Vol. XII, August 2006


“Four living creatures…
and each of them had four wings” (Ez 1:5-6).

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Prophets are men of God. We may ponder Isaiah as a voice of the Father who so   loves the World that He sent His Son to redeem us. In Jeremiah may contemplate the prophet of the Son who became man and gave His life under an immense suffering as ransom for many. The prophet Ezekiel, then, is the prophet of the Holy Spirit Who changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. Ez 36:26). The mission of the prophet Jeremiah and his message were turned so much toward suffering, that it seems he did not pay much attention to the heavenly spirits. Contrary to him, Ezequiel’s reference to them belongs to the most significant texts on the angels.

1. “As I looked, behold …”

Ezekiel opens his book right away with a vision into the glory of Heaven, with an entire angelic chapter: “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ez 1:1). “His description of what he saw is much more complex and far harder to understand than that of Isaiah. It is the glory of God, and not the heavenly hosts as such, that he is describing” (Mother Alexandra, The holy Angels, Still River, Ma, 1981, 33).

a) Fire from FIRE

The first signs of what he saw, correspond to the manifestations of the Holy Spirit: “As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze” (Ez 1:4). God made His coming and His presence known through a cloud, on the mountain or in the tend (cf. Gen 9:13; Ex 13:21-22; 19:16 etc.). Similar to Ezequiel, at Pentecost was described the coming of the Holy Spirit with wind and fire: “A sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind“ and there “appeared to them tongues as of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4; cf. Catechism 696-697).

A second point seems significant: “And from the midst of it [the fire] came the likeness of four living creatures” (Ez 1:4). This reminds us first of the Son Who, after His return to the Father, sends men as His representatives, the apostles, bishops, priests and deacons. Here, referring to the pure spirits, we may think of the Holy Spirit. The coming forth of the four Living Creatures from that fire, suggests that the pure spirits, the holy angels, as representatives of the Holy Spirit. Looking more closely, we see that almost everything He does they do.

Three were the symbols from where they came, four the forms how they appeared. Three is the number which symbolizes the Triune God, “’four’ symbolizes the universe” (Jerusalem Bible [= JB] footnote to Rev 4:6). They are creatures, and as such fire from fire, not by generation as the eternal Son of the Father, but by creation and deepened by grace, united with God and yet sent, as we shall see later.

b) Manifest to man

“And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another” (Ez 1:6-9).

A similar vision of these “four living creatures,” as the prophet calls them, is narrated by St. John at Patmos. He saw them “round the throne” of God in heaven: “On each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle” (Rev 4:6-7). This was an important confirmation of what Ezekiel saw. And thus, it was firmly kept in tradition. The commentator of the Jerusalem Bible expresses the opinion: “The ‘animals’ are the four angels responsible for directing the physical world.” (JB to Rev 4:6; cf. also Cornelius Lapide ad locum).

Today, we are all aware that the angels are pure spirits: “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness.” (CCC 330) The angels, therefore, have no body, also no wings. But, in order to communicate with us they have to take on some physical appearance. To recognize their spiritual identity, they do not appear in just any way. The forms they assume have the function to reveal something about them. There must be a similarity between the manifestation and their being or doing, as opposed to many things arbitrary signs among us whose meaning is only known through common agreement like the traffic-signs. So, once more the Jerusalem Bible makes the comment, “The figures of lion, bull, man, eagle suggest all that is noblest, strongest, wisest, most swift, in the created world” (Comment of the Jerusalem Bible to Rev 4:6).

2. The “Four living creatures”

Ezequiel gives in part a different description than St. John does.

  • Their fourfold desciption:

Ezechiel speaks of four distinct beings: “Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. … each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back” (Ez 1:8-10). Face reminds on reason and speaking; wings on will, desire and doing; hands are the instruments for action and foot for going, moving.

