Friday, December 30, 2011

Angels and Archangels

Midwinter-blogging, essay 6 of 12 blog entries on
“In the Bleak Midwinter,” a poem by Christina Rossetti

Angels and Archangels

Watercolor Illustration by William Blake for
John Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim crowd the Bethlehem sky in Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” stanzas 3-4
                        Christina Rossetti

Rossetti was deeply knowledgeable about her Anglican faith so we can trust her to tell a cherubim from a seraphim.  She was also well-read on her poetry, so she knew the literary angels of poets like George Herbert, John Milton, and William Blake.

Since people nowadays aren’t always up on angel lore, here are the basic distinctions:
Angels:  The umbrella term for all the spiritual beings that serve as God’s messengers.
Archangels:  The highest ranked angels.
Cherubim:  Spiritual beings with four faces (lion, ox, eagle, and man) and four wings.
Seraphim:  Fiery six-winged spiritual beings that surround God’s throne.

But even though they signal the holy presence, Rossetti’s angels appear in just two stanzas only to be shunted aside in favor of the terrestrial beings. The breastful of milk and the mangerful of hay rank higher in importance than the worship of angels.  Mary’s kiss is valued more highly, too.  And in my favorite comparison, the baby is content with the ox, the ass, and the camel;  the angels are present but they don’t provide the contentment of the beasts.

Throughout Christian history, there have been debates about the position of angels and humans in the universal hierarchy.  Are humans higher than angels or is it vice versa?  Or are angels separate from the hierarchy, so ethereal in their nature that an infinite number can dance upon the head of a pin?

“Birth of Christ,” oil on canvas, 1597,
by Federico Barocci (c. 1526-1612),
from the Museo del PradoMadrid.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The eighth psalm places man “a little lower than angels,” but some Christian theologians suggest that the incarnation of Jesus as man may have exalted man’s status above the angels.  After all, Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?”

Rossetti seems prepared to begin judging the angels now.  She approves their presence as they crowd around the nativity, but casts her lot with the ox, the ass, and the camel.

The Music Room

Isabel Suckling, known as the Choirgirl, sings “In the Bleak Midwinter”  Up until this point, all the performers in our Midwinter Music Room have sung the Gustav Holst arrangement.  Isabel sings the equally beautiful Harold Darke arrangement.

Reference Sources

Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by William M. Rossetti
Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh
The Achievement of Christina Rossetti, edited by David A. Kent
Christina Rossetti (Bloom’s Major Poets), edited by Harold Bloom
Christina Rossetti’s Faithful Imagination by Dinah Roe
Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time by Diane D’Amico
Genius by Harold Bloom
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose
Victorian Painting by Christopher Wood
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2011 Lee Price

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