Why Man Venerates Images of Angels, Even Though He is Higher than the Angels

st-john-of-damascusFrom John of Damascus’s On the Divine Images

It is uncanny how often this sort of thing happens: if you read the Fathers, Scripture or the Liturgy, I find that just when I’m thinking about something I discover a passage that has something to say about it. The psalms particularly are like this. The seem to speak to the human person wherever he is emotionally and offer thoughts on just about any aspect of life. I will read something I have read many times, but this time it is commenting on something in a way I had never noticed before.

This has just happened to me again. Some of you may remember a piece posted very recently in which I expressed surprise that Leo the Great should say that man is higher than the angels. Then just a few days ago I read a passage by St John of Damascus. I was reading the third of his three treatises On the Divine Images, which he wrote against iconoclasm in the 8th century. The general theme of these is to stress the importance of holy images in safeguarding the doctrine of the Incarnation. In this passage he is discussing the veneration of images of those who not God, the saints and angels.

angelHe wants to make the point that all worship is due to God, but there are degrees of worship that are appropriate in different situations. So we adore God directly, but through veneration of images of his saints and angels, we bring worship and honour to God. To illustrate begins by pointing out that scripture relates that when Daniel and Joshua each encountered angels, they fell down and worshipped before them. First, he says, they were not seeing the angels, because an angel is an invisible spirit. Rather, they were seeing an image of an angel; and when they worshipped, they were not worshipping the angel but giving honour to God by showing honour to his ministering spirits.  Similarly, he says, when we venerate images of the saints and angels, we are giving honour to God by honouring his friends. Furthermore, he says this fact that they are God’s servants is the only reason that we would worship even an image of an angel, because we are higher than angels and such respect is not due an angel for itself.  Here is the passage quoted directly. It is his third treatise, section 26:

‘Joshua, the son of Nun did not see the angel as he is by nature, but and image for an angel by nature is not visible to bodily eyes, yet he fell down and worshipped and Daniel did likewise. Yet an angel is a creature, a servant, a minister of God, but not God. And they fell down and worshipped before the angels, not as God, but as God’s ministering spirits. Shall I not make images Rembrandt Danielof friends? Shall I not honour them, not as Gods, but as the images of God’s friends? Neither Joshua nor Daniel worshipped the angels they saw as gods. Neither do I worship an image as God, but through the images of Christ and the Holy Theotokos and of the saints, I bring worship and honour to God, because of the reverence with which I honour his friends. God did not unite himself with angelic nature, but with human nature. God did not become and angel; he became a man by nature and in truth. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned, but with the seed of Abraham. The person of the Son of God did not assume an angelic nature, but a human nature. The angels do not share in this; they do not become partakers of the divine nature. But by the operation of grace, men do share in and become partakers of the divine nature; as many of them as do receive the Holy Body of Christ and drink his Blood since his person is united with the Godhead, and the two nature of Christ’s Body which we eat are inseparably joined in his person. We partake of both natures, of His Body physically, and of His divinity spiritually, or rather of each in both. We did not become the same person as he is for we also first exist as individual persons; only then can we be united by the comingling of His Body and Blood. Therefore, we are greater than the angels, provided that we guard this perfect union by faithfully observing the commandments. for our humble nature is far inferior to the angels, because of death, and the heaviness of the body, but because by God’s good will it has been united to Him, human nature has become superior to the angels. The angels stand in fear and trembling before our own nature, for He has raised us up with Him and made us sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus and they will stand b in fear at the judgement. Nowhere does Scripture say that they will sit together with us, or become partakers of the divine nature. ‘


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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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