On the Celestial Hierarchy and the Nature of Love

November 21, 2017

On the Celestial Hierarchy and the Nature of Love

Sermon for the Feast of the Bodiless Hosts (2017)

We celebrate today the feast of the holy angels, archangels and all the honorable heavenly bodiless hosts. It is said that just as monks are a light to laypeople, so also the holy angels are a light to monastics. And although we ourselves are weak and sinful and are but dim and hazy reflections of that fiery monastic light with which our fathers shone, yet all the more on this holy feast day we must turn again to contemplate the light of the angels, which has the power to both inspire and purify our darkened hearts. And likewise today the laypeople gathered here have the opportunity to behold from a loftier height the same divine light with which we ourselves ought to be clothed.

Just as Moses beheld on the mountain the heavenly pattern after which the earthly sanctuary was later built, so too we have the opportunity to behold among the holy angels the heavenly life which we also strive to imitate on earth. And just as Moses in no wise dared to construct a tabernacle after his own imagination and understanding, so too we must take great care not to devise anything for ourselves in our spiritual life but rather imitate the holy examples of those whom the Lord has set before us as models and pillars of faith.

In contemplating then the life of the angels—insofar as it has been revealed to us—we perceive many lofty states and spiritual heights of which we ourselves cannot even dream. The angels live in perfect chastity, in utter obedience and humility, in constant prayer, in unceasing attendance upon the will of God, completely untouched even for an instant by any worldly care or desire of the flesh. We see the Holy Archangel Michael confronting the hosts of darkness without any trace of fear or doubt. We see the Holy Archangel Gabriel descending in utter humility from the loftiest heights of heaven to attend upon a poor Jewish girl and to announce the eternal salvation of mankind to a few provincial shepherds. We see our holy guardian angels, year after year, bearing patiently and silently—with truly divine mercy and without the slightest trace of judgment—all the untold depravity and all the innumerable petty weaknesses and failings of humankind.

When we contemplate such things, we are filled with reverence and profound humility. We see more clearly and feel more sharply our own unworthiness, and we desire—if only a little—to struggle more zealously to imitate these faithful servants of God and to acquire for ourselves a measure of their virtue and holiness. And yet there is one aspect of the angelic life which we cannot overlook, although we indeed might prefer to pass over it in silence. And that is the heavenly hierarchy.

We live in a world which worships equality, individuality and independence. These ideas have gained a dominion over human thought which is nothing short of dogmatic. They are indeed so powerful that they are now unquestioned and all but unnoticed. They are part of the fabric not only of our society but even of our souls.

But these ideas, my brothers and sisters, are nowhere to be found in the Gospel. They are nowhere to be seen among the holy angels, who live already in the kingdom of heaven. The nine ranks of angels all have their position and their assigned place and role. Even the very names of these ranks speak of a reality and an order that is totally foreign to the modern mind: thrones, powers, principalities, dominions. These names have meaning, a meaning that is grounded in a reality which utterly transcends our own. But there is another name given to those angels who chose not to accept their place in that hierarchy, who did not wish to accept the order of reality ordained by the Lord God.

But why is it that God chose to order His kingdom according to hierarchy and not according to democratic and egalitarian principles as ‘enlightened’ human reason demands? Even those of us who wish to live piously without doubt have in some corner of our minds the thought that there is something a bit arbitrary and even oppressive in this. Surely obedience and humility are good and proper, but why is it not enough to each obey the Lord God Himself without all these elaborate and formal rankings and chains of command?

The answer, quite surprising and even paradoxical to the modern mind, is that this is done simply for the sake of love. As it turns out, hierarchy is not only not antithetical but is even quite necessary to a life truly founded upon love. And this can be observed quite easily by simply looking at the modern landscape, at the practical results of a society founded upon independence and equality. Are we not more isolated than ever? Are we not more atomized, more alienated, more rootless, more alone? Has not love come to mean merely desire? Has not even the gratification of that desire left us cold and more than ever alone?

But perhaps, some might say, this is merely circumstantial. Perhaps there are many factors in play, perhaps after all things are not quite so simple. Of course this is true, there is much more to the story, but the fact remains that hierarchy is at the heart of every human relationship. What, after all, is nature of the love that binds subjects to their kings, sons to their fathers, students to their teachers, youth to their mentors, children to their heroes, the faithful to their priests, the young to their elders, wives to their husbands? Is any such love possible without honor, admiration, loyalty, obedience, submission, and trust? Is any such love possible when everyone insists on being equal, when everyone denies that there are any who surpass them or are worthy of emulation and praise? Are there any who could deny the beauty of such love, who could be so crass as to insist that it is all merely oppression and lust for power?

And truly, none of these relationships are one-sided. What mother will not freely admit that she has learned much from her daughter, what teacher does not have profound respect and admiration for their students, what priest has not been humbled by the piety of his flock, what husband does not know in his heart that his wife surpasses anything that he could ever be, what true king does not long to lay down his life for his people just as Christ the High King of all laid down His life for His servants?

Every virtue and every beauty that the soul can possess is born of such relationships, and is founded on such hierarchies. Even Christ is both High King and Suffering Servant; yes, even our brother, strange to say, but never and on no account our equal. Perish the blasphemy!

And in truth, what kind of love can there be in a human heart that insists upon mutual equality? If there is nothing in you that I admire, nothing that I would seek to emulate, nothing which I trust more than myself and to which I would gladly submit, then what kind of love can I claim to have for you? But why admire that which I also claim to possess? How could I emulate some quality of yours in which I consider myself to be your equal? The ideal of equality is to respect everyone alike, but all too often in turns out to mean that we only respect ourselves.

But there is still God, some might say. I do not need to bow the knee to any on earth, but nevertheless I can still serve and obey the Lord. But the Apostle John has already warned us about this. If we do not love our brothers and sisters whom we see, if we do not obey and honor and admire the men and women with whom we spend our lives, if we never on this earth humble ourselves before another, learn to trust the wisdom of another, learn to obey the commands of another, then we will be in an extremely unenviable condition when we at last appear before the throne of God having never in our lives prepared ourselves in actual experience and practice to bow before anything other than the tyranny of our own opinions, desires, thoughts and understanding.

Let us look then today toward the holy angels. St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that each of the ranks of angels receives divine illumination from the order above and passes it on in proper measure to the order below. Their obedience is always to the Lord God, but it flows through one another. Their divine enlightenment and understanding comes only from the Lord God, but it flows through one another. All their love is for the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-creating and Indivisible Trinity, but it flows through one another. Each obeys with humility and commands with humility, without envy, without strife. There is no scorn, no judgment, no condemnation. There is no oppression and no tyranny. They know a peace such as we ourselves can scarcely conceive.

If we wish to be as the holy angels, if we wish to be united to our Lord, if we wish to acquire spiritual peace and adorn ourselves with the beauties of the virtues, if we wish to find salvation and if we wish to come to know love, then we must begin all our efforts and base all our struggles upon one foundation and one alone: upon our holy brotherhood, each one of us in the place which our Lord has granted to us, unworthy though we are.

 +Through the prayers of the holy Archangels and Angels and of all the saints, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.




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