Association of Priests

Vol. XVI, November 2010

A hierarchy among the angels (cf. Zac 1)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In the prophecy of Zachariah we find another detail which is worthwhile of our reflection. Note how the conversation went:

“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding upon a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.

Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’

The angel who talked with [in] me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’

So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’

And they answered the angel of the Lord …

Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts …’ [and]

the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with [in] me.

So the angel who talked with [in] me said to me, ‘Cry out…’” (Zac 1:8-14).

It is surprising, how many persons are here present and part of the conversation. Does this orchestrated conversation suggest that among the angels as among us men, that certain competencies needs to be observed? Does this section confront us with the question of a hierarchy among the angels?

1. The possibility of a Hierarchy among the angels

Human experience in society teaches us, that certain tasks can and should be distributed among different persons, be it because one alone cannot do everything (under the material aspect), be it because one alone does not know everything (under the formal aspect). For this reason, frequently a plurality of persons participate in one and the same project. When we need to call, for example, the operator of our phone-company twice, we rarely speak to the same person: there are many employees with the same service. But, if there are certain questions – as in the case of the prophet and his angel – then we probably have to deal with not just physically different persons, but with successively more knowledgeable persons, with persons of a higher position, or of greater authority. Can we, herewith, already conclude that there is a hierarchy among the angels?

a) Four different positions among theologians. St. Thomas deals with this question directly and offers three different positions:

(a) “Some have said that all spiritual substances, even souls, are of the one species.

(b) Others, again, that all the angels are of the one species, but not souls;

(c) while others allege that all the angels of one hierarchy, or even of one order, are of the one species.” (ST p. I, q. 50 a.4)

St. Thomas rejects all of them as “this is impossible.” And the reason is always based on a solid, correct philosophical understanding of reality. Thomas says: If different things have the same species (or nature) and yet are different from one another, then the difference can be only through a physical or material cause. But we believe that angels have no matter, no body. Therefore the distinction of one angel from another can be only a difference by the species itself.

“If, therefore, the angels be not composed of matter and form, as was said above, it follows that it is impossible for two angels to be of one species; just as it would be impossible for there to be several whitenesses apart, or several humanities, since whitenesses are not several, except in so far as they are in several substances.” (ibid.)

The angels belong all to one genus or “general category”, that is the pure spiritual beings, but every one has his own species or identity. Each angel in and by himself realizes the fullness of his angelhood.

b) Many persons under one government. When St. Thomas deals with the question “Whether all angels belong to the one hierarchy” (ST p. I, q. 108, a. 1), he again shows great openness. He recalls St. Augustine’s two cities, where all good angels and men are united in one, and the world and evil spirits in another.

He continues here pointing out that not all are under the same prince or governor which leads to a further differentiation among the hierarchies. We can find a certain parallel today in the public life where a general Constitution rules an entire nation, while another lesser law-book regulates the affairs in a province, and still another those of a mere city. Of course, these lesser laws are subordinated to the higher ones and may not contradict them. Similarly, we can understand that the “universal law” among all the choirs is the Divine Will. This will is known in a more universal fashion among the highest choirs of angels, whereas among the angels of the lower choirs this law is more particularized.

2. Biblical basis for a hierarchy among the angels

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wanted to make sure about the place of Sacred Scripture in Theology: “For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and since they are inspired really are the word of God; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 24). Applying this to our question, we should seek a confirmation for the metaphysical reflection in the Word of God.

a) The individuality of the angels. Before any thing else we have to state the individuality of the angels. We are familiar with the three whom we know even by name, St. Michael (Dan 10:13-21; 12:1; Rev 12:7; Jud 9), St. Raphael (cf. Tob 3:17; 12:6-21) and St. Gabriel (cf. Dan 8:16; 9:21; Lk 1:9,19,26). We have further many names of groups like the Seraphim, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 6:2,6), or different groups mentioned together in the letters of St. Paul (cf. Eph 1:21; Rom 8:38 etc.). They are, therefore, first of all, groups of individual persons. With regard to the denominations of groups: on the basis of the mere names themselves it is difficult to discern whether they are groups with members of the same level and, if so, whether a hierarchical order obtains among them. For example, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers do not yield a hierarchy, but a group with equi-parity, whereas deacon, priests and bishops names the member groups of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Not with standing the names of the archangels and the princes (archai) do, in virtue of the very name, express an order of authority over others, and hence, describe some hierarchical relationship.

b) The ladder which reached to heaven. A scriptural reference which does imply something of a celestial hierarchy is the reference to the “ladder of Jacob”. When the patriarch rested once on his way…, “he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Gen 28:11-12; cf Ps 84:8). What ever this “ladder” represents, the fundamental idea includes not only a higher and lower, but also of a passage upwards and downwards, and thus something of a hierarchy, which bind heaven and earth. There is a ministry of communication through angels. Jesus referred to it in a similar way: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51).

c) Lord, God of hosts! A second idea which is very spread throughout the entire Sacred Scripture, is that of a universal order. In many places, God is presented as the “God of hosts”. Therefore, He is surrounded by an army. And that means hierarchy and order, for, where do we have an effective army which does not know order and internal hierarchy? Is this not the fundamental characteristic of an army, one who gives orders and another who receives orders, and one is the first and another one follows. The Centurion described it very naturally: “I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it’.” (Mt 8:9)

The references in the gospels on good and fallen angels are expressed in terms of an army: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53) Or, when Jesus asked the fallen spirits about their name, they answered with a reference to the military unit, “Legion”, for they were many (cf. Lk 8:30).

d) The third heaven. Finally, a third implicit reference to a heavenly order of hierarchies may be educed from St. Paul’s observations about one of his mystical graces. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven … I know that this man was caught up into Paradise.” (2Cor 12:2) With the reference to paradise, St. Paul himself excludes any physical comprehension of heaven. It opens at least to a possible reference to a hierarchy, and this formed by angels, so that St. Thomas thinks, St. Paul was elevated to the vision of God which the angels of the first Hierarchy have (cf. In II Cor., XII, lect.1 (Ma 454).

3. All for the greater glory of God

A short meditation on the angels helps us to gather from these few indications a generic idea regarding the angelic world.

a) The holy angels are pure spirits not just by nature; hence so too are their power and virtue entirely spiritual. Thanks to their self-denial for the sake of God their Creator and only Lord, they are transparent in all they do or share.

b) They recognize – like St. Paul – that all they have, they have received. “What have you that you did not receive?” (1Cor 4:7) And if so, then put in practice what Jesus will say later on to his disciples: “You received without paying, give without pay.” (Mt 10:8) The holy angels are grateful, humble and seek the glorification of God in all.

c) The idea of hierarchy, by its very nature recommends highly the spirit of collaboration, for most of the angels have other angels above and below them, with whom they must cooperate in order to fulfill their ministry. For this reason, moreover, there is no such thing as isolation among the holy angels. In the fulfillment of the Will of God, the holy angels are all communicative, social; they ask and share the responses.

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Let’s place into this vision of the prophet, and assist, for another moment, this living exchange. It can help us to “come out of ourselves,” to become more sensitive for the world around us, to listen more attentively; but also, not to “get” out just from myself, but also to surrender and dedicate to their need. May Our Lady, who rushed to Elisabeth and interfered in Cana, be our mediator to the holy angels and interpreter of their messages.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC