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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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..."
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!
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.