Learning to Dance in Step with the Angels

I recently heard a sermon while watching the ordination to the diaconate of a dear friend on the day of our Lady’s Entrance into the Temple; the priest mentioned a beautiful detail: it is said that when she entered the Temple, she ascended the stairs without looking back and, upon entering the Holy of Holies, she “danced on her feet.” There, in the heart of the Temple, she was fed by the hand of an angel.

A little-known fact is that the earliest written source we have for such details from the life of the Theotokos is the Protevangelion ascribed to St James, which means something like a “proto-gospel”, an account to help tie together the narrative threads that are found in the Gospels. For example, it gives us such precious details as Mary’s perpetual virginity and Christ’s birth in a cave.  Indeed, it is not considered Scripture in the Orthodox Church, yet neither is it rejected as something heretical, like the apocryphal gnostic gospels. One way to understand its place in the Orthodox liturgy is that, while several of its stories are accepted in our hymns, icons, and homilies, it would still never be publicly read out loud at services, like the Gospel and Epistle at Divine Liturgy or the Old Testament at Vespers. We could also describe it as a kind of Christian ‘midrash’, a genre of commentary of Scripture, because the Protevangelion tells stories to interpret Gospel stories that are difficult or unclear. It is a tool for interpreting, but should not be confused with the Sacred Scripture we are interpreting.

It further helps us to see how all the Feasts of the Church, both of Mary and of the Lord, are interwoven, ultimately culminating in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. One of the most important ways it serves as a proto-gospel to prepare us to receive the Gospel is in its account of Mary’s royal lineage, the blessed conjugal union of her parents, Joachim and Anna, her conception (Dec. 9), birth, and her entrance into the Temple (Nov. 21). The Entrance of the Theotokos was the last Great Feast before the Nativity, and in the period leading up to the Birth of Christ we are constantly reminded of her exceptional purity and holiness, both at the Feast of her conception by St Anna and her Entrance into the Temple. She teaches us how to dance in step with the angels to get a better angle on the Incarnation of the Lord as we circle around in praise of Him throughout the liturgical year.

The Virgin Mary’s dance with the angels also brings to mind those souls who are consecrated as celibates to the service of God. While we know that the Church as a whole participates in the life of the angels through liturgy and good works, we often hear that the monastic life of virginity and chastity is the ‘angelic life.’ What we learn from the Church Fathers is that this is meant quite literally, not figuratively. As we mentioned in our last post, humans are part-angel. The monastic life is aimed at cultivating that most angelic aspect of human nature, through worship, prayer, and vigil. So much so that St Anthony was even ashamed of eating food since he could not forget the taste of the celestial banquet. He did it out of necessity, and even more importantly, to serve his brethren (St Athanasius the Great, Life of Anthony 45). 

This notion of imitating the life of angels comes, of course, from Christ Himself. “Those who are made worthy to attain that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for neither can they die anymore, because they are equal to the angels (isangeloi) and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Lk 20:35-36). It is further based on the experience of the Church that the life of the Resurrection, described here by Christ, is anticipated here in this life. Jesus has already opened the gates to that new form of life. 

We mentioned in our last article how the order of the angels and the Church is meant to prevent chaos and confusion. We see a coherent and consistent order and sequence of things in Scripture, Church history, the lives of the saints, and even the life of each Christian. The angels are the celestial exemplars of this harmonious order, in all times and places, both in the Old Testament and in the New. For instance, the law on Mt Sinai, as we read in Gal. 3:19 and Acts 7:53, was mediated to men by angels, and angels appear in every stage of Christ’s life, although as God He had no need for them.

Why did God not directly make the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary? Why was Gabriel, who was an Archangel, sent? Well, first, what if the Incarnation had occurred without any reference to the angels, prior revelations, and temple rituals that had come through the Torah? There would be no reference point, no way to validate the truth of it all. The whole Mosaic law that prophesied Christ came through angels. So it is clear that there is a certain spiritual order that must be maintained in the plan of our salvation.

St Dionysius remarks that when Jesus became Incarnate, as man, he submitted himself to the hierarchy of angels: he had to me made a “little lower than the angels”. 

“for I perceive that Jesus Himself who is the super essential Head of the super celestial beings above nature, when taking our nature while still keeping His own immutable Divinity, did not turn away from the human order which He arranged and chose, but rather submitted Himself obediently to the commands given by God the Father through Angels, by whose ministrations the Father’s decree touching the flight of His Son into Egypt and the return from Egypt into Judaea was announced to Joseph. Moreover, through Angels we see Him subjecting Himself to the Father’s will; for I will not recall to one who knows our sacred tradition the Angel who strengthened Jesus” (Celestial Hierarchy 4)

Yet we are also told how His humanity was exalted and given “the name that is above every name” in heaven and on earth. Regarding this, Dionysius directs our attention to a special point: if our Lord himself submitted so willingly and humbly to the celestial hierarchy, who are we to defy the order of the Church, or the order of nature? It is precisely by imitating our Lord, by serving in a lowly manner, that we also ultimately become exalted, capable of illuminating others like angels. “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mt 23:12).

