It is sometimes easy to focus on how sinful we are. Our frailty and failings stand in stark contrast to the life we hope and believe we can live in Christ. Focus on these things too long and we can become very discouraged. But there are reasons for encouragement, and one example can be found by looking at a song about Jesus’ mother.
Orthodox and Eastern Catholic believers sing a short hymn about Mary called the “Axion Estin,” or “It is Truly Meet,” which declares her “more honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”
It’s an ancient song and reveals something astonishing and hopeful about our future because of the saving work of Jesus in our lives today.
Lower than the angels
When the song says cherubim, it’s not talking about the winged toddlers on Valentine cards. Scripture describes cherubim as regal and dangerous creatures with four faces and four wings. And seraphim, fiery and six-winged, are no less arresting. Properly considered, the grandeur and majesty evoked by the words cherubim and seraphim is bracing.
And yet we say that Mary is “more honorable” and “more glorious” than these wonderful creatures who serve nearest to God, who sing his praises continually, who move at his behest. It seems an uphill climb. After all, doesn’t Psalm 8 say that humans are made lower than the angels? Yes, but that’s not the end of the story. And here we come to the saving work of Jesus.
See how this is handled in the Letter to the Hebrews, which quotes Psalm 8’s observation but then adds this:
[W]e see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. (2.9-10)
Passing beyond the angels
This is a mystery for even the angels, as Peter tells us (1 Pet 1.12).
They cannot, says Irenaeus, “search out the wisdom of God by means of which his handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with is his Son, is brought to perfection.” They cannot fathom that the Son of God “should descend to the creature . . . and that it should be contained in him; and, on the other hand, that the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to him, passing beyond the angels. . .” (Against Heresies 5.36.3, emphasis added).
Jesus brings “many sons to glory.” He lowered himself to lift not only Mary his mother, but all of us. He suffered ignominy to give us glory. He endured humiliation to grant us exaltation. He descended below the angels to raise us above them and seat us with him in the heavenlies, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2.
We will suffer like Christ suffered. But it is through those sufferings, faithfully following the pioneer of our salvation, that we join Christ’s ascent and pass beyond even the angels.