Real angels are anything but decorative.

At Christmas, they are hard to miss, either perched atop the Christmas tree or as the angelic choir in the church pageant, and it is rare to sing a Christmas carol without mentioning the celestial beings. But after Christmas, we Protestants pack up the angels with the other ornaments and store them away for the year.

In Sunday School, angels make fleeting appearances as felt board cutouts for Daniel in the Lions’ Den or Jacob’s Ladder. Yet our Protestant church walls and cemeteries are usually without any angels at all, while they abound in Catholic churches and graveyards. There seems to be a greater visual sense of the transcendent in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox world.

The Bible is saturated with angels, especially in the apocalyptic literature of Daniel and Revelation. The latter makes reference to angels 70 times. Are Protestants spiritually short-changing themselves by down-playing angels?

Unlike God, angels are not eternal, but are created spirits who “shouted for joy” at creation. (Job 38:7) They are above the order of men. Sinful humans cannot see God and live. Heavenly angels enjoy God face to face and from such intimacy reflect His holiness and purity – so much so they are sometimes called “the holy ones” or “the sons of God.”

The word “angel” comes from the Greek angelos, which means messenger. They are God’s servants who do His bidding and minister to His people on earth. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:4)

Breaking through our materialistic world, angels manifest a spiritual reality. New Age devotees yearn for the mystical. But to be enraptured only by the spiritual messenger is to fall in love with the postman and ignore the love letters he bears from our Heavenly King, to miss all his royal tidings, announcements, invitations and counsels. Angel worship is being infatuated with the telephone operator and loosing the chance to connect with the Triune God.

We tend to make angels fit our own image, as was apparent at the recent Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit, “Angels from the Vatican.” Early medieval paintings, in which humans are portrayed as slender and angular, are complimented with similarly slim celestial beings. By the Baroque period, not only are the humans hefty, so are their angelic companions.

The heavenly emissaries portrayed in Touched by an Angel and The Preacher’s Wife are exclusively focused on the immediate welfare and happiness of humans, not the long-term goals of God. Our consumer society markets the mystical as cute and cuddly. We assume we can domesticate celestial beings and manipulate them to do our bidding when they are only God’s to command. How could we ever tame the biblical angels who appear like lightening and speak with thunder?

Unlike the charming, cigarette smoking spirit in the movie Michael, angels can be so terrifying to confront that their usual greeting is “Fear not!” Heaven’s heralds are a strong antidote to the current obsession with insipid and cloying angels. The chubby cherub of Western art is based more on pagan Roman sculpture than Scripture.

Daniel isn’t confronted with an adorable, winged toddler, but “a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightening, his eyes like flaming torches, arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze and his voice like the sound of a multitude.” (Dan. 10:4-21) Only Daniel saw the vision, but he turned deathly pale and mute. Such terror so overwhelmed his attendants that they fled.

Angels are identified not only with swift flight (the seraphim have six wings, the cherubim, four) but also with imagery of fire and light. In Islamic art, angels have flames of fire above their heads reminiscent of the disciples of Christ at Pentecost.

One “mighty angel” in Revelation, Chapter 10, is “robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion.” Of another angel, John wrote, “the earth was illuminated by his splendour.” (Rev. 18:1)

Holy angels perform God’s particular commands for nations and individuals, executing judgement and giving help. After Adam and Eve were expelled, an angel guarded the Garden of Eden. Angels helped deliver the law at Sinai, led the Israelites through the wilderness, announced various births and callings and sustained the prophets.

Angels are not automatons. They possess intelligence and will and obey God freely. Some, lead by Lucifer, chose to rebel. “There was war in heaven,” Revelation declares, and Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.” He was “hurled to earth and his angels with him.”

Angels remind us of how much Christ humbled Himself to take on our nature. For man was made “a little lower than the angels” and in the Incarnation, Jesus came in great humility, not as a mighty archangel, but in sweaty human form to suffer with and save not the fallen angels, but sinful humans.

