“Of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.”
In the ordering of the nine choirs of angels, the lowest three ranks (third triad) are those angelic beings who might actually have been in the choirs who sang at the birth of Christ. The number of angels is beyond our knowledge, but tradition since the early Middle Ages (fifth and sixth centuries) has held that the nine choirs include the messenger angels. These include principalities, archangels and angels.
The word “angel” comes from the Greek word, aggelos — which in turn comes from a Hebrew word (mal’akh) for “one who is sent” or a messenger.
St. Thomas Aquinas noted that, of the three reasons why God created angels, these three choirs of angels are the ones who fulfill the third purpose: to serve as messengers from God to human beings. Scriptures record all sorts of heavenly messages delivered by angels: from prophets such as Jeremiah to outcasts like Tamar, the mother of Ishmael, to Mary and Joseph — and those shepherds at Bethlehem.
One of the best visuals of this work of the heavenly messengers is the dream of Jacob, when he saw many angels ascending and descending from heaven on what we now call “Jacob’s ladder” (Gn 28:10-19).
As with the previous choirs, there are angels in this triad of angelic choirs that interact most closely with those in the ranks above them. So the lowest rank of the angels of government — the powers — are believed to interact most closely with the upper rank of the messenger angels, the principalities.
Just as the angelic powers have charge of history, the principalities are charged with overseeing groups of people and educating them in the ways of God. They protect worldly powers, watch over their leaders and inspire them to do good works. In heraldry, they are represented as wearing crowns and carrying swords or scepters to direct God’s commands. As protectors, principalities wear chain mail and helmets. It is possible that they are among those mentioned as “angels of the seven churches” in the first chapters of the Book of Revelation.
Just as there are generals in armies or managers in office, these angels lead the archangels and angels in the ranks directly below them.
St. Thomas Aquinas explained it in musical terms: “Now in the execution of any action, there are beginners and leaders; as in singing, the precentors (head of music in a school); and in war, generals and officers; this belongs to the ‘principalities.’” This leadership role is why, in art, principalities also carry scepters — or maybe they are maestros’ batons.
Below the principalities come the archangels — the princes of angels. We probably know these angels the best of all, especially three of them.
We know of these three archangels — some sources, including the Book of Tobit, say there are seven in all — from the Bible. They are called Michael, Raphael and Gabriel and they serve as divine ambassadors, warrior chiefs and heralds. In art, they may appear in armor with shields and a sword. (Yes, Raphael and Gabriel have served as warriors.)
Michael is often shown slaying a dragon, a reminder of his role in the battle that drove the fallen angels from heaven (Rv 12:7). Gabriel often holds a lily representing his place as the Angel of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-37). Raphael appears in travel garb and carries a fish from his role as Tobiah’s guide and protector (Book of Tobit). It is also of note that, while archangels are listed as eighth in the nine choirs of angels, Michael is considered the battle commander of all the angels. This is because of his zeal against Satan in the war in heaven.
The final choir is that of the angels. They are called the lowest in the ranks, but this is more due to their interactions on earth than on their value or importance. Again, there is no number to these angels. They exist in myriads and include the heavenly choirs and guardian angels.
The Lord himself revealed that the guardian angels of children look directly upon the face of the Father (Mt 18:10). And St. Jerome noted that “The dignity of a soul is so great, that each has a guardian angel from its birth.”
We all know how angels are represented: with wings to signify their role as messenger; with flowing robes and shining faces that reflect God’s glory; and with peaceful faces, even when battling demons. Their faces reflect their knowledge that God is supreme and the final battle has been won in Christ. This is why their Christmas song echoes through the ages: “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace to people of good will.”
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Summa Theologica; Catholic Online at catholic.org; “Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible”; “A Handbook of Symbols of Christian Art”; saintaquinas.com; rosaryworkshop.com; etymonline.org and Our Sunday Visitor.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in March 2014.