The Coptic Church and the Western Theology
A Coptic icon of the Archangel Michael from the Church of St Mary, Haret Zuwaila, Cairo
When Calvin spoke about “angels,” he said, “It is also our duty cheerfully to remain in ignorance of what is not for our advantage to know”; and Barth began his discussion of angels with so much hesitation. The western theologians are inclined to avoid talking about the heavenly creatures, looking to modern man even though he has no objection to the existence of angels theologically or logically but he does not like to describe them on psychological bases, looking to this speech as a kind of myth and imagination. As for the Coptic Church, we find that the heavenly creatures have had their own strong print on the writings of the Fathers of Alexandria, especially Origen, as well as on her hymns, feasts, icons, church buildings etc.
Concerning the patristic writings, there was a clear line of thought as regards to the heavenly creatures in the early church, especially the writings of the School of Alexandrian which adopted the biblical thoughts. For the Holy Bible refers to them throughout all its books, from Genesis to the Revelation. These references throughout the two testaments is not meaningless or without aim.
As to Church hymns, believers who receive the pledge of the heavenly life waiting for being in the likeness of angels chant hymns with the angels, blessing them, requesting their prayers, setting feasts in their names, especially the Archangel Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the four Living creatures, the twenty-four incorporeal priests etc.
The Coptic Church was interested in icons of the heavenly creatures, either portraying them alone, or in the icons presenting events of the life of Christ, or in the icons of saints as they appear holding crowns on top of the saints’ heads. These indicate the accessibility of heaven to the believers, and that believers struggle to attain resemblance to angels.
Angels are highly considered, when we speak about the Church as an icon of heaven. In the “Doxology of Morning” we sing: “Hail to the church, the house of the angels.” The Church as defined by an ancient Coptic homily is “a place of consolation, a place of meetings of angels and a place of the Cherubim and the Seraphim.”
The Church and the Ministry Of Angels
St. Paul the Apostle speaks about the angels as “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” Heb. 1: 14. This does not mean that they are less in rank or glory than believers, but means that they love them and serve them for their salvation. What is their ministry to the believers?
1. The suffering church finds a kind of heavenly joy through her feeling that she is accompanied by angels, her heart is involved in the eternal glory and the communion with the heavenly creatures,
Therefore Origen says “do not waver at the solitude of the desert; it is during your sojourn in the tents that you will receive the manna from heaven and eat the bread of angels. 11
2. Stephen the Deacon, and Paul the Apostle spoke about the active role of angels in receiving the Law (Acts 7:35; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2-3). Origen states that angels are friends of the Groom who prepare the Church – people of God – during the time of her espousal to meet the Groom personally. He says “When I was preparing myself for my marriage with the Son of the King and the Firstborn of every creature, the holy angels followed me and ministered to me, bringing me to Law as a wedding presented”. [These are the angels who are called the guardians of children and who always see the face of the Father in heavenly].
St. Clement of Alexandria refers to Daniel (10:13-21) when he says: “The presiding powers of the angels have been distributed according to the nations and the cities.
3 . The coming of the Groom, our Lord Jesus Christ, does not stop the work of the angels nor their acting love on behalf of the Kingdom of Christ within us. The New Testament declares the appearance of angels throughout the life of Christ on earth from the announcement of His incarnation till His Ascension. Origen states: “When the angels saw the Prince of the heavenly host touring the places of earth, followed the way He had opened, following their Lord and obeyed the Will of Him who put those who believe in Him under their guardianship. The angels are in the service of your salvation… They say among themselves, “If He has put on mortal flesh, how can we remain doing nothing? Come, angels, let us all descend from heaven.” That is why there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels71.
St. Athanasius states that angels who descended from heaven to announce the coming of Christ, ascended to heaven on His ascension to announce to the heavenly creatures that they might open their doors to the King of Glory.
4. Origen clarifies the communion of the Church with the heavenly creatures, for he says: [If the angel of the Lord encompass those who fear God and brings them deliverance (Ps. 33:8), it would seem that when a number of people duly meet together for the glory of Christ, each will have his own angel, encompassing him, since they all fear the Lord. Each angel will be with the man he has been commissioned to guard and to direct. Thus when the saints assemble, there exist two churches one of men and the other of angels].
St. Clement of Alexandria sees that angels have their own role in helping clergymen in the ministry of the children of God, and Origen speaks of their role in the ministry of the church sacraments and in the repentance of souls 11, and in helping believers in their prayers.
St. Clement speaks about angels’ assistance to souls in their spiritual progress, and Origen speaks about their grief over man’s fall in sin -3.
5. Origen correlates between angels and our entrance to paradise, especially the martyrs. He comments on the Apostle’s words that we became a spectacle to angels and men (I Cor. 4:9), saying that angels look to the martyrs in wonder, and that they rejoice with us in heaven.