In my previous post on exorcisms, I talked about demons and the ongoing spiritual warfare they wage on us humans. As a follow up to that post I’d like to elaborate a bit more on the nature of angels and their relationship with mankind. Nowadays, there seem to be a lot of confusion and misconceptions surrounding the heavenly hosts. After all, we see their beautiful winged images depicted everywhere: from decorative garden statues to the porcelain figurines gathering dust over your grandmother’s fireplace. It seems that angels are all around us, in every sense. With so many different opinions and interpretations being circulated out there, I think it would be best if we had a little clarification as to what is fact and what is fiction.
What exactly are angels?
Angels are God-created beings made of pure spirit. They are non-corporeal (meaning they have no bodies), intelligent and perfect immortal beings that have free will and who, since creation, chose to love and to serve God with all their being for all eternity (CCC 328-330). Of course there are the angels that chose not to serve God, but we no longer call them angels, we refer to them as demons. Let us take a brief moment to see what the Catechism has to say about this.
“The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “the devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.” Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and His reign.” – CCC 391-392
While we do not know all the exact particulars of “The Great Fall,” we do know that since then, Satan and his fallen angels have tried to tempt man into turning away from their Creator as well — even being so bold as to try and tempt the Son of God Himself. As there is a hierarchy of demons, there are also various categories of angels (nine to be precise), but we will get to that a little later on. Enough about the fallen ones; let us turn our attention back to the nature of angels.
Like us humans, each and every angel was made uniquely with its own individual personality and “mission” to fulfill. According to St. Thomas Aquinas each angel is in and of itself a different species entirely from all the other angels. Despite being so very individual by nature, they are all united in solidarity and communion as personal ministers to God. For they were made by and for God like us; however, unlike us, the angels are in perfect alignment with the Will of God and never hesitate to fulfill His wishes. Now that we know what angels are, it is important to know what angels do. In fact, the word “angel” really doesn’t describe what they are (pure spirit), but rather what they do.
The word “angel” comes from the Latin word angelus (aggelos in Greek), which in Hebrew means “one sent.” A more common definition is, “messenger.” As their name suggests, angels were used by God to deliver messages to various people throughout salvation history. It was an angel that the Lord sent to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac; most notably, it was the archangel Gabriel who appeared to our Blessed Mother during the Annunciation. Let us also not forget that it was an angel who comforted our Lord during His agony in the garden and who also announced His glorious resurrection from the tomb.
However, angels aren’t simply messengers, they are also servants of God. All of the Heavenly Hosts are ministers to His throne.
“Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are His angels: (“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him…”) They belong to Him because they were created through and for Him: (“for in Him all things were created in Heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through Him and for Him). They belong to Him still more because He has made them messengers of His saving plan: (“Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?”) — CCC 331
Angels live in the presence of God at all times, though they are also beside us at every moment; this is because they are pure spirit and not made of matter like us. The angels are like a link between the seen and the unseen. Though many people have claimed to have seen angels throughout history, most of us, unless given a special exception by God, can only know angels in a general sort of way until we are able to reach Heaven ourselves. However, just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t constantly trying to help us. Just as demons can influence our thoughts and imaginations in certain ways, so can angels. They cannot override our free wills, but they can suggest things to us, inspire us, or influence us to keep praying. It is important to remember that the angels are always on our side, working with us and for us, protecting us, and incessantly interceding on our behalf before God.
Now that we have a better understanding of what angels are, let’s clear up one common misconception of them.
What Angels are NOT:
There is a widespread belief that whenever a loved one dies they become an angel in Heaven. They do not. As stated, angels are beings made of pure spirit, which makes them an entirely different species (if you will) than humans. We humans were made by God as body and spirit. Although when we die our souls separate from our bodies, our souls — though immortal — do not transform into angels. When we die we will join the angels in Heaven, but we will join them as saints not as fellow angels. On The Last Day we humans will be raised up and reunited with our bodies in a glorified state like the resurrected Jesus. However, the angels will still be pure spirit as they always have been.
The 9 Choirs of Angels:
As I mentioned before the angels are separated into individual choirs, or groupings if you prefer. These choirs are not levels where angels can, in a sense, “level up” or “level down”; they are more like categories into which angels are separated according to their essential natures. Below I have listed the choirs in “rank” from the lowest level of angels to the highest. It is important to note that not much can be known about angels until we reach Heaven. However, I have attempted to gather as much information as I could on the subject of each choir. Again, I must stress that angels are beings made of pure spirit. They do not have bodies as we do so they can take the visible form of anything they wish. What I have compiled below is a pithy summary of each choir.
Although all of the heavenly hosts are given the name “angel,” the title of “angel” is specifically ascribed to those of this order. Angels are classified as being the closest to us human beings and our material world. These angels deliver the prayers of the faithful to God, as well as His responses and other messages back to human beings. Because they are the closest to us they are often used to lead and guide us, as well as to protect us. Guardian angels are placed in this general “angel” class, considered the most numerous class of all the angels. Perhaps because of their great number, angels can appear in many different forms. Their appearances seem to be as unique and varied as they are.
The archangels are mentioned both in the New and Old Testaments; in fact, they are alluded to more frequently than any other angels in sacred scripture. These angels are in charge of delivering God’s most critical messages to humans, as well as being charged with his most important of tasks. In Greek the name archangel translates to “chief messenger” or “chief angel.” Note that each archangel may belong to different hierarchies; St. Michael is said to be a “princely seraph” or “prince of the seraphim” in the Eastern Rite.
