The symbolism is ancient, and I discuss it in All Things Made New. John himself is echoing Ezekiel's vision during the time of the Babylonian exile (1:10), and the image recalls the Babylonian sphinxes or composite creatures known as "cherubims". They also represent the four fixed signs of the Zodiac; that is, the four corners of the celestial cosmos: Aquarius the winged
man, Taurus the ox/bull, Leo the lion, and Scorpio the eagle. For Christians these are also the four Evangelists: Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John. We see them everywhere in Christian art. Perhaps when combined into a single figure, a Tetramorph, they can also be said to represent the integral human being, whose human face speaks for body (ox), soul (lion), and spirit (eagle).
But I think we can also think of them as the noblest representatives of the animal kingdom – even of those animals we see (the ox and the ass) grazing in the stable at Bethlehem and gazing at the child Christ on his throne of hay, or the wild beasts who were with Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism (Mark 1:13). In fact all through the Bible there is a strange correspondence between animals and angels. In the Garden of Eden, God brought the animals to Adam to be named, and one of them (the serpent) was certainly an angel, as we discover later. Maybe all of them were. In that case the submission of the animals to Man for the process of naming would be the "testing of the angels" that legend speaks about – a test which Lucifer failed out of pride, not wanting to serve a creature of mud.
It is not that all animals are angels (I think of a certain dog I know, for example), although on occasion angels have spoken through them. But I suspect each animals species is an angel, and so in heaven we will meet the angel of which our cat or dog or horse – or the more exotic animals we would not let anywhere near us – was an instantiation or expression. Is that a consoling thought, or a terrifying one?
Photo by Rose-Marie Caldecott