Thursday, August 20, 2009

What are Angels?

Angels --they are frequently mentioned in scripture, in Pop songs and are often depicted with wings and robes in movies, cartoons, artwork, etc. But do you really know what they are?

What prompted me to write this was my recent visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory in Lackwanna, New York--arguably the most beautiful church in the United States. It is estimated that 1,500 to 2,500 angels can be found in the basilica in the sculptures and artwork as they were a fondness of the church's founder--Father Nelson Baker.

After leaving the Basilica, seems as if everywhere I turned after this visit, I was constantly reminded of Angels and how much more I felt I needed to know about them.

One can write a whole lengthy book on Angels and their role, I will try to keep this blog short.

What is an Angel?

First, it is best to look at what the word angel means. Angel comes from the Hebrew word malak, Latin word angelus, Greek word aggelos; meaning messenger "one going" or "one sent."

So what is an Angel?

This is complicated as the more you delve into the scriptural research of angels at Greek Septuagint level, the more you learn and then you realize that how little we really know about them. And many theologians are confused. Catholic Encyclopedia gives us insight as to why there might be confusion:

The word (angel) is used in Hebrew to denote indifferently either a divine or human messenger. The (Greek) Septuagint renders it by aggelos which also has both significations. The Latin version, however, distinguishes the divine or spirit-messenger from the human, rendering the original in the one case by angelus and in the other by legatus or more generally by nuntius.

Too often I have found in various articles about angels, the tendency for human reasoning to turn angels into a square peg and then fit them into a square hole. I became frustrated trying to do the same thing. It came as a relief to me that I came to the same conclusion as St. Augustine did that it was easier to describe what angels DO than what angels are.

As St. Augustine said:

"'Angel' is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is 'spirit'; if you seek the name of their office, it is 'angel': from what they are, 'spirit', from what they do, 'angel.'"

Overall, here is what I think is the best definition of an angel:

Angel - Spirits that are messengers and servants of God

This scripture gives us the most insight:

Hebrews 1:14: Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

With all the various scriptures that mention angels, you will find that angels come in many different forms and apparently have different roles. There is a belief of an Angelic Heirarchy that consists of nine choirs organized into three spheres:

1) The first sphere of Angels (Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones) are believed to work as heavenly guardians of God's throne.

2) The second sphere of Angels (Dominions, Virtues and Powers) are believed to work as heavenly governors.

3) The third sphere of Angels (Principalities, Archangels and Angels) are believed to function as heavenly messengers and soldiers.

Although this is a general belief of many Early Church Fathers, as Catholic Encyclopedia states: "Though the doctrine it contains regarding the choirs of angels has been received in the Church with extraordinary unanimity, no proposition touching the angelic hierarchies is binding on our faith."

Guardian Angels

Belief in angels is an article of faith but this is not the case with Guardian Angels. We all like to believe that we have a Guardian Angel (I believe I have one). It is a general belief within the Catholic Church that we do. However, as Catholic Encyclopedia states:

"That every individual soul has a guardian angel has never been defined by the Church, and is, consequently, not an article of faith, but it is the "mind of the Church", as St. Jerome expressed it: "how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it."

The scripture that leads many to believe that we have Guardian Angels is this statement Jesus made:

  • Matthew 18:10: "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven."

If you read the context in which Christ was quoted in the above scripture, Jesus was talking about children being the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps, since we are all God's children, if we humble ourselves like a little child as Christ recommended, we all will have Guardian Angels into adulthood.

Can Humans be Angels?

You probably remember the television show, Highway to Heaven, starring Michael Landon who plays Jonathan Smith--a probationary angel sent back to Earth to help people. There is confusion about what angels are, pure spirtual beings or if humans can be angels like the Michael Landon character in Highway to Heaven.

We know from scripture that man was made lower than angels:

  • Psalm 8:5: You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.

There are some who believe that angels can reveal themselves as humans. When Peter was freed from prison by an angel in Acts Chapter 12, many people were amazed and thought at first it was Peter's angel.

  • Acts 12:15: You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel."

I have a strong belief that if a human experiences sudden death and is revived, it is possible that they can come back as an angel--a messenger, not the winged creatures we most associate the word with.

The Mangy Donkey Story

Father Josemaría Escrivá, a Spanish priest who later became canonized a Saint, had an interesting encounter. From Francis Fernandez's book, In Conversation With God:

Once during a time of intense anticlerical persecution in Madrid a would-be aggressor stood menacingly in Josemaria's path with the obvious intention of doing him harm. Someone suddenly stood between them and drove off the assailant. It all happened in an instant. The protector came up after the incident and whispered to him: "Mangy donkey, Mangy donkey," the expression Blessed Josemaria used to refer to himself in the intimacy of his soul. Only his confessor knew about this. Peace and joy filled his heart as he recognized the intervention of his Angel.

I have a similar story, it confirmed my faith. Someday I will be brave enough to write about it.

Anyway, probably the best scripture to conclude with here is:

  1. Hebrews 13:2: Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Peace be with you,

© Michael J. Cox

1 comment:

  1. thanks for your help, this is a topic which needs to be covered!