The orientation must have its meaning too. The face is in front, directed forwardly, corresponding to the dignity of a person with reason and free will (cf. CCC 311). The face of a lion with his big mouth and powerful voice goes to the right side, the side of action, to annunciation and mission. “The face of an ox” with his heavy body goes to “the left side,” which might stand for the passive attitude of a sacrifice, for blind surrender and expiation. And “the face of an eagle” with the characteristic of his sharp eyes goes towards the back, watching, reflecting, learning from the past.

  • One or four

Notwithstanding their mutiplicity, all that each has is shared by the others, such that they are some how inseparable and belong to each other.    Similarly the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision    have three   pair of wings (cf. Circular of January 2006and yet are only one. Some try to explain the difficulty of the 4 living beings away by saying they are only a symbolic representaiton of some complex, single reality.    However, both Ezechiel and John refer to them specifically as individual beings or creatures.

Hence, we need to seek the origin of their mysterious union elsewhere. Our Lord Himself offers a key. Consider: the angels are included in Jesus’ prayer for union of all (cf. Jn 17:21), union with God and with one another. The prophets saw holy angels, and they live already this union. Is it this union of four which was shown to Ezequiel and which he tries to describe in the way seen above? All have the four faces and yet each has his special characteristic. In the spiritual union, each keeps his identity and yet unites himself with the others.

This could be one of the reasons, why “since Irenaeus, these four creatures have been used as symbols of the four evangelists” (Comment of the Jerusalem Bible to Rev 4:6); and the four evangelist wrote in four different perspectives about the one life of Jesus. A similar observation we can make about four fundamental characteristics of our spirituality in the Opus Angelorum: We distinguish adoration from Contemplation, Expiation and Mission, yet, how can one of them not be present with the others? We expect that each member tries to live all four, but for the one purpose, to achieve the one goal: the perfection of love in the union with God. Probably, a similar reflection could be made about the man’s perfection: It consists in unification of the good traits of all the four temperaments and cardinal virtues. In the perfection of the Cherubim we see vitally actualized that to which God calls us too. Consequently, our prayer to them will help us to this perfect union.

3. Bearer of the Word

To approach them still further, may help us in our special relationship to the Son of God, the Divine Word.

  • Familiar with the Son of God

We can relate them to the Son of God. With regards to the foot, this can be seen as an indication of the incarnation, through which He, Who “touched heaven while standing on the earth” (Wsd 18:16), blessed “every place that the sole of” His foot tread upon (cf. Jos 1:3), and went after each lost sheep (cf. Lk 15 and Jn 10). The hands indicate God’s healing power which appeared on earth in His Son, and His reconciling offer in our stead and in union with us to the Father. The Face indicates Him as “He reflects the glory of God [the Father] and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hb 1:3). And finally, also the wings indicate a very characteristic side of the Son who became man, namely His total dependence and disposition towards the Father, not speaking nor doing anything which he would not have heard before from the Father, but in His mission doing all perfectly and readily as the Father asked, for “I have come to do Thy will, O God” (Hb 10:7).  

  • Servants of the Son of God

Another bases for this relationship to the Divine Son has to be seen in the union of four as the four gospel are one narration of the Life of Jesus; they move and carry the word (cf. Ps 18,10), they act like mediators and messengers; He Himself came precisely on this mission. Or if we think of the Cherubim “on the two ends of the mercy seat,” the image of the future Throne of the Eucharistic Son of God on earth, those who “spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another” (Ex 25:18-20). Here they are with the Son, we can say, to protect and adore Him, as well as offering us an instructive example of listening and attentiveness towards Him, Who is the Word of God the Father.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The attribution of the four gospels to these Four Living Beings through Irenaeus was well accepted and especially promoted in christian art. They may even be represented in your church, or on the tabernacle, the stand for Exposition, or on your ambo. They are an instructive guide to Our Lord and a memorial to union. It should attract our attention, and invite us to pray more frequently to them and seek also with them greater union in our relationship with Jesus. We could also stimulate among the faithful a greater interest for these spiritual helpers.

                                                                                    Fr.Titus Kieninger ORC