Friday, November 10, 2006

More on Angels

“O holy God, who rest in the holies, who are praised by the thrice-holy voice of the Seraphim and are glorified by the Cherubim, and are adored by all the heavenly powers…” Thus begins the prayer of the trisagion in the Byzantine Liturgy. Angels are ever-present in our worship. Here’s another example, before the entrance with the Gospel book: “Lord God our Master, who established in Heaven the ranks and armies of angels and archangels for the service of your glory, grant that as we make our entrance, the holy angels may enter too, serving with us and joining in the praise of your goodness…”

I did a brief survey in the wee hours of the morning on the feast of St Michael and the Holy Angels, to find some of the high points of angelic visitations in the Scriptures. A complete study could fill a book, but I want to just touch on a few points. I first checked the texts on the major archangels: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Michael, arguably the most powerful of them all, is also the most reticent as far as public speaking. In fact, he says nothing at all in the Scriptures, unless he is to be identified with the “commander of the army of the Lord” who appeared to Joshua (Jos. 5:13-15), though there he isn’t named. He is named in the Book of Daniel (chapters 10 and 12) as a “great prince” who fights evil on behalf of God’s chosen people. Then of course he is the leader in the primordial battle against the diabolical dragon, whom he cast out of heaven with the help of his angels (Rev. 12: 7-9). His name means “Who is like God?” and this name seems to be a challenge and response to all the wavering people who felt helpless against the power of the infernal beast, and who therefore lamented: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (13:4). Ask St Michael; he’ll tell you!

Gabriel is the messenger of good tidings (perhaps he was the leader of those who appeared to the shepherds on the first Christmas night, but we aren’t told that). But when he introduces himself to Zachariah, he explains his general mission: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God [always his primary vocation]; I was sent to speak to you, to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19). He brought the best news to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus… the Son of the Most High” (1:31-32). Gabriel is traditionally thought also to have been at the empty tomb of Christ, bringing the good news of the Resurrection to the myrrh-bearing women. He appears as well in chapters 8 and 9 of Daniel to bring revelations to him.

Raphael has a dual mission, along with standing in the presence of the Lord. He brings our prayer to God, and he is an instrument of God for healing. Here is part of the dramatic revelation he made to Tobit and his family: “God sent me to heal you… I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One… And now give thanks to God, for I am ascending to Him who sent me” (Tobit 12:14-20).

Jesus mentions our guardian angels when he says of his little ones: “their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:10). In just about all accounts of angels, it becomes clear that their vocation is to stand before the face of God, and anything else they are required to do is in addition to this primary vocation. The existence of guardian angels was evidently assumed by the early Church, for when Rhoda reported to the assembly that Peter was knocking at the door (they were incredulous, for they thought he was still in prison), they exclaimed: “It is his angel!” (Acts 12:15). And Psalm 90(91) reminds us: “He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you in all your ways.”

Though there are many other angels mentioned in Scripture I will mention only two more, or rather two groups of angels, whose ministry belongs to the end of the world. One group is sent to gather up all the evildoers of the world, “and throw them into the furnace of fire” (Mt. 13:41-42). The other group, “when the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory… will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mt 24:30-31). So both the evil and the good shall be gathered by angels and dispatched to their eternal destinations. Let us pray that when we see angels coming for us, they will be those sent to gather the Lord’s elect!

Let us also continue to be attentive to the guidance of our heavenly guardians, to be aware of the many ways that angels are employed in the service of God’s glory and his kingdom, to ask them to help us according to their missions and charisms revealed in Scripture, and to join them in their worship and praise of God, in their complete and unquestioning obedience to his commands and, finally, to join them in their everlasting joy in the presence of the glory of the Holy One!