Their Meaning for Our World
Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Do we really need Angels? Do the Angels mean something to us today.
Are Angels a fad, a trend, or are they real? Angels seem to populate so many aspects of our lives today -- jewelry, postage stamps, stories, television shows, literature, historical anecdotes, art, religious practice, biblical studies. Attention to Angels seems ubiquitous. So absorbed in angels is the general population that this current interest borders on angel-mania. Like the commercialization of Christmas, angel-mania can serve to draw our attention to the reality and importance of angels in God's creation.
Angels are no myth. They are a very evident and a significant part of history and spirituality. Attention to our Christian prayer-life indicates that we encounter the angels of God not only in popular and vocal prayers in general, but we find them prominent especially in the Church's official, liturgical prayer -- the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass. Angels are an obvious reality of religious history and of biblical study. This popular outburst of interest in angels leads us to learn the role of angels in the Bible and their meaning for us today. Angels are appearing everywhere today. We are surrounded by angel books, angel boutiques, angel newsletters, angel seminars, talk-show hosts discussing angels.
Time and Newsweek have featured lengthy articles about angels. But what does our primary source of information, the Bible, have to say? The word angel comes from the Greek angelos, which means messenger. The word is applied to both human and divine messengers (especially the god Hermes in Greek mythology). In the New Testament angels refers to humans in several instances (Jas 2:25; Lk 7:24; 9:52), but usually means heavenly beings. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word mal'ak is rendered angelos and refers to both human and heavenly messengers. Examples of human messengers are found among prophets (Hg 1:13; Is 44:26; 2 Chr 36:15) and among priests (Mal 2:7; Eccl 5:5). Though our focus is on angels as heavenly beings, the Bible itself employs a wider use of the term.
2- Angels in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament we find three main angelic types: the messengers of the Lord, the servants of the Lord, and the angels of the Lord. Some examples of the messenger of the Lord are found in passages like Gn 16:7-14; 21:17-18; 18:9-15; 22:11-18; Ex 3:2; Jos 5:13-15; Jgs 13:3-23. Common features of these incidents point out that the messenger/angel is not the center of attention; that God enters ordinary situations to encounter humans; that God's action is the key point with emphasis on his presence and action. The messenger/angel seems to be the human shape that God takes when appearing in our daily lives. It is a way of expressing God's distance and God's closeness; that God dwells high above human affairs yet chooses to be directly active in those affairs.
This is a central message that angels communicate to us about God. As servants of the Lord, angels were envisioned as kind of a retinue of heavenly beings who served in various capacities or as a divine council.Indications of this can be found in studying passages like Ps 29:1; Job 38:7; Ps 89:6,8; Ps 82:1; 1Kgs 22:19-22; Is 6:1-3. They are instruments of Yahweh's will and purpose. They surround Yahweh and praise and worship him alone. Angels of the Lord helped to bridge the gap between humans and God. As the role of the prophets declined, angels took their place in the period after the Babylonian Exile (c. 500 B.C.). Instances of this are exemplified in Ez 8-11; Zec 1-8; Tb 5:12; Dn 7:15-16; 8:15-16; 9:21-22. Interest in the angels of the Lord grew immensely during this period.
As the time of Christ approaches an increasing body of nonbiblical or intertestamental literature (e.g., Jubilee, 1 and 2 Enoch, Qumran literature) shows even more interest in the heavenly beings. The angels are organized into hierarchies; good and bad angels battle each other; many angels receive names. Note that the names often given to angels point away from the angel and back to God. Michael means "Who is like God?" Raphael means "God heals." Gabriel means "God is strong." These angels are representatives of God's active presence in our world.
3-Angels in the New Testament
What the New Testament says about angels derives from the Old Testament treatment and what the inter testamental Jewish literature says. As in the Old Testament, the New Testament presents angels as supernatural heavenly beings that form part of the world created by God (Col 1:16). They surround the throne of God and offer continuous praise and glory (Lk 2:13-14S Rev5:8-14; 7:11-17; 19-1-8).
There are many angels (Mt 26:53, Rev 5:11), but only two are named. They are Gabriel, a messenger who brings the good news of Jesus' birth (Lk 1:19), and Michael, a warrior who leads the fight against Satan and sin (Jude 9; Rev 12:7). Paul simply categorizes all angels as "principalities and powers" (Rom 3:38; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:16). Might this be a downsizing after the exaggeration prior to Jesus' arrival on earth? While Jesus at times alludes to angels, his proclamation of the God news centers on God's kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Angels are not a key element of the teaching of Jesus. In Gospel incidents about Jesus, angels figure prominently in three contexts. The first is Jesus' nativity. The birth of Jesus is announced by an angel to Mary (Lk1:26-38), and later to Joseph in a dream (Mt 1:20-21).
The message of an angel guides his escape from Herod and his return from Egypt (Mt 2:13-14, 19-22). The second instance is at the end of Jesus' life. After Jesus' death, his resurrection is announced by an angel at the tomb (Mt 28: 2-7; Mk 16:5-7; Lk 24:4-7; Jn20:12-13). In both the birth and resurrection incidents, the role of the angels are similar to the "messenger of the Lord" in the Old Testament who announces births and watches over life. In the third context angels are mentioned in the descriptions of Jesus' second coming at the end of time (Mk 13:27; Mt 24:31; 25:31; and several times in the Book of Revelation).
These attendants of Jesus are like the Old Testament "servants of the Lord," who surround God's heavenly throne, praising him and carrying out his will. The angels are called to bow down and worship Christ, proclaiming his name above every other name (Heb 1:6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are his angels." (#331). There is a clear impression that some early Christians gave too much attention to angels, and that some New Testament writers addressed that point. Is this a message for us today? Last year pollster George Gallup, a devout Episcopalian, reporting the results of his national survey, highlighted concerns among the clergy that angel-mania "may be detracting people from proven paths to spiritual development~ and that "pop-culture visions of angels impede a deeper development of spiritual values to nourish the soul" (Emerging Trends).
4- What does this mean for us?
What are some conclusions that we should glean from this quick look at the Bible's teaching on angels? First, we should focus more on God than on angels. The Lord sends the messenger and the message or perform the action. Angels come from God and should direct us back to God. Second, we need to place great trust in God's active presence in our lives. God's angels remind us that we are not alone. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, God is with us. Third, the action of the angels manifests God's desire to free us and to protect us from oppression and death. This is shown in the manner in which God delivers the poor, the weak, and the needy. Finally, we can see Jesus as God's messenger and servant. Though not called an angel, Jesus is the one sent by God into our world. He is the presence of God in our daily life, and expresses God's concern for the lowly and the needy. In Jesus, God "has visited and redeemed his people" (Lk 1:68). We can celebrate angels and the important truth they communicate to us: God wants to be intimately involved in our everyday lives. While being open to the good news conveyed by the angels, we too are invited to become messengers/angels of that gospel to the world. We are called to participate in the new evangelization. While the Bible does focus more on heavenly figures, it also recognizes that humans can be angels too.
Throughout the Old Testament God's messengers/angels guard and protect individuals as well.as the people of God. God's providence is exemplified in instances found in Gn 21:17-18; Gn 22:11-18; Ex 14:19-20; Ex 23:20,23; Dn 12:1. In the New Testament Jesus advises his disciples not to ignore or despise and of the "little ones" because "their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven" (Mt 18:10). God's care and protection extends to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that "From infancy to death human life is surrounded by the watchful care and intercession. . ." of the angels (#336, 352).