Celestial Hierarchy

Celestial Hierarchy : to understand about the celestial hierarchy it is important to know exactly what an angel is.  Briefly it can be described as: a spiritual being that is believed to be much more powerful than a human.  In Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other theologies an angel can be one who acts as a messenger, attendant or agent of God.  

Regarding the celestial hierarchy, the majority of scholars believe that angels are divided into clearly defined ranks.  Depending on the rank of the angel it will have separate honors and duties.
One of the most well known listings of the celestial hierarchy, or ranking of angels, is the one produced by the scholar Dionysius the Areopagite.  This listing has a total of nine distinct orders of angels which in turn fall under three major headings known as choirs.  Although it is common to find variations within all aspects of angology most listings contain the same ranks and the only difference is in the order that they are presented.

First Choir
Second Choir
Third Choir
1). Seraphim
4). Dominations
7). Principalities
2). Cherubim
5). Virtues
8). Archangels
3). Thrones
6). Powers
9). Angels

The Celestial Hierarchy Explained:

Seraphim: these are the angels that come first and are closest to the throne of God.  They exist in the uppermost part of the hierarchy and their very name means ardor. They are said to encircle the throne, existing off the love emanated by God and unceasingly chant the Trisagion, "Holy, holy, holy...". This burning love keeps them ever close to God's Throne and they bear love and light to the lesser choirs of angels.  It is also this fiery love which gives them the term 'fiery serpents'. 

"In this form of fiery serpents, it is said that the light they give off is so intense, that not even other divine beings may look upon them. There is said to be four of these angelic beings. They are listed as the four holy beasts in the book of Revelation and are also described as angels with four faces and six wings." 

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text:

"The name Seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all- consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness."

Cherubim: are second to only the seraphim and their name signifies "fullness of knowledge". Characterised by a deep insight into God's secrets, the cherubim hold the knowledge of God and they truly possess the fullness of the divine science of heaven. "It is also they who are often sent to earth with the greatest of tasks; the expulsion of Man from the Garden of Eden and the Annunciation of Christ were both performed by cherubim". They enlighten the lesser choirs of angels and are to them the Voice of Divine Wisdom. 

"They are described as the charioteers of God, steering the Ophanim. Contrary to paintings on greeting cards and new age book covers, the cherubim are not depicted as fat, winged babies. Instead they are described as sphinx like creatures in Assyrian lore, or the angels gracing the Ark of the Covenant and Solomon's temple in biblical terms."

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text:
"The name Cherubim denotes their power of knowing and beholding God, their receptivity to the highest Gift of Light, their contemplation of the Beauty of the Godhead in Its First Manifestation, and that they are filled by participation in Divine Wisdom, and bounteously outpour to those below them from their own fount of wisdom."

Thrones: form the last choir of the first' hierarchy which is the closest to the Divine Majesty. They are also known as the Ophanim. The primary function of these angles is to be God's chariot but they are also noted as meting out God's judgement.  Their main characteristics are submission and peace, however they act with impartialness and humility to bring about the desires of the Lord. 

"Having the most bizarre physical appearance of the celestial host, they are described a great wheels, covered with a great many eyes and glowing with light. One explanation given for this (besides them acting as God's chariot), is that they mark the end of the first Choir, where the emanations of God begin to take on more material forms and as such exist in a state of transition."

God's spirit is conveyed in a certain manner to these angels, who in turn pass on the message to men and the inferior angels.

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text:

"The name of the most glorious and exalted Thrones denotes that which is exempt from and untainted by any base and earthly thing, and the supermundane ascent up the steep. For these have no part in that which is lowest, but dwell in fullest power, immovably and perfectly established in the Most High, and receive the Divine Immanence above all passion and matter, and manifest God, being attentively open to divine participations."

Dominations: are so called because "they rule over all the angelic orders charged with the execution of the commands of the Great Monarch." They are also known as the Hashmallim, whose purpose is to regulate the duties of the lower angels.  They act as a form of middle management between the upper choir and the lower. Receiving their orders from the seraphim and cherubim these bright spirits make known to us the commands of God and ensure the cosmos remains in order. Their main virtue is zeal for the maintenance of the King's authority.  Only on very rare occasions do they reveal themselves  to mortals, instead they quietly concern themselves with the details of existence.

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: 

"The name given to the holy Dominions signifies, I think, a certain unbounded elevation to that which is above, freedom from all that is of the earth, and from all inward inclination to the bondage of discord, a liberal superiority to harsh tyranny, an exemptness from degrading servility and from all that is low: for they are untouched by any inconsistency. They are true Lords, perpetually aspiring to true lordship, and to the Source of lordship, and they providentially fashion themselves and those below them, as far as possible, into the likeness of true lordship. They do not turn towards vain shadows, but wholly give themselves to that true Authority, forever one with the Godlike Source of lordship."

Virtues: also known as the Malakim and the Tarshishim, carry out the orders issued by the Dominations, they also have two main tasks; to maintain the aspects of the natural world, and to bestow blessings upon the material world.  They are attributed with having strength and their assistance should be sought to combat the enemies of salvation.  Their primary duty is to: "preside over the movements of the celestial bodies as well as events of weather including rain, snow, wind and the like".  Their secondary duty is to: "take the orders given to them and in turn convert them into miracles for God's favored". Bouden states that: "It is through them also that God governs the seasons, the visible heavens and the elements in general, although angels of the lower hierarchy have charge of them."