At crucial moments in His life, angels surrounded Jesus. They ministered to Him after His temptation in the wilderness and again during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus tells Peter He could have commanded “more than twelve legions of angels” to prevent His arrest. At His crucifixion He accepts the wrath of God unmitigated by any angelic rescue or solace. He is truly forsaken.

Yet Jesus will come again in glory. “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51), an image reminiscent of Jacob’s ladder.

Even the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost does not render angels irrelevant. In the early church, angels instruct Cornelius and Philip and free Peter from prison.

Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox believe that every Christian is protected, body and soul, by a guardian angel who intercedes for him or her. Their teaching is based on Jesus’ saying, “… do not despise one of these little ones [children], because I say to you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10) Some Protestants believe in guardian angels but do not seek their intercession.

Angels can teach us the selfless song of adoration. The four living creatures, angelic beings with six wings and covered with eyes (nothing escapes their attention) guard the heavenly throne and lead in the worship, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” (Rev. 4:8) Revelation, the Bible’s most difficult book, is heaven’s hymnal and its thrice-holy praise can be echoed by any of us. John hears this ceaseless adoration of “ten thousand times ten thousand angels” as “the roar of rushing waters and great peals of thunder.”

Even in private prayer, we do not worship alone. We are caught up in the worship of heaven, praising God. Protestants too easily slip into “just Jesus and me” piety, a dangerously egocentric and isolating individualism. Although we enjoy intimacy with our Beloved, still He is also worshipped by all the heavenly host.

Contrary to popular belief, we will not become angels when we die. Rather angels will bear the faithful to heaven, as Jesus said Lazarus was borne by angels to the bosom of Abraham. There the bodily resurrected saints will rejoice with the angels in glory.

When we are spiritually blind or short-sighted, angels can be much harder to recognize. The pagan prophet Balaam couldn’t see the sword-bearing angel on the road that his more enlightened donkey swerved to avoid.

Like Elisha’s servant we can be overwhelmed by the visible forces of evil and fail to sense the invisible reality of God’s power encompassing us. The prophet reassures his servant, “Do not be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prays, “O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.” The servant is astonished to see, “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:8-17) The heavenly army serves the Lord of hosts.

Nor are angels always what they appear to be. What looks like a man, can actually be an angel and what appears to be an angel, can be God Himself.

Abraham’s three visitors at Mamre seem at first to be men, yet one is “the Lord” and two are angels who hurry to save Lot from the destruction of Sodom. “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for in so doing some people have entertained angels unawares,” says the writer of Hebrews. For Eastern Orthodox believers such as the painter, Andrei Rublev, the three angelic visitors prefigure the Trinity. In his icon, The Trinity, the Godhead appears veiled as angels, a form Abraham and Sarah, as humans, could perceive.

This brief appearance of God is called a theophany. Other Old Testament theophanies include God wrestling as a man with Jacob and later walking as the fourth man in the fiery furnace. In the Old Testament the expression “the angel of the Lord” is a special manifestation of God Himself to man. “The angel of the Lord” speaks not merely in the name of God but as God in the first person singular.

When “the angel of the Lord” consoles Hagar in the desert and announces to her the birth of Ishmael, she recognizes, “You are the God who sees me. I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Gen. 16) The “angel of the Lord,” that is, God Himself, stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. He speaks to Moses at the burning bush and to Gideon at Ophrah.

Even when angels are simply angels, not God veiled, they can mirror the dazzling light of God’s divinity. Yet angels are still fellow servants, with us, of God. We should not ignore angels but neither should we worship them. Twice John was so overwhelmed by all that the angel revealed in the Apocalypse that he “fell at his feet to worship him.” But the angel rebukes him, “Do not do it. I am a fellow servant with you … Worship God.” (Rev. 19)

Since A.D. 325, Christians have been confessing in the Nicene Creed that we believe “in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…” The Christian environment includes the seen and the unseen. The spiritual and the physical creation are both real and we should rejoice as much in the seraphim as in the starfish. We should delight that our Creator made cherubim and cheetahs, atoms, archangels and auroras.