On September 29, the Church commemorates the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael - angels in the big leagues! Michael is the captain of the heavenly host; Gabriel foretold the coming of the Messiah; Raphael brings prayers before God. Since 1670, the Catholic Church has commemorated the angels of the minor leagues, Guardian Angels on October 2.
In recent years we have seen that angels are certainly not the sole possession of the Catholic Church! In fact, heavenly times for angels now seem to be over, as angels are being transformed into consumer products and advertising gimmicks. People wear them as lapel pins; they cover our coffee mugs, greeting cards, T-shirts, wedding invitations, picture books, bus shelters, and I fear, far too many other things.
Angel fans boast of Internet chat rooms, television programs, and famous stars who have returned in the form of angels. Is the theme of angels part of our new-age spirituality or a fad? Could this blitz of angels and the widespread interest in them be revealing a deep hunger and thirst for spirituality?
Angels are part of many different traditions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. There are wide variances between each of these religions as to their conceptions of angelic hierarchy and form, and there is an intense debate on such controversial topics as corporeal nature, sexuality and even how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In the 14th century, it was believed that there were 301,655,722 angels on staff in heaven. Talk about a bureaucracy!
What does all of this talk about angels mean for us today? Let me offer three points. First of all, if the angels teach us anything, they show us what it means to put on the mind of Christ. What a great privilege is theirs to stand constantly in God's presence, to feast their eyes on Jesus, to know his face and even more, his mind. They look upon the world and on each of us with the mind of Christ. To truly love someone is not only to adore their face and their external reality, but to enter their mind and heart.
To have the mind of Christ is not a boast but a prayer, and the prayer is that we more and more learn to think His thoughts and to see the world around us through His eyes. We have not only the spirit, the love and the strength of Christ. We also have been given His mind. The pagan world, today as in the past, is always happy to tolerate a church that neglects the Christian mind. Even dictators have been undisturbed by Christians who confined their activities to prayer and worship. When we think of how the Christian Gospel inspired and shaped the civilization we have inherited, how it taught generations to look at the human drama through the lens of Christ, and inspired not only the glories of art, music, poetry and architecture but also the thinkers and theologians who swayed our destinies, then we must have a different vision of our religious heritage.
How often do we hear: "I don't want to look at the world through any lens at all, especially angelic ones: I want to look at the facts and let them speak for themselves." This is the great heresy of our times: the myth of objectivity -the belief that the factors of life around us need no interpretation. Anyone who brings some prior conviction into play is accused of ignoring or distorting the facts. But there is no such thing as a purely objective judgment. We all bring some lens through which to see the facts. We all have our lenses. But as a Christian and a Catholic priest and teacher of Scripture, my plea is for the lens of Christ. The angels have much to teach us- they offer us ways of looking at Christ and at the world.
Secondly, the angels teach us about simplicity, about delighting in God's presence. Responding to the question of who was the greatest, Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven." St. Augustine captured this well when he said "It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels."
Children and angels know how to delight and how to rejoice! In the midst of our busy lives, I fear that we have lost the art of delighting and rejoicing! How often do we focus on our disappointments rather than our delights? Is our delight at being given a vision of faith, blurred by our disappointment that the faith vision has so many incarnations? Is our delight at being able to help others tempered by our disappointment that the results of our service are often intangible?
Thirdly, the angels invite us to become angels and messengers for one another. For what is ultimately their role- to be messengers, bearers of words of consolation, hope, peace, joy and protection... To remind others of the beauty and consolation of God's presence... To invite us ever more deeply into the mystery of God... To mirror God and God's glory to others... To gently lead others to God.
The recipients of these messages know full well that the words they are hearing are from God, and the bearer is but messenger. To talk about angels today is not merely okay, it is also therapeutic. Angels appear as a comforting visitation of brilliant light following the death of a loved one, and the experience gives the survivor needed assurance that the person is at peace. Carl Jung, who penned his mind to so many things, discovered in his psychiatric practice that there are strange nonphysical realities that torment and also transform the human mind. He called these realities "complexes" and "archetypes." St. Thomas Aquinas and the early church called them "angels" and "demons."
The important thing is not the terminology but the realization that there are such powers of numinous strength and majesty, that can break in on humans.
There are dimensions of life far deeper and more mysterious than most of us usually admit. Those who have the courage to open themselves to these biblical angels may come to know divine love more deeply. They may be able to reach deep into life and know its meaning more fully. Since men and women are touched by such transforming experiences today, there is little reason to doubt the reality of the angelic experiences recorded in New Testament narratives about Jesus' death and resurrection. Our Christmas hymns describe a world more fully real than the materialistic world in which so many of us have been brainwashed. The drama of Christmas may well be giving us one of our deepest glimpses into the heart of the Creator.
Angels are very important because they provide people with an articulation of the conviction that God is intimately involved in human life. Angels address the loss of the depth of being of a person. As we become a more individualistic society, we are strangely becoming more isolated because we rely on technology and science to find all the angels.
Angels in art especially represent a soaring of the spirit, a desire to reach out. There is much more to life than meets our eyes here and now. So much of the resurgence of angels today and this angel mania is pure sentimentality--devoid of any authentic spirituality. But some of it is not. Some it betrays our deep human longing for God, for whom our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.