Angels and the Catholic Imagination, part 1: Angels are all about God

Angels and the Catholic Imagination, a homily series
HOMILY II | HOMILY III

Homily 1 of 3: “Angels are all about God”
Given at St Paul’s, Riverside, Illinois on Michaelmas 2013

It is fitting that on this feast of St Michael and All Angels, I have an announcement. This is the first of three homilies on angels that I will be giving; part two is next week, part three in two weeks. This morning, the identity and doctrine of angels; next week the scriptural descriptions of angels, and then concluding with the impact of angels on our spirituality and corporate experience.

If that sounds like a lot, well, as angels say, Be Not Afraid! At least I keep telling myself that.

My daughter Twyla told me something yesterday that I wanted to tell you all. In a moment when it was just her and me, driving in our little silver car down the Stevenson expressway, I asked her, “What do you think angels are all about?” What she said was, “Angels are all about God.”

I do not think I could express it any more succinctly. Angels are all about God. The key is the word “about.” It is because the Church teaches that the doctrine of angels is twofold. On one hand, “about God” transcendently, as if “around God”, serving and worshiping God, the countless throngs of angels that stand before God to serve God night and day, beholding the glory of his presence, and singing praise unceasingly “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might” (which we will shortly join them in singing). And on the other, “about God” immanently, the meaning of angels is not themselves, for we are commanded not to worship them; their meaning is ultimately God — they disclose God’s good news of redemption and salvation in ways that we can perceive and then pass on to others. Angels do both: they about God praising Him, and they are about God’s disclosure of his Good News to humanity so that we, too, might more and more praise him and magnify him forever.

The church over its history has seemed to settle on nine different orders of angels, although we ought not take such speculative formulations too rigidly: the nine orders of angels are Seraphim, Cherabim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers, Archangels, and then Angels (which include guardian angels of which each of us has one). The number of angels is said to be beyond our imagination, which is to say innumerable. To me, that is the key thing. Not the nine orders — it is that they are innumerable. That is worth pondering in our hearts what it means to say that the angels are innumerable.

Angels are created beings of spirit; they have no physical bodies and hence are invisible to the eye. So to “see an angel” cannot mean to witness physically with the eye; rather, to see must mean to perceive. For indeed angels have everything to do with perception of all things, all emotion, all truth, all beauty, all goodness. About this I will say more shortly.

Angels are named because of their activity. “Angel” means “to announce”. What they do is what they are named. For example, Michael means “who is like God” because he confronted prideful Satan with that very question. Satan means “the opposer” or “the accuser” because of his accusing activity toward God. Their identity is their activity. We will reflect more specifically on angels in holy scripture next Sunday in the second of the three homilies.

Angels were created at the very beginning of God’s creation, probably (as we will discuss next time) through the very first words of God, “Let there be light” and there was light, that is, angels of the light, which all angels first were, until a certain some of them rebelled against God and became fallen angels of darkness. Because angels are so intimately bound up with creation itself, angels have a strong correlation to our understanding of the doctrine of Creation, including our own stewardship of the world and its inhabitants, and our relationships with other people. Angels can greatly aid us to love both our neighbor and our enemy as ourselves. And so angels have a great deal to say about our spirituality, about our growing into unity with God through likeness with Christ, about theosis, You might say that angels are the original raisers of consciousness, against which all other forms of consciousness-raising are pale comparisons — except maybe a cold pint of frosty alcoholic beverage after the kids go to sleep. But not only consciousness raising, but conscience raising. They help us respond more fully to God’s will and calling, and hence they help us progress spiritually by helping us choose to commit fewer and fewer sins.

Because angels are different orders of creation from man, when we die we do not become angels, any more the vocation of dogs when they die is to become human. But just as dogs are trained by man in a loving relationship, we might say we are trained by angels in a loving relationship, all of which points to God. This topic of spirituality personal and corporate experience will be looked at more closely in my third homily in two weeks.

And so as we prepare to walk to the altar to commune and to dine with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven who enlighten us, guard us, rule us, guide us and all people from the moment of their conception through this life and into the next life — as we prepare to join with the angels at Christ’s table to praise God and to magnify God, to taste and see that the Lord is good, and after we are sent out in mission to evangelize — a word that means to announce well — through our thoughts and actions shared with our neighbors, what I ask you to take away, if anything, are two things: One is what Twyla said: that angels are all about God, about him praising, and about his salvific grace.

And the other is something once written by St Augustine in a short occasional treatise where he responded to 83 questions with … 83 answers. He wrote, “Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel.” If that is true, is that not a staggering thought? And again, not only seen, but perceived.

Every perceivable thing in this church … in coffee hour … once you go outside to your car … you notice the rest of the day … the rest of the week… at work, at home, when you travel…the rest of your life on this planet … the rest of your journey in the next life … in this cosmos, in this universe of countless galaxies!

Every perceivable thing in this universe is put under the charge of an angel, and angels are all about God. If it is true — I don’t know what to say! Does not all of reality light up, as if, pardon me, a cosmic switch was flipped on and all of creation dazzles like the waving robes of those whose faces see God? And what can we say confidently but the words of Jacob? How awesome is this place! This is truly the gate of heaven.

Go to HOMILY II.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.