So far, we have seen that there are three ways of conceiving the relationship between humans and angels. According to Scripture, humans are both lower than the angels, higher than them, and equal to them. So what exactly is going on here? Again, why do we even talk about angelification when, in essence, the Orthodox view of salvation is concerned with deification, something far higher than angelification.

On this point, we may consult the Hesychastic Fathers St Kallistos Angelikoudes and St Gregory Palamas (Nov. 14), who illuminate the matter quite beautifully. St Kallistos, following the patristic tradition, describes progress in spiritual life as angelification. For him, practicing practical virtues and prayerful contemplation really does put the faithful on a par with the angels. Moreover, he shows that this is made possible only through the Incarnation. 

“God in His exceeding wisdom desired to create man as a second angel upon the earth, a heavenly creature, in the form and likeness of God, and so for this reason He placed a noetic and intellectual soul of divine knowledge and understanding within him. And so He declared concerning those things, ‘I said, ‘You are all gods and sons of the Most High by grace’ (cf. Ps. 81:6), that is, as a second order of angels, silently contemplating God and being lifted up to Him in divine eros and spiritual light.” (Chapters 56, Philokalia V)

For man to become an angel, though, he must first become spirit. But he could not become spirit until he was baptized in Christ, adopted as a son of God, who is spirit, and indeed “born of the Spirit.” For only “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6).

Through Christ, the soul progresses “not unto a lower order of Angels in the heavenly hosts, but unto the order of God the Most High. Only then does it proceed to the order of the Thrones, and afterward that of the Cherubim, then to that of the Seraphim, and so it continues until it becomes an Angel (that is, the more lowly order), proclaiming (anangellon) to its neighbors the renowned and mystical things of God in the Spirit” (ibid.).

In short, St Kallistos tells us that humans can only become angels by first becoming gods (by grace)! Then, the way that deification works is that humans are meant to imitate all the angelic orders, down to the lowest, by becoming more lowly “angels,” which is to say, “messengers” of the good news to others. 

Having said that, these hierarchies are not for God, but for the benefit of His creatures. God is absolutely free to override these laws whenever He pleases. As St Gregory Palamas points out, the angelic ranks are marvelously rearranged in a kind of cosmic dance at the time of the Incarnation, for something “new” had come. That is why, the Archangel Gabriel, who belongs to the lower rank of archangels, is the first one to be initiated into the mystery of God’s Incarnation, and thus the illumines the higher ranks of Cherubim and Seraphim. This is just another indication that God can make the “last greater than the first” (cf. Mt 19:30). He is not bound by cosmic laws, but will occasionally even bend them to bind all creation into a higher unity.  (Palamas, Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts 2.3.29-30).

Again, the usual order of things is that the higher angels illuminate the lower ones, and the lower ones illuminate humankind. How is it, then, that St Paul can say that the Apostles were given the grace “illuminate for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities (archai) and powers (exousiai) in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10-11)? We’ll notice that the powers and principalities mentioned here are two of the nine ranks described by St Dionysius. So there is an aspect of the mystery of Christ that can only be revealed to angels by human beings. And that is the marvel of creation, that each individual creature is given the opportunity to participate in the plan of salvation, to play a unique role in bringing God’s rich and varied love to light. 

To summarize, angels are higher than man in terms of natural order and hierarchy. At the same time, they are lower because of Christ’s Incarnation as man, which deifies human nature, placing it above the angels through the grace of the Church. Then you might say that those two things round each other out. Ultimately, a kind of equal honor and glory are bestowed on both man and angel, since the deification of man also means his angelification, and the angels, by rejoicing in the glorification of human beings, make it their own.

Likewise, when someone like St Seraphim of Sarov participates in the life of the angels, he will not only remain at the fiery summit of Seraphic contemplation, as St Kallistos says, but will descend the stairs to bring others back up with him. That is what the progress of the soul looks like; and the soul’s progression is eternal, as the Cappadocian Fathers tell us. Heaven, and the life of genuine virtue, are anything but boring. This progress is like an infinite series of ascents and descents. A constant conglomeration of light with light, like a mirror that is infinitely reflected in a mirror. For St Gregory Nazianzen the life of retreat and stillness means “being, and constantly growing more and more to be, a truly unspotted mirror of God and divine things, as light is added to light, with what is still dim ever growing clearer.” It means “enjoying already by hope the blessings of the world to come,” and “circling around with the angels” (Or. 2.7). 

The Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt wrote a piece called Spiegel im Spiegel (German for “mirror in mirror”), where each ascending melody on the violin is then mirrored by a descending melody to follow. Throughout the whole piece, the soft three-note piano arpeggio accompanies the strains of the violin, with the soft but steady tread of a ‘guardian angel,’ as Arvo Pärt puts it. 

These images and reflections might provide us a little insight into what Christ meant when He said, “Verily, verily, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn. 1:51). As we approach the mystery of Christ’s birth, we can contemplate this mystery in the Nativity icons, where one host of angels can be seen gazing upward while another host looks downward: marveling at the height from which He comes and the depths to which He descends; eager to announce the good news to mortals, but not quite sure whether they have understood it well enough themselves.

Nativity of Christ, Cretan School, 15th cen.

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