At the top of the hierarchy

At the top of the hierarchy

This Friday the church celebrates the archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. Everyone who bears one of these names has a name day. Angels are not only found in the Bible. But what is the difference between an angel and an archangel??

Interviewer: Angels are mentioned almost 300 times in the Bible. How to imagine these biblical angels?

Prof. Dr. Manfred Becker-Huberti (theologian and custom researcher): It is not so easy to do that. This led, for example, to the fact that at some point they got wings so that they could be recognized. That is, the painters who have depicted angels have given them wings to represent that they are beings who, as messengers of God, travel between immanence and transcendence – that is, between the world and heaven. They are presented either as youths or as sexless beings, tall and beautiful. They appear in a wide variety of guises; no single typology can be defined. That's why you can always recognize them best by their wings, that's the clue.

Interviewer: What is the difference between an angel and an archangel??

Becker-Huberti: This is also not easy to answer. For there are some who are indeed called archangels in the Bible. But this has led to the fact that especially in the course of the Middle Ages an "angelology" (angel doctrine) has spread, which tried to determine very precisely which types of angels there are at all. One has then set up whole hierarchies, at the top of which the archangels stand. They are particularly large, powerful and known by name.

The present day of the archangels is the day of Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. These names are all formed with "-el" at the end, the Hebrew word for "God". This indicates that they are beings or spirits acting on behalf of God. So they are his messengers and in this sense not independent. They are neither humans nor gods, but beings in between: Demons or spirits.

Interviewer: Do "guardian angels" also appear in the Bible??

Becker-Huberti: They appear in a paraphrased form in the Bible. They are in fact described as the angel who is sent to someone or for someone and accompanies them. In the Old Testament, Tobias and Tobit are figures associated with this angel. Jacob is one who experiences the so-called angel dream. He sees how angels ascend to heaven and descend again, thus taking over this messenger function.

The idea that there is an angel sent to a person to protect them is something that then became especially prevalent in the Middle Ages and again in the 19. Century has developed. This has led to the fact that two thirds of all Christians in Germany believe in angels. By the way, that is more than the people who believe in God. In this way, a barely manageable field has developed – from little angels, from putti hung on the wall in plaster, to modern sects that worship angelic beings.

Interviewer: When someone does something really great or nice for us, we sometimes say: "You are an angel!" – Can we humans also be angels?

Becker-Huberti: I really hope so! We can be it for each other – figuratively, because to be an angel is not to approach someone with an evil intention, but only to do them good. And that is what he perhaps cannot do himself: to hold the protecting hand over him, to accompany him, to think with him, to feel with him, to love with him. The angels are such an image that they are everywhere in our world, especially in language. Because "dat Engelchen", as it is so beautifully called in Cologne dialect, is the term for the fact that I wish for a person as an angel is for me: one who has no guile, no ulterior motives, but is there for me.

I know it still in the form that one took it also into the prayer. As a child I used to say Engelbert Humperdinck's prayer in the evening. Most people will know it: "In the evening, when I go to sleep, 14 little angels stand around me, two at my heads, two at my feet …" One guardian angel was not enough, but there were 14 of them at once, who stood around the bed and protected me as a child.

The interview was conducted by Verena Troster.

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