Vol. XII, January 2006
The Seraphim with Six Wings (cf. Is 6:1-3)
Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
The solemnities of the Christmas season drew our attention, first, to the humility of our God, and then to the angelic host of God. The holy angels followed Him down to earth, offering Him the same praise and adoration they offer Him in heaven according a vision of the prophet Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Is 6:1-3)
1. The “Homeland” of the Holy Angels: The Presence of God
This text leads us into the “homeland” of the holy angels, that is the temple of God, heaven. The prophet mentions explicitly the Seraphim. But, the main attention is directed towards God.
a) Nearest to God
God sits on His throne, which is found in the temple, the proper “house” of God. It is somehow God in the midst of His creation. His throne is “high and lifted up” and “His train filled the temple.” This indicates His sovereignty, His greatness and majesty, but also His immensity and presence with all things. In His presence are found the Seraphim. The ending of their name, “-im”, indicates in Hebrew the plural and so was understood in Tradition that this is the name of a choir of the angels (we have it also in the other name of a choir, the Cherub-im, the only two choirs of angels nominally mentioned in the Old Testament. The Seraphim, mentioned only here, are seen “round the throne” of God “with six wings” and singing the song which the four living creatures will take up again in Rev 4:6,8. Consequently, the tradition understood this group of angels being the nearest to GOD, placed directly around Him and dedicated to His specific service, the adoration.
b) Created Fire from Uncreated Fire
Their great nearness to God is also expressed with their name. “Seraphim” means the “fiery” or “burning ones.” This reminds that “God is a consuming fire,” as Scripture says (Heb 12:29; cf. Rev 1:15f).
St. Thomas interprets their name with some observations about the “fire”:
The name Seraphim does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius (Cael. Hier. VII) expounds the name Seraphim according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things. First the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly (unwaveringly) towards God. Secondly. The active force which is heat, which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat. Thirdly, we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others. (Summa Theologiae, I, 108,5 ad 5)
What St. Thomas elaborates from the fire, the Fathers of the Church praised before: Standing in the presence of God, the Seraphim reflect God’s splendor and glory, joy and exaltation (St. John Chrysostom). This understanding of the first Choir of the angels finds a complement in the reflection on their wings.
2. With Six Wings
a) Wings as Distinctive of Angels
Generally speaking, wings are the distinctive mark of angels in human art (cf. V. Long, The Angels In Religion and Art: Chicago, 1985, pp. 132-167). The sacred authors speak about man’s refuge and protection under God’s wings (cf. e.g. Ps 91:4). Yet, it might surprise that Divine Revelation speaks expressly of wings of the angels only in reference to the Seraphim here in Isaiah and to the Cherubim. Isaiah sees the Seraphim with six wings; Ezequiel beholds the Cherubim with four wings and the four Living Beings with four wings (Ez 1:5-6; cf. 10:8; Can 7:4-6; Ex 25:20; 37:9; 2 Sam 22:11; cf. Circular Letter on Ex 25:18ff, III, 6), while St. John sees these four with six wings (cf. Rev. 4:8). The “six wings” of the Seraphim are a special though hidden indication of the Trinitarian Mystery of God: “Two” is the symbol for Creation distinct from the Creator, “three” is the number of the Divine Persons; then, six indicates the reflection of the Trinity in creation.
b) Wings as Symbol
From the “spiritual, non-corporeal” nature of the angels (cf. CCC 328) is clear, that no angel has wings. It is only a symbolic expression. “Wings” indicate according St. John Chrysostom “the height, sublimity, and celerity of their nature.” Through wings is indicated first their “home” far above all other material and visible creatures, that is “heaven,” as we saw in the last Circular. Then “wings” make us think on birds like the dove who served as manifestation of the Holy Spirit (cf. Lk 3:21f.; cf. CCC 696, 701). Like the birds with their wings, so the holy angels descend to mediate to us and ascent. Wings also indicate somehow the angels’ readiness in unconditional and prompt obedience: they do willingly and quickly whatever God desires from them.
c) Cover Face and Feet
The prophet saw that the Seraphim covering their face and feet with the wings in the presence of the God Who “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16); the immense brightness of the Divine nature blinds the highest creatures, the seraphim as any other limited being! They hide their face, to confess their incapacity to face God, as well as their admiration and respect. The incomprehensibility of God and His holiness move them to restrain also the motions of their natural will as indicated by the covered feet. They hesitate to act out of themselves. How could anyone presume to anticipate His plans, for “as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55:9). St. John of the Cross understands the covering of the face as “symbolizing the darkness of the intellect in God’s presence”, and in the covering of the feet “symbolizing the blinding and quenching of the affections of the will because of God.” “With the two remaining wings they flew, indicating both the flight of hope toward things that are not possessed and the elevation above all earthly or heavenly possessions that are not God” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 6.5).
3. Christ’s Priests United with the Holy Angels in the Church
This vision of Isaiah is a strong invitation for us priests to review our identity, to measure it not in comparison with the laity, not on the basis of academics nor against any professions of this world. We priests are consecrated to participate in Christ’s priesthood so that we act in His person. If we have to learn from any one after Christ and Our Lady for the right fulfillment of our vocation then it should be from these seraphim who are nearest to God, present before Him in the sanctuary of the temple.
a) The Seraphim’s Temple as the Priests’ “Home”
The seraphim fill today our churches as then the temple, because God is present. They adore and praise Him in our churches with the priests in the Liturgy of the Hours. In acknowledgement of our personal limitations, we should be filled with even more awe than they before His Holiness and Majesty, and cover our face and feet! We should be interested that God penetrates our souls, His Beauty, His Goodness, His Fidelity…which causes in our life order, kindness and faithfulness. The awareness of the presence of the Seraphim should awake in us the desire to dwell in the presence of God that is to remain longer at prayer in the church. Our Holy Hour should become our own seraphic hour in the presence of God, marked with holy fear, ardent love and total surrender, which causes in the parishioners the astonishing reaction of the Prophet “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Is 1:5).
b) A Priestly Ideal
The seraphim are for us priests an encouraging example. Like them, and with their help we can come nearer to the Lord, grow more familiar with GOD. As they help Isaiah, they will help purify our hearts and help us give testimony from a heart filled with God. With their help and under their influence we can become a spiritual and zealous servant of the Most High, who are willing and ready to be called at every moment to any mission. We ponder these angels facing GOD with all they are and have, and understand that we must share this same attitude. It is a training for heaven and even a certain anticipation of it. With the Seraphim, we take our prayer-life more seriously, take enough time for the holy Mass, “the required prayerful preparation for the celebration” and “the thanksgiving to God upon its completion” (CIC can 909); we will take time daily for the full recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. We find a complement in the faithful practice of meditation or interior prayer, in the Holy Hour.
4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
The Church with the sacramental presence of Jesus is God’s temple, Heaven on earth! Where should people find us, Christ’s priests, if not with HIM, or where He is (cf. Jn 17:24), and with His angels! Sharing with the prophet his vision, we learn that the highest and most perfect and privileged ministry and even in itself the most worthy ministry is our service before the Most High(cf. Lk 17:10): We serve Him, like the Seraphim, first of all in the Liturgy, in adoration and personal prayer. It is also the most needed service, because mankind fulfills this one the least! It is the healthiest service because there we turn our backs to the evil and receive from GOD: We will be enkindled with the fire of Divine Love and strengthened with seraphic wings. This ministry builds us up. Let us allow Him to call us daily for an audience.