There are said to be seven archangels, though scripture only specifically names three, St. Michael (Daniel, Epistle of St. Jude, and Revelation), St. Gabriel (Daniel and Luke), and St. Raphael (Tobit [Tobias]). St. Michael has been known as the patron and protector of the worldwide church since it was he who led the charge against Satan and the fallen angels during the Great Fall. His name is actually a taunt that means “who is like God?“.
St. Gabriel’s name means “strength of God,” and he is mostly seen as a celestial messenger appearing to both Zechariah and the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce the forthcoming births of St. John the Baptist and Our Lord Jesus. St. Gabriel is the patron saint of messengers, while St. Raphael is the patron of travelers, the blind, bodily ills, and medical workers. St. Raphael is associated with healing due to his curing the blind man Tobit and for his namesake, which is “remedy of God.” It is because of St. Raphael that we know there are seven archangels: “I am Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the throne.” – Tobit (Tobias) 12:15
Not much is known about this mysterious group of angels. The principalities, also called “rulers,” are said to govern and care for territories such as nations and cities.
As with the principalities, there is very little information about the powers. What we do know about them is that the powers are warrior-like angels that confront and battle against all evil that threatens or opposes God’s plans.
The virtues, also called “the shining ones,” are believed to hold dominion over all of nature and the elements. Their name is associated with power and strength. There is a tradition that says that the virtues have a role in helping humans by strengthening their faith and encouraging them to trust more in God. Sadly, their appearance in visible form is still unknown.
The dominions, or dominations, are angels of authority and leadership. They govern and regulate the duties of the lesser choir of angels.
To be honest, I couldn’t find much information about the thrones and the few resources that I could find seemed to conflict. So the information I have collected about them can be taken with a grain of salt. The thrones are said to contemplate the power and justice of God and in some circles are considered to be the carriers of God’s throne. In Daniel 7:9-10 we read: “As I watched, Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him. The court was convened, and the books were opened.” This seems to add a bit of credence to the theory that the thrones are great wheels-within-wheels covered with a multitude of eyes that house the souls of the cherubim. The thrones are usually depicted as being close together with the cherubim.
Contrary to popular belief, the cherubim (or cherubs) are not adorable pudgy infants with cupid-like wings. In fact, if we read the descriptions of them given in the Book of Ezekiel, they are quite holy and terrifying creatures to behold:
“Such was the vision I saw; four wheels beside four cherubim, one by each, and their color shewed like aquamarine; all alike had the same appearance, of a wheel within a wheel. Moved they to this quarter or that, they followed ever without ado the lead of the foremost; there was no turning about when they moved. Eyes were everywhere, on body and neck and hand and wing and wheel too, for each cherub had its own wheel. (It was these wheels I had heard spoken of as the whirring. Fourfold was the semblance of them, now cherub, now man, now lion, now eagle. They rose aloft, these cherubim, (such living figures as I had seen by Chobar; the wheels accompanying them as they went, never left behind, but still at their side when they spread their wings for flight, resting when they rested, rising when they rose; these too had a living impulse in them), and therewith the bright presence of the Lord left the temple threshold, and stood there, cherub-throned. With my own eyes I saw them, as they spread their wings and rose aloft; saw the wheels follow as they went; saw a halt made at the eastern gate of the temple, and the Lord’s bright presence resting above them. Full well I knew that cherubs they were, these living figures I had seen bearing God’s throne by Chobar, each with four semblances, and four wings, and human hands shewing under their wings; the same faces, the same looks, I had seen by Chobar, the same onward impulse of their journeying.” (Ezekiel 10:9-22)
So cherubs probably looked a lot closer to this than to the image above:
Second only to the seraphim, the cherubim are said to be the guardians of God’s glory. Their namesake means “fullness of wisdom,” for they are said to contemplate God’s divine providence and plans for His creatures. Though not much is known of the cherubim, their likenesses are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as decorations or ornamentation of the Jewish Sanctuary. Two golden cherubim were placed on the lid of the Ark of The Covenant (Exodus 25:18-21). Also, in Exodus 26:31 we see that the Veil separating The Holy Place from the Holy of Holies had embroidered cherubim on it in colors of blue, scarlet, and purple with fine twined linen. In 1 Kings:6 it is said that Solomon placed two olive-wood cherubim plated in gold in the place of the Holy of Holies. There are more instances besides these where the image of the cherubim was used as a popular artistic choice.
The seraphim stand in the presence of God’s throne and act as His ministers, attendants, and guardians. Seraphim, or “the burning ones” as their name translates, are the highest order of angels and are said to have the most “flaming intense love for God.” Despite being of the highest rank they are only ever mentioned once in the Bible, in Isaiah 6:1-4:
“In the year of king Ozias’ death, I had a vision. I saw the Lord sitting on a throne that towered high above me, the skirts of his robe filling the temple. Above it rose the figures of the seraphim, each of them six-winged; with two wings they veiled God’s face, with two his feet, and the other two kept them poised in flight. And ever the same cry passed between them, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; all the earth is full of his glory. The lintels over the doors rang with the sound of that cry, and smoke went up, filling the temple courts.”
On September 29th the church celebrates the feast day of the archangels St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael. On October 2nd we celebrate the feast day of the guardian angels. The angels are always protecting us and interceding on our behalf, so offer up a thank you every now and then to the heavenly hosts for all they do for us. Let us always be mindful of those angels who are constantly guarding us and guiding us towards salvation, and let us not forget the prayer to our guardian angels: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love commits me here. Ever this day (night) be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.” Amen.
Tags » angels, catholicism, guardian angels, nine choirs of angels, theology