16. The Angelic Hierarchy
Order is heaven’s first law. The countless multitudes of the angels are not a disorderly mob, but a thoroughly organized society. The battalions of the blessed spirits are a well-marshalled host. There are degrees of glory, and differences of rank. All are not equal, save in this – that all alike are children of God, members of the great family of God, and of the mystical body of Christ.
Just as in the natural body various functions are discharged by various parts diversely located and of dissimilar structure, so in that body which is Christ’s, the angels have each their own separate place, with their own particular function to fulfil; and while all are truly great, being all sons of the most High God, and princes of His heavenly kingdom, not all are equally high, not all are equally honoured, but one differs from another, both in the gifts of nature and in those of grace, as star differs from star in glory.
About the constitution of this society which comprises all the legions of the holy angels we know only what we gather from certain passing indications in Holy Writ, echoed to be sure, by the teaching of the Fathers. Thus, there is mention in Scripture of various classes of angels, and with evidence opposition, as when Saint Paul says,
…neither death, nor life, no angels, nor principalities, nor powers, not things present nor things to come. (Romans 8:38)
When we infer the existence of distinct orders of blessed spirits, and by the aid of other passages, occurring chiefly in the epistles of the same Apostle, we are able to complete the enumeration of them. In the Epistle to the Colossians we read,
For in him [that is, in Christ] were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him. (Colossians 1:16)
Again, the Apostle writes,
Raising him (Christ) up from the dead, and setting him on his right hand in the heavenly places, above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. (Ephesians 1:20-21)
The word archangels, too, is found both in Saint Paul and in Saint Jude, and implies a certain superiority and hence distinction. Lastly, we meet the name seraphim in Isaias 6, while cherubim is of frequent occurrence, being found first at the end of the third chapter of Genesis, and then often in the other historical books, in the Psalms, and in the prophet Ezechiel.
Hence the mere division of the angels into various orders or classes, without definition as to number, inter-dependence, and the like, is a teaching of our faith, being clearly contained in Holy Scripture. It is also a doctrine commonly laid down by theologians, following in the footsteps of Saint Denis (or Dionysius) the Aeropagite (or whoever may be the author of that ancient and famous work on the Celestial Hierarchy, that the holy angels are divided into three sacred realms, called heirarchies, according to their proximity to God and the fullness of the light flowing in upon their minds from that never-failing, infinite source. This is now the commonly received opinion in the Church.
But there is also a further division of the hierarchies into choirs. To the choirs belong the names met with in the writings of Saint Paul and in other passages of Holy Scripture, as just enumerated. They are nine in all, and thus we have three choirs for each hierarchy, a perfectly natural distribution, as in every realm we meet the highest, the lowest, and the middle class.
As a matter of fact, theologians (and the common voice of the Church along with them) assign to each of the angelic hierarchies, three sacred choirs. The method of distributing these throughout the hierarchies is not however quite uniform, but the usual division is that of Saint Denis (Dionysius) or his namesake, the Pseudo-Aeropagite, from whom Saint Gregory scarcely differs. According to the former, the first and noblest hierarchy embraces in descending scale, the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. The second or intermediate hierarchy is made up in like order of the dominations, virtues, and powers. The third, or lowest hierarchy comprises the principalities, archangels, and angels.
We must not think, however, that they use of these names is so fixed in Holy Scripture, that one is not employed at times instead of another, that is, in a somewhat looser and broader sense. This is particularly true of the generic name, angel, which is used of all the blessed spirits indifferently, and not merely of the lowest choir, to which it is specially appropriated. Thus we read in Saint Paul, (Hebrews 1) alluding to Psalm 96, “And let all the angels of God adore him”; and immediately after, “Who maketh his angels spirits”; in both of which passages there is question evidently of the whole heavenly army. Again, Gabriel is call the Angel Gabriel, though he is thought, not without reason, to have been one of the highest of all the blessed spirits. So Lucifer is apostrophized by the Prophet Ezechiel, “Thou a cherub,” and yet his is commonly supposed to have belonged to the choir of seraphim and to have been perhaps the foremost among them. Lastly, Michael is called by Saint Jude the Archangel Michael, though elsewhere he is spoken of as one of the chief princes, and is regarded by many as having been also of the order of seraphim.