The trouble with angels

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Article Scripture and Theology
These celestial beings are elusive and mysterious—but totally necessary.

Once upon a time I believed in angels. Then I got older and gave up childish ways. Then I got even older and became a child again. Once more I believe in angels. You may be presently too old to put your faith in such creatures; or not yet old enough. Wherever you stand on the "angel issue," you've got company.

There are troubles with angels that can't be denied. There are also myriad references to them within our tradition from well-placed sources. In this season when angels play a distinct role in the narrative of salvation, the topic is worth further reflection.

The first problem with angels is one of definition. The word means "messenger," but not all angels carry messages. According to tradition relatively few engage the human realm at all. This muddies the waters: If these celestial beings have little to do with the terrestrial realm, what difference could resolving the question of their existence make to us? The biblical witness gives us pause here. If only a handful of angels have engaged humanity throughout history, they've still had, for all their lack of chattiness, a disproportionately large effect.

Try siphoning angels from salvation history and what do you get? Some fractured fairy tale fit for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Consider: No one guards the gates of Eden as Adam and Eve take their leave. So they slip back in and find that dangerous Tree of Life. Abraham and Sarah entertain no strangers. Sarah never learns she could have a child by her ancient husband and repels his advances. Lot's family is smashed by brimstone in Sodom. Jacob sees no dream ladder; he wrestles only with his demons at night.

The Israelites get so lost in the desert without guiding pillars of cloud and fire that they give up on Canaan. Balaam never talks to his ass (donkey, that is). Gideon has no one to put to the test. Samson's unusual birth is not announced to his mother, which causes marital distress. Elijah dies of despair under a broom tree. Isaiah remains a man of unclean lips after the first vision and never talks about it. Ezekiel sees crazy things with no guide to see him through and takes to drinking. The see-er Zechariah gives up prophesying after a few chapters. Daniel's three young heroes are incinerated in the king's fiery furnace. Tobit's son never meets Sarah, who dies celibate, while Tobit remains blind.

The old priest Zechariah comes home from the temple, finds Elizabeth pregnant, and they argue about it for the next nine months. She wishes him mute. Meanwhile Joseph finds out about Mary's condition the hard way, and, being a good man, he divorces her quietly. Mary may or may not give birth in a barn, but no shepherds arrive to welcome the baby, and no Glorias fill the air to comfort her.

If Jesus lives long enough to be tempted by Satan, no angels will offer support afterward. He may weep blood in Gethsemane, but who will notice? On Easter morning no one rolls away the stone. Mary Magdalene and friends go home defeated. If and when Jesus ascends to heaven, his disciples remain rooted to the spot, so forget Pentecost. If Peter goes to jail, he stays there. The New Testament gets shorter: Hebrews and Revelation are scrapped for want of a plot.

The point being: Angels fill a lot of holes in the story of scripture. And the Bible's only one of three tiers of sources regarding angels. The second tier is tradition. The Church Fathers have much to say about angels well into the 13th-century writings of the Angelic Doctor himself, Thomas Aquinas. Which brings us to the third tier of information: the experiences of mystics both ancient and modern, who've written a great deal about their encounters with angelic beings.

With so much source material concerning angels, what does the church teach about their nature? Angels are spiritual beings that serve God. Created before humanity, they are unlike us in that they are pure spirit, without bodies. But they are like us in that they were created with free will.

Theirs is a limited freedom, however. While humans can choose to serve God or not in every hour of our lives, angels chose only once: to serve or not to serve. Most chose divine service and remain in that happy condition. One famously chose not to serve, and persuaded others to resist God's will. As a result of this choice, hell came into being-by definition a realm resistant to the presence of God. The fallen angels, later known as demons, have one unwavering motivation: to associate human beings with their resistance to God's purposes.

Angels are not infallible since they are not holy by nature but become so by "original choice." Nor are they all-powerful but rather operate according to their roles in the celestial realm. A sixth-century writer we call Pseudo-Dionysius outlined nine choirs of angels and their job descriptions, which are cross-referenced with biblical examples of each.

Angels have two basic purposes: to praise God and to help humanity. We invoke them during the prayers of the Mass, especially when we sing the first Christmas carol, the Gloria, every Sunday and when, in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, "we join our voices with theirs" to pray, "Holy, holy, holy." For a fuller appreciation of how closely our liturgy participates in the divine liturgy of heaven, reread the Letter to the Hebrews. The Eucharist is perceived as our weekly partnership with the angels, an hour in which reality is the same "on earth as it is in heaven."

But back to the trouble with angels. The advance of science made angel activity seem quaint centuries ago. Who believes today that the harmony of angel-song is what keeps the stars and planets from crashing into each other? Unless angel-song is another name for physics. Philosophy made angelic reality appear more ridiculous by relegating the heavenly host to dancing ineffectually on a pin. New Age spirituality embraced the idea of angels-rather too passionately.

Perhaps it's the commercialization of the angel image that has led many faithful people to back away from the whole notion. We've got angels on our shoulders and for the dashboard, in the flower garden, and perched on the bookshelf.

We've got the tubby bell-tinkling Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life, John Travolta's lusty title character Michael, a lot of gender-dubious figurines on the mantle, and plenty of eyewitness accounts of those touched by an angel. What, if anything, do these offerings share with celestial beings of Christian (not to mention Jewish and Muslim) tradition?

To the extent that "pop" angels do what biblical angels do, they're not all bad. According to tradition angels record the deeds of humanity, carry prayers to heaven, ferry the deceased to their final rest, act as guardians to the living, offer guidance to the lost, and are instruments of God's judgment. Individuals have guardian angels, and so do countries (the Bible calls them "the prince of that nation").

Feathery wings and flowing robes aside, angels fit neatly into the realm of "the unseen" in which we profess faith every time we recite the Creed. Religion appeals often to the unseen realm for alternative ways of knowing: prophecy, revelation, wisdom, and spiritual experience. Might we consider angels the mediators of these events? Angels cannot change our minds or force our wills. But they can enlighten, reveal, even act upon the physical senses like an unseen hand shepherding us out of danger. Human history would not be such a train wreck, perhaps, if only more of us would strain to hear their song: "Peace on earth to people of good will!"

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 12, pages 44-46).