Edward Burne-Jones

ANGELS ARE MYSTERIOUS BEINGS. Here in the West they're mentioned in just about every second love song and we're surrounded by images of them at Christmas, but most of us really have only the vaguest idea of what angels are. This is not just a modern attitude, it has almost always been the case. Even at the height of their confidence most Christian authorities have had a problem with angels. They could not be ignored, but they also raised some tricky theological questions. So most churches have discouraged curiosity about angels, taking their lead from St Paul's famous warning against them: "Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind" Colossans 2:19.

JESUS ON THE OTHER HAND had no such reservations, which says something about the differences between him and St Paul. Thanks to the glowing accounts of angels in the Gospels they could not be banished entirely from the cosmological picture, but they were pushed as far as possible to the margins and St Paul was quoted when people asked too many questions. People were encouraged to relate to their personal guardian angels, but that was about it. They were allowed to know the two or three names of archangels actually mentioned in the full Bible, but wanting to know more was frowned upon.

LUCKILY SOME PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS IGNORED this disapproval and there has always been a lively underground tradition about angels within Christianity, as in Islam and Judaism. In fact, ideas about angels have always circulated freely between the three cultures with none of their usual bickering and warfare; and more recently they have made themselves quite at home in New Age and even pagan circles. This is a general characteristic of angels: they seem able to transcend many, if not all, of the usual boundaries.