29 September is the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the Archangels
2 October is the Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels
Even in a society in which public traces of Christian faith are fading, angels continue to have a place. When children die or fall ill, parents often refer to them as little angels. Images of angels with white wings and robes, too, often appear on cards, cakes and cartoons. Although they may have a less central place in Catholic prayer and devotions than formerly, angels continue to point to a world and to values beyond our everyday world.
Angels were also central in the world to which Jesus belonged. They were not always comfortable and biddable companions. They were messengers and go-to figures for the gods who themselves were often seen as terrifying and arbitrary in their relationship to the human world. To be visited by an angel was like having the Federal Police knocking at your door. Your first reaction might well be one of anxiety.
In the Old Testament, which was Jesus’ history and prayer book, angels were messengers of God and often expressed God’s way of appearing and acting in the world. They belonged to God’s world and stood by God’s people to protect them in times of threat. They were rarely given names in the Bible, and then only in the Jewish literature close to Jesus’ time which took an interest in the intermediate world between God and human beings. In the book of Tobit, the Angel Raphael brought healing to Sarah and Tobias, and was later seen by Jews and Christians as an agent of God’s healing. Michael is described in the vision of Ezekiel and in other religious books current in Jewish communities as God’s victorious general in the war between good and evil. In religious paintings, he was usually represented with a sword. In these images of war in heaven, other angels who had turned bad were also represented. They were superhuman, but resembled all angels in being inferior to God.
Angels also appear in the stories of the New Testament. In Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel appears to Mary and to Zechariah to announce the coming of Jesus and John the Baptist. In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel who appears to Joseph is unnamed. Jesus spoke of the angels appointed to children, who stood in God’s presence. Unnamed angels helped Peter and Paul in prison and also acted as God’s messengers. Other New Testament texts also reflect the interest in angels among Jews at the time, which explored the differences between angels and their part in God’s care for his people. Paul, who also warns against worshipping angels, speaks of thrones, powers, principalities and dominions. The Book of Revelation in its visions refers to angels and gives Michael a place in God’s final victory. Throughout the Scriptures, angels are said to accompany Christians in their lives and to give them strength in times of stress.
The feasts of Raphael, Michael and Gabriel and that of the Guardian Angels show how the vision of a heavenly world between the human world and the mystery of God was shared by the early and later Christians. Angels were seen as patrons for people in different situations – Michael as a help in times of war and strife; Gabriel in pregnancy; Raphael for healing. In addition, devotion to the Guardian Angels was encouraged among children to give assurance in moments of anxiety and loneliness.
Among theologians, too, reflection on angels was important for reflecting on God’s relationship to human beings and on the dignity of human beings. To think of angels as pure spirits helped understand what it meant for human beings to be both bodily and spiritual. It also helped reflect on the mystery of God who is outside and yet intimately present to the created world, both bodily and spiritual.
Even if angels disappear from our culture the questions with which they are concerned, the place of human beings in the world and how God comes to our help will remain.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.