As is expressed by St. Gregory the Theologian in his Oration 38 Section 10 with the concepts of the “first” and the “second” worlds, Orthodox Christianity understands that creation is both visible and invisible. The visible creation is, of course, the world in which we are a part and interact with on a daily basis. When we speak of the invisible creation, we are primarily speaking about angels, also known as the bodiless powers.
Unlike many of the angels portrayed in popular culture (such as Clarence earning his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life), the Orthodox Church understands angels to be an entirely different order of creation than human beings and none of us are destined to become one of that order. Rather, angels are understood to be (as St. Gregory mentions) “radiances…intelligent spirits, or a kind of immaterial and bodiless fire, or some other nature as close to those just mentioned possible.”
As can be seen by St. Gregory’s reluctance to definitively attribute any kind of characteristic to the angels, the appearance of angels in the experience of the Orthodox Church is manifold in character. Sometimes they appear as men (see Joshua 5:13-14) and sometimes as fantastic beasts with multiple eyes, wings or other strange features (see Gen 3:24; Eze 10:1; and Rev 4:6). This variety can simply be chalked up to the limitations of language to describe the experience of an encounter with one of the bodiless powers.
The word angel literally means “messenger.” This function of the angelic powers is best personified by Gabriel, who, at the Annunciation, gave the message to the Virgin Mary that she was to give birth to the Christ.
The prayers of the Orthodox Church also call out for the protection of the bodiless powers (from the Apolytikion of the Synaxis of the Archangels on Nov. 8):
O Commanders of the Heavenly Host, we the unworthy beseech you, that through your entreaties you will fortify us, guarding us in the shelter of the wings of your ethereal glory, even as we fervently bow before you crying: ‘Deliver us from all danger, as Commanders of the Powers on high!’
This function is best personified by the Archangel Michael who helps defeat the Persians in Daniel Chapter 10, battles the devil for the body of Moses in Jude 1:9, battles Satan and his angels in Revelation 12:7-9 and is revealed as the protector of the people in the end times in Daniel Chapter 12.
One might be tempted to ask (indeed, St. Gregory does rhetorically ask) what any of this has to do with Christmas. We must understand who we are and who we are not in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what occurred at the Birth of Christ. If, as It’s a Wonderful Life posits, we merely become angels when we die what did Christ accomplish by becoming human? We will be these bodiless things that are still subject to change and still part of fallen creation. In other words, Christ didn’t accomplish anything. If, however, Christ became a human being to renew our humanity and to allow us a path to fulfill the image and likeness according which we were made, then Christ’s Incarnation is truly the most important event in all of history.