of the Son in way that the Apostle’s Creed does not. Sixty years later, the Church at First Constantinople will be forced to do exactly the same thing with the nature of the Holy Spirit when another heresy (the impressively named Pneumatomachi or “Spirit Fighters”) will attempt to do to the Holy Spirit what Arius attempted with the Son: deny his deity. But that’s neither here nor there for this particular section. This passage comes from chapter 2 of the book which is tackling the second part of the first clause:

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible
.

***

All Things Invisible

The Creed tells us God is the Creator of all that is visible and invisible. By “invisible” the Fathers of the Church primarily meant what Paul referred to as thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers (cf. Romans 8:38)—the whole angelic and demonic realm. Everything that exists is made by God and therefore everything is interesting and (mark this) interrelated. Catholic theology still thinks this way today. Not just “religious stuff” but all things are fit for us to learn about and all things give glory to God by the fact of their being if not by virtue of their will. For God the Father is the Creator of all things from quark to Archangel.

Angels are created, non-corporeal spirits: intelligences that possess will, power, and an ability (in the providence of God) to affect the created order and to communicate messages (as, for instance, the Archangel Gabriel brought the news of the coming birth of Jesus to Mary).  Angels enjoy the perfect bliss proper to their natures.  But they are created neither to die, nor to beget children.  They are not sexual beings at all. This means, as St. Thomas pointed out, that each angel (and therefore each devil) is a species with one member.[1]

We call them angels (Greek: angelos=messenger) because to us their function has been primarily to act as messengers of divine revelation. We are like children who know the postman because he brings us the mail, but know little of the rest of his rich and varied existence.  For, of course, revelation concerns itself only with what is necessary for our salvation and not with Everything.

Revelation–and especially the revelation given through Jesus Christ–tells us some important truths about angels. The first thing–and this is at radical odds with the trendy angels shown us by pop culture–is that angels are not a) humans who died (so don’t believe Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) nor b) all about us.

The center of angelic existence is God the Blessed Trinity. It is in obedience to him that angels concern themselves with us.  As the Catechism (CCC 331) says:

They belong to him because they were created through and for him: ‘for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him’ (Colossians 1:16).

One of the fascinating (and overlooked) details in Scripture, is that the variety of angelic creatures suggests that the “heavens” (that is to say, not “space” but “created dimensions that transcend this universe of time, space, matter, and energy”) are best conceived of as a multi-storey skyscraper rather than as an undifferentiated realm where “God and the angels” all dwell. Paul, for instance, speaks mysteriously of the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2) and “the heavenlies” (Eph 6:12).  Likewise, Revelation speaks of “war in heaven” (Revelation 12:1).  And throughout Scripture we are told of cherubim, seraphim, archangels, angels, thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers at work.

The funny thing is this: if you speak of “the heavenlies” in this way, you will often draw guffaws from postmodern people for your alleged belief in superstition. But if you just change your terminology to sciencey-sounding words about “the multiverse” and multiple dimensions of being beyond our visible universe (an idea that means exactly the same thing), all of a sudden you are a deeply sophisticated cutting-edge thinker in the eyes of people who think Christianity absurd.

The result can be quite funny. One reads in the popular press the question, “Could Catholicism handle the discovery of extra-terrestrial life?”[2] as though the discovery of non-human intelligence elsewhere in the universe (or the multiverse) would constitute a shattering blow to the Faith.  But in fact, the Church has affirmed the existence of non-human intelligences from her very birth.  That is what angels are.  If we find intelligent corporeal creatures on other planets, that will just add to the variety of intelligent non-human beings in God’s creation, not inaugurate our knowledge of it. (But more on that later.)

Angels have existed since the beginning of creation and are, by their nature, nobler than we.  That is what the Psalmist means when he says of man:

Yet you have made him little less than the angels,
and you have crowned him with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:5)

Yet paradoxically, they are our servants in obedience to Christ.  More than this, we who participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity by Baptism are made immeasurably greater than them by grace.  Angels wonder at this, but without the sin of envy since they are perfectly happy as the creatures they are.

Throughout salvation history, angels have played a role in the affairs of God and man.  We see them at crucial junctures in both the Old and New Testaments.  And even down to the present, angelic apparitions have occurred at places like Fatima.  You may have met one yourself, for all you know, since angels (normally bodiless) can and have assumed visible form from time to time.

The work of angels is mysterious for the most part.  The liturgy reminds us that we are joining them in their eternal worship of God at every Mass.  And we are urged to ask the help of our guardian angel to (in the words of the children’s prayer) “light and guard, to rule and guide”. As the Catechism (CCC 336) says, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.”  We can and should call on the angels to help us seek and obey God.

Why?  Because, as we have already seen, the Christian tradition warns that human history is preceded by some kind of primordial catastrophe in the angelic realm in which some of the angelic host rebelled against God and became enemies of their Creator, his creation, and above all, of us. Such fallen angels are called “demons”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, tells us (CCC 391-392):

The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: ‘The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.’

Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This ‘fall’ consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign.

In short, demons are not myths but realities warned of by Jesus Christ, the apostles, and a host of saints down the ages.

Some complain that the devil is a cop-out for human evil and an attempt to exonerate us of all responsibility for our sins. But this is a straw man that is directly contradicted by the Tradition. Why the constant call to repentance if we have no responsibility for sin?

Others complain that the devil has been elevated to the equal and opposite of God.  This may well be true for many people, but it is emphatically not the Church’s teaching.

The Tradition insists that a devil is a mere creature: a non-corporeal angelic spirit which has radically perverted all its gifts of power, intelligence, and will in a single, fixed choice to reject God (and all the good things God has made, including us) and, as it were, “assert its nothingness” in a nihilistic war on existence.

Some people speak of demons as “pure evil”.  But insofar as they are his creatures, God maintains a sort of beachhead in their natures.  So demons retain the goods of existence, intelligence, will, and power that God gave them, albeit radically perverted in rebellion against him.  If they were “pure” evil they would cease to exist, since existence is a Good.

Others, who conceive of spirit as something “more evolved” than corporeal creatures like us, therefore imagine no spirit can be evil.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out, there is nothing specially fine about being a spirit–and precisely the proof is that the devil, who tempts, accuses, and lies, is a spirit.[3]

Demons are enemies of God because of pride. So they do what all terrorists do: they harm those he loves since they cannot harm him.  That is, they harm us, or seek to do so.

Such harm is not primarily physical (though the devil certainly does enjoy seeing us suffer and Jesus does suggest that sometimes the demonic is responsible for physical harm to us (cf. Luke 13:16)).  Rather, the primary warning of Jesus is not to fear harm to the body, but to fear the destruction of the soul (Matthew 10:28) that comes from giving in to temptation to sin–the prideful rejection of God.

This is precisely what the Tradition says occurred in the ancient tragedy called “the Fall of Man”.  Genesis 3 tells us the story in the language of myth–a Magic Apple was seized by our first parents as the result of a tempting “serpent” (whom Revelation 12:9 names as “the Devil and Satan”) and in trying to grab at deity for themselves, they lost the divine life of God in the soul and became subject to chaos, enmity, disorder, power struggles, slavery, and death.

Interestingly, the Tradition tells us that the devil’s motivation in tempting us to imitate his rebellion was envy (cf. Wisdom 2:24) both of God and of human beings–created in his image and likeness and made to partake of his divine nature in Baptism.  By nature, the angels are greater than we.  But by grace, we are raised far above them.  In their spite, devils attack us for this.  But as the Tradition reveals, the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil.  Resist him, says James 4:7, and he will flee from you.

The trouble is, we cannot resist him in our own strength, precisely because we lack the life of the Holy Spirit necessary to do it.  We need help.  We need, in fact, a Savior. And this brings us to the next part of the Creed.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. I.50.iv

[2] “Can Catholicism handle the discovery of extraterrestrial life?”, by Claire Giangravè, Crux, February 23, 2018.  (Available on-line at https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2017/02/23/catholicism-handle-discovery-extraterrestrial-life/ as of February 8, 2018.)

[3] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 1972), p. 80

3 Responses

  1. There’s a little corner of us Millenial & Gen Z believers on the internet who semi-jokingly talk about reclaiming “peasant piety.” Love Jesus, love Mary, hate sin, hate the Devil, pray for the pope but barely know who your bishop is. It’s like a little light-hearted “out” from the liturgical/etc. wars. “What do I know, I am but a simple peasant, let’s pray vespers together and be nice pious medieval churchgoers.” There’s a rejection of Qatholicism on one side of it, but also resistance of a real “Isn’t the bodily resurrection really just a metaphor for new beginnings?” situation on the other. And it’s been fun and edifying because it’s actually involved learning lots about some of the stuff that gets kind of left out/downplayed in our post-modern “Enlightened” era, like the angels.

    Anyway, my new favorite thing is teasing my agnostic engineer husband when he tells me some genuinely interesting new advanced physics thing he has learned, by responding with some real medieval peasant stuff like, “Wow, isn’t amazing how there are all those little angels in the celestial spheres whose whole job is to push quarks around in tiny wheelbarrows and carry electrons back & forth between our dimension and the heavens as they orbit nuclei, all because God likes it that way.” It makes me laugh but also it’s really not ironic, the image of nature as (in Galileo’s words) God’s most obedient executrix and the angels perfectly carrying out God’s most minute plans for this world is immensely lovely and comforting to me.

    Happy Michaelmas! Hope everyone has a lovely day, leans into a little simple peasant piety, and eats something nice like goose or carrots or blackberries for dinner to celebrate.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

NEW BOOK!

Advertisement