Two great things about today’s Feast
First, it’s a feast! So we need to celebrate like it’s a feast.
Second, it’s a feast to honor the Mighty Archangels, which gives us an opportunity to talk about something completely different for a change.
When it comes to angels, people have questions. So I decided that the best thing to do would be to address some of the more frequently unanswered questions in Q&A format. I promise you one thing. I may not be able to answer every question to your satisfaction, but I will leave you with more unanswered questions than you thought you had in the first place. You might want to grab a bag of trail mix to munch on while you are reading this.
1. What is an Archangel?
First things first. They are angels, and like all angels, Archangels are bodiless powers. This is a tough notion for a human to wrap his physical head around, since everything we experience has some kind of physicality to it. This is because we grasp everything through our bodily senses. Yes, that even applies to our knowledge of God. Everything we’ve learned about God (and angels) was learned through the medium of the senses. So you are probably asking yourself right now, “How can we possibly grasp God, who obviously isn’t physical, by using our senses?”
That’s a great question, which I cannot answer now, because we are talking about angels. But suffice it to say (and this is important for our further discussion), that unlike angels, who do not have bodies, everything we know has to be proportioned to our sentient way of understanding. Thus, in order for us to understand God, God has to step down to our level of understanding. Since God is all-powerful and he made us the way he made us, he knows how to do that.
It is hard to grasp what an angel is without using our imagination; in fact, it is quite impossible. But if you can abstract from that image of an angel you are picturing right now, think of it this way: pure but not unlimited intelligence. Pure in the sense that it is purely spiritual and does not depend on neuron-firings in order to function properly; limited in that this intelligence is not omniscient, and hence, like all creatures, it depends on God for its ability and the scope of that ability.
The more difficult question to answer is what specifically is an Archangel. Traditionally, we hold that Archangels hold a determinant rank in the order of angels, of which there are 9 Choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels (i.e., Guardian Angels). Note that Archangels rank second to the bottom in this hierarchy of angels (courtesy of Pseudo-Dionysius). If you thought that Archangels were in the upper echelons of the spiritual realm, you may still be right. There is a tradition to support that too (we are not talking about tradition with a capital T here folks), and both traditions are biblical and have sparked unending speculation (thanks primarily to Pseudo-Dionysius). There are too many references to cite, but click here if you are interested.
Another way to understand what Archangels are is to consider what they do.
2. What do Archangels do?
First and foremost, Archangels are messengers of God (as the etymology suggests: arche = chief; angelos = messenger). From what we read about them in the Bible, they have been ascribed with various other roles such as protecting individuals and nations, beating up Lucifer, and casting him into hell.
3. What do Archangels look like?
They have wings.
Now if an angelologist were monitoring this discussion he would chime in here and say, WRONG! And he would point out to me that I contradicted myself by admitting that angels don’t have bodies. So how can they have wings?
You asked what they look like I gave you the answer that’s in the Bible, and when people see them in the Bible, they have wings, man! Look it up yourself. It’s all over the Bible.
Of course, they don’t really have wings if they don’t have bodies. So why do they have wings when they appear to people?
Think of it this way. If they are going to deliver God’s message to people, they need to make themselves known. If they are going to make themselves known, they need to appeal to our senses. If they are going to appear visible, they need to appear with bodies. In doing so, they are stepping down to our level of understanding. Hence, the wings.
The wings represent to us that they are from above and that they are stepping down to our level to deliver a message of high importance. So they appear to us with wings for our sake, not because they actually need them.
So there you have it. Angels really do “get their wings” for being sent out on special missions. Whether or not they have to earn them is a question for Hollywood.
4. How many Archangels are there?
There are somewhere between three and one-willion-gillion Archangels in existence. The number of named Archangels varies among the different Christian traditions. Many Protestant churches only recognize Michael as an Archangel, since he is the only one named in the Bible as such (Jude 1:9). This does not mean they believe that there are no other Archangels besides Michael, but that the Authority of Scripture only names one specifically. The Catholic Church considers Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the three angels mentioned by name in the Catholic cannon of Scripture, to be Archangels — their feast is the one we celebrate today.
Many Anglicans include a fourth, Uriel, who is mentioned in the Fourth Book of Esdras (not included in the Catholic Cannon of Scripture but referenced by several Church Fathers). Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize seven Archangels by name, the ones depicted in the icon above, namely, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Raguel, Remiel, and Saraqael. These angels are mentioned in the First Book of Enoch, which is not part of the Catholic Cannon, but is referenced in the Letter of St Jude (1:14-15).
Besides these specifically named Archangels, there could be a plethora more included among the myriads and myriads of legions of angels, who watch over us and constantly gaze on the Face of God.
5. How can they constantly gaze on the Face of God and pay attention to us at the same time?
Being the powerful intellectual and spiritual beings that they are, angels are incredible multi-taskers. To understand why this is and how this is possible, you need to recall that they don’t have bodies; therefore, they don’t have eyes; therefore… how do they even gaze on the Face of God in the first place? And what does the God’s Face look like if it is not physical?
Put aside those thoughts about Christ’s glorified body in heaven for a moment, and try to consider what an angel “sees” in the Beatific Vision, or even what he sees before he possesses the Beatific Vision (How’s that trail mix, by the way?).
Vision is an analogical term, if you can see what I mean. In the way that we see with our eyes, angels see with the mind. There are two ways in which angels see things. The first way is through infused knowledge. Their intellects are created with the ability to grasp certain things immediately, in the way that our eyes grasp colored objects immediately. They know who they are, where they are from, what their powers are, and where this all came from, and certain other things that are far beyond our comprehension, like angelology, for instance.
If they are humble enough to accept things the way they are, they turn to God