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: 

"The name of the holy Virtues signifies a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies; not being weak and feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to it; mounting upwards in fullness of power to an assimilation with God; never falling away from the Divine Life through its own weakness, but ascending unwaveringly to the superessential Virtue which is the Source of virtue: fashioning itself, as far as it may, in virtue; perfectly turned towards the Source of virtue, and flowing forth providentially to those below it, abundantly filling them with virtue."

Powers: are believed to be "the favorites among mortals"  They hold one of the most dangerous tasks, maintaining the border between Heaven and Earth. Constantly on guard for demonic attacks, the powers act like an elite guard. They are appointed in a special way to fight against the evil spirits and to defeat any wicked plans. 

"When we see storms gathering either in the Church or in the State, machinations to resist those who are working for the glory of God, extraordinary conspiracies to defeat some great good which is being planned for some diocese, city or country, then it is that we ought to perform frequent devotions in honor of these Powers of heaven, that they may overturn and destroy all the might and miserable plotting of hell." (Boudon).

During heavenly warfare they are a major line of defense. "They are also tasked with guarding the celestial byways between the two realms and ensuring that souls which leave the mortal world reach heaven safely. Perhaps not surpassingly, given their proximity to the nether regions, there are more angels from the ranks of the powers listed as fallen than from any other member of the hierarchy."

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: 
"The name of the holy Powers, co-equal with the Divine Dominions and Virtues, signifies an orderly and unconfined order in the divine receptions, and the regulation of intellectual and supermundane power which never debases its authority by tyrannical force, but is irresistibly urged onward in due order to the Divine. It beneficently leads those below it, as far as possible, to the Supreme Power which is the Source of Power, which it manifests after the manner of Angels in the wellordered ranks of its own authoritative power."

Principalities: are the head of the final choir and preside over the third hierarchy.  They guide and protect the world's nations, towns and cities, directly watch over the mortal world and are executive in regard to the visible world of men.  Religion and of politics are also guarded by them and, "as such, they are assumed to be given more freedom to act than the lesser angels below them and are responsible for carrying out divine acts concerning their area of jurisdiction. Finally, they are given to the task of managing the duties of the angels."

St. Thomas says of them: 
"The execution of the angelic ministrations consists in announcing divine things. Now, in the execution of any action there are beginners and leaders; this-the leadership-belongs to the Principalities."

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: "The name of the Celestial Principalities signifies their Godlike princeliness and authoritativeness in an Order which is holy and most fitting to the princely Powers, and that they are wholly turned towards the Prince of Princes, and lead others in princely fashion, and that they are formed, as far as possible, in the likeness of the Source of Principality, and reveal Its superessential order by the good Order of the princely Powers."

Archangels: are normally described as important or special angels.  However, here the term is used as the second to last rank in the celestial hierarchy.  Archangels are entrusted with the more important missions to men. They act as the leaders in the divine army during battle and protect the Church under the leadership of St. Michael.  They serve as guardians of guardians of great personages, such as the Holy Father, Cardinals, Bishops, Rulers of States, this includes others with special work to do for the glory of God upon earth.  Finally they are charged with overseeing the duties of the angels. 

The confusion about the collective celestial rank of archangels and archangels arises from " the ancient Hebraic way of defining angels which was simple angel and archangel. It was not until later that the hierarchy was defined, and many of the angels previous named as simply archangels were given new posts."

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: "The choir of the holy Archangels is placed in the same threefold Order as the Celestial Principalities; for, as has been said, there is one Hierarchy and Order which includes these and the Angels. But since each Hierarchy has first, middle and last ranks, the holy Order of Archangels, through its middle position, participates in the two extremes, being joined with the most .holy Principalities and with the holy Angels."

Angels: bring to a close the last choir in the hierarchy and they are ever ready to go wherever the will of God sends them.  They have two major tasks: Firstly they are the ordinary messengers sent to men to watch over mortals in a more direct manner than the principalities. They tend to mirror the goodness of God and direct it toward mortals. They help to protect and keep safe from demonic attack; households and individual souls, instead of entire nations.  

Secondly they carry God's word to mankind and act as messengers and couriers to both God and the upper ranks of angelkind. With a true sense of values, they minister to all, this ranges from sinners to the good and just. "In Hebrew, they are called mal'akh, meaning "messenger", in Persian the word is angaros or "courier".

Above all they realise that serving God in any capacity is a very great honour.

Quote from Dionysius the Areopagite text: "For the Angels, as we have said, fill up and complete the lowest choir of all the Hierarchies of the Celestial Intelligences since they are the last of the Celestial Beings possessing the angelic nature. 
And they, indeed, are more properly named Angels by us than are those of a higher rank because their choir is more directly in contact With manifested and mundane things.

The highest Order, as we have said, being in the foremost place near the Hidden One, must be regarded as hierarchically ordering in a bidden manner the second Order; and the second Order of Dominions, Virtues and Powers, leads the Principalities, Archangels and Angels more manifestly, indeed, than the first Hierarchy, but in a more hidden manner than the Order below it; and the revealing Order of the Principalities, Archangels and Angels presides one through the other over the human hierarchies so that their elevation and turning to God and their communion and union with Him may be in order; and moreover, that the procession from God, beneficently granted to all the Hierarchies, and visiting them all in common, may be with the most holy order. 

Accordingly the Word of God has given our hierarchy into the care of Angels, for Michael is called Lord of the people of Judah, and other Angels are assigned to other peoples. For the Most High established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Angels of God."

See also: Angels, Angel Magic, Archangels, Celestial, Celestial Bodies, Celestial Light, Dionysius the Areopagite, Fallen HostGrigori.  

Information and inspiration for this topic and all quotes unless otherwise stated taken from the
The House of Rites Website.  

Above pictures of Angels

Above picture of Archangels

Above picture of Cherubs


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