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All about Angels

by Joanne Turpin

A small package with foreign postage arrived in the mail just one day before I received a letter finalizing my agreement to write this Youth Update on angels. To my astonishment, the package contained a vial of holy oil and an image of Michael the Archangelmementos from a shrine in his honor located on a Greek island.

Why? How? One of my daughters, now living in Greece, had spoken with a shopkeeper who had visited this shrine. Somehow my interest in sacred places was mentioned. In a burst of generosity, the man handed over his treasures for her to mail to me.

Here in our own country and time, angels are featured in movies and on the cover of Time and other magazines. Books on angels make the bestseller list. Television takes them seriously too-whether as a topic of discussion on Oprah or in documentaries on angelic encounters narrated by celebrities like Debra Winger.

Gallup polls in the 1990's report that 75 percent of teenagers believe that angels exist-a percentage even higher than that of Americans in general.

Not so many years ago, anyone who talked about heavenly encounters was likely to be scoffed at. Though some people think our times are not very religious, I feel encouraged by the openness I see toward matters of the spirit. Such openness almost invites angels to appear.

Many angelic encounters seem to deal with dramatic rescues. More pleasant encounters can be just as memorablesuch as my own true story.

I journeyed to the Middle East to visit shrines, a special interest of mine. In Syria, I headed for the National Museum of Damascus, where a gallery was said to contain walls moved from an ancient synagogue. On those walls were the first known Jewish paintings of biblical scenes which I longed to see. But the museum had no signs in English, and no English-speaking person to help me. Discouraged, I gave up and sat in the courtyard, wondering what to do.

Suddenly a voice called out, "Come with me, Madam. I want to show you the walls of the synagogue from DuraEuropos."

I turned to see a man in white coveralls beckoning. In disbelief, I followed as he pushed open a door I hadn't noticed before. I gazed in wonder at the priceless paintings. The great figures of Old Testament times--Abraham and Moses among them--glowed in jewel-like colors.

When the man saw that I was satisfied, he led me to an adjoining gallery. He pointed toward a display, suggesting I might want to see it too. I glanced in its direction, then turned back to thank him. He was nowhere in sight.

This was one of those unforgettable moments when I recognized instantly the gift of God's grace, bestowed by a man in white coveralls. Angels appear in disguises of all kinds!

Mystery Missions

Exactly who are these mysterious creatures who turn up at unpredictable times? The Church teaches us that angels are pure spirits possessing intelligence and will. Their dual role is to adore God in heaven and carry out divine missions on earth.

Much of what we know about angels is based on Scripture. Angels are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible. In some instances, an angel delivers a prophetic message simply as a voice speaking in a dream. That was how Joseph was warned to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, to escape Herod's massacre of little children.

As pure spirits, they are of course not visible to the eye. Yet angels can take on human form when necessary. Almost 2,000 years before Christ, as the Old Testament relates, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation. While Abraham had already proved himself to be a man of considerable faith, he puzzled over how this could happen since his wife was now past childbearing age.

One day three men arrived unexpectedly at their home, and assured him that Sarah was indeed to bear a son. Within the time predicted, Isaac was born.

There is no clue that Abraham immediately recognized the men as divine messengers or angels. But once Sarah's pregnancy became obvious, you can be sure Abraham realized that his unexpected guests had come from God.

Centuries later, when Mary Magdalene and her companion went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, an angel became visible to them just as a tremendous earthquake occurred. "His [the angel's] appearance was like lightning"... (Matthew 28:3). This angelic messenger gave the women the joyful news of Jesus' resurrection. Bringing messages is a typical job assignment for angels.

Masters of Disguise

ou may be wondering how a flash of lightning fits in with our traditional image of an angel as a figure with flowing hair, flowing robes and wings sprouting from the shoulders. Both are biblical and this variety points to the pure spirits of the angels who can take on any shape.

When Christian art first began to flourish back in the days of the Roman Empire, artists used both imagination and symbolism to portray heavenly spirits. But they read descriptions in Scripture too. And biblical writers used symbolism as well in order to represent an idea otherwise impossible to portray.

Wings, for example, convey the idea of a messenger swiftly delivering God's word to individuals on earth. And even when the figure has a human face, wings instantly set the angel apart so as to be recognized as heaven-sent. When a ring of light called a halo is added, it indicates holiness or supernatural character. Stories of divine experiences often include light, such as a bright cloud, flashing fire or sparkling clothes.

You'll find the very first mention of angels in an early chapter of the Bible, in which the Book of Genesis speaks of the stationing of cherubim (the Hebrew plural for cherub) at the entrance to the garden of Eden after Adam and Eve's fall from grace.

This particular class of angels (cherubim) is mentioned almost 100 times in Scripture. Depending on which passage you read, cherubim are always winged but may vary in facial appearance. At times they might be viewed with two faces-of a man and a lion. On other occasions, they appear with four faces-man, lion, ox and eagle; as they do in Ezekiel 10. (Four similar faces reappear in a vision reported in Revelation 4:7 and the early Church began using them as emblems for the four gospel authors. John, for instance, whose words are considered the loftiest, is symbolized by the eagle, who flies higher than any other bird.)

For biblical authors, the use of animal images was a way to explain a distinguishing trait of the heavenly creature. An ox, for example, represented power.

Oxen and eagles-however strong and powerful-are far different from our idea of cherubim today. Actually, though, the change came about back in the Middle Ages when artists began drawing some angels in the form of sweet little children. The aim was to express innocence or purity through childlike faces. Somewhere along the line, they became known as cherubs.

The appealing little creatures continue to make regular appearances not only in religious art, but also on Valentine's Day cards and in angel collectibles. The original cherubim, however, express power and strength as well as innocence.

Celebrity Angels

Christian scholars, as well as artists, find angels fascinating. The first major achievement in the field of angelology-the study of angels-occurred in the sixth century, when an anonymous Syrian monk went to work at classifying them in detail. Using the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite (who was an early Christian), the monk wrote a volume called The Celestial Hierarchy. And when the Church's famous teacher St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a "Treatise of Angels" in the 13th century, he kept the same arrangement that Dionysius had used.

These two learned men, then, described three hierarchies (ranks) of three choirs each. The total of nine choirs from highest to lowest ranking are seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and angels.

The first two--seraphim and cherubim-rate highest because they are said to be closest to the throne of Gad, constantly singing praises to God's glory. The only biblical description of seraphim says that they have six wings. Archangels and angels are those sent on missions to earth. The five obscure-sounding groups listed in between intrigued medieval theologians, but not artists. We wouldn't know that they existed if the apostle Paul hadn't mentioned them in his New Testament letters. A man so close to God, Paul had to know what he was talking about.

Archangels and angels are by far the easiest to understand since people have had so much contact with them. Three archangels are named in the Bible: Gabriel, Raphael and Michael.

Notice that their names end in -el. In ancient Semitic languages, El was one of the names used for God. The -el consequently shows their connection to the divine. The word angel itself stems from the Greek translation of a Hebrew word for messenger. The three are termed archangels because of the importance of their missions, which essentially are to deliver God's messages, bring healing and serve as protectors or defenders of the faith.

Gabriel (meaning man of God) is the chief herald or messenger of divine mysteries and is probably best known for his appearance to Mary. His greeting to her is repeated each time we say the "Hail Mary."

Raphael (meaning God has healed) appears chiefly in the Old Testament. In the Book of Tobit, he is responsible for Tobit being cured of blindness. Raphael is considered to be the nameless angel in the Gospel of John, who stirs the waters of a pool in Jerusalem, resulting in miracles of healing.

Michael (meaning who is like God) is viewed as defender of the Church. The Jews of ancient Israel also regarded him as their special protector. Michael plays the leading role in the angels' triumphant battle against the forces of evil, as recounted in Revelation, the last book in the Bible. In the late 19th century, the pope directed that Catholics say a prayer to "Holy Michael" at the end of Mass, asking the archangel to defend the Church during very difficult times. While we no longer say that prayer after Mass, it is often published in monthly hymnals.

Your Special Angel

Angels dearest to the human heart are those in the last category-called simply angels. In the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Church affirms its long tradition of belief that each of us is assigned a personal guardian angel. "From infancy to death, human life is surrounded by their watchfulness and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd..." (CCC, #336).

A strong basis for this teaching is found in Scripture. Psalm 91, for instance, declares: "For to his angels [God] has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways." And in the Gospel of Matthew 18:10, we have it on Jesus' authority that angels watch out for all who need care-which means each one of us. Belief in a guardian angel figured significantly in my own faith, beginning in childhood, when the first prayer my mother and father taught me was the Prayer to the Guardian Angel. They also hung a picture in my bedroom of an angel watching over two little children crossing a shaky-looking footbridge. It reminded me daily that when my parents weren't close by, I could trust that God had someone ever near to keep me safe.

Wings of Love

The Catechism concludes that "The whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels" (CCC, #334).

The mystery is not so much of invisible beings in themselves, but of our Creator's incredible love for each of us, as revealed through the ministry of angels. For that reason, they are deserving of veneration (Veneration is not as profound an honor as the worship we give to God. We worship God; we venerate Mary, the angels and the saints.)

The Church sets aside two feast days to celebrate this God-given presence in our lives. The first, on September 29, honors the three archangels; and on October 2, guardian angels take their bows. You can also show devotion to angels through your prayer.

A special blessing of the Catholic faith is that every time you participate at Mass, you are in the company of angels. They both worship God in heaven and join us in worship at the altar. You hear an echo of the heavenly host in the words they sang joyously at Jesus' birth: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God's people on earth."

Later, in the preface to the eucharistic prayer, the priest invites us to blend our voices with all the choirs of angels in proclaiming God's glory. This time the lyrics come from the seraphim (Isaiah 6:3), the choir of angels nearest the throne of God. In this hymn of praise, we sing: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory."

Pure spirits and our spirits become linked in song. What an angelic encounter!


Top 10 Angel Sightings in the Bible

1. Abraham gets a surprise visit from three strangersangels in disguise-who foretell the birth of a son to Abraham's wife, Sarah, even though the odds are strongly against it (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-2).

2. The least likely people are the first to hear an angel's joyous announcement of the savior's birth (Luke 2:8-14).

3. Gideon, though he feels incapable, agrees to carry out the dangerous mission asked of him by a divine messenger (Judges 6:1-24).

4. Elijah the prophet flees in fear from the threats of the wicked queen Jezebel. He is near despair when an angel comes to his aid (1 Kings .19:1-8).

5. The angel Gabriel reveals to teenaged Mary the startling plan God has for her life (Luke 1:26-38).

6. in a dream, an angel warns Joseph that he must take the child Jesus and Mary to the safety of Egypt to escape King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).

7. After being tempted by the devil while fasting for 40 days in the desert, Jesus is comforted by angels (Matthew 4:1-11).

8. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonizes over the prospect of death on the cross. But with the support of angels, he finds the strength to face it (Luke 22:39-43).

9. An angel sitting by the tomb tells Mary Magdalene and another woman disciple that Jesus has been raised from the dead (Matthew 28:1-7).

10. The apostle Peter, though chained to guards on either side, makes a miraculous escape from prison due to the intervention of an angel (Acts 12:1-11).


Joanne Turpin is the author of Catholic Treasures New and Old: Traditions, Customs and Practices, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.

At Mary Help of Christians Parish in Fort Recovery, Ohio, Matt Heitkamp (16), Nate Ontrop (15), Kim Rindler (15), and Tracy Roessner (15) gathered to read and critique this issue. They know well the picture of the guardian angel protecting a child crossing a bridge.


You say we can't see the angels because they're pure spirits. Wasn't Jesus a purer spirit than the angels?


The term "pure spirits" is used to indicate that angels are creatures without bodies and, therefore, have no gender Only when on assignments from God do angels take on human-or other form. If what you have in mind is purity itself, angels are free from sin and filled with perfect holiness. But Jesus, being the visible image of God, ranks supreme, above all of creation.


Is Cupid an angel?


Definitely not. In the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome, the Cupid image symbolized their god of love. The confusion began in medieval times, when artists often used a similar type of figure in both religious and secular works. (Cupid then was a favorite subject for artists.) Even today cherubic angels and cupids are sometimes mistaken for each other.


When we die, do we become angels?


No. Angels have existed since the very creation of the universe. Human beings are another unique order of creation and remain so after death. In heaven, the Church teaches, our souls will be reunited with our bodies. "In death...the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body" (CCC, #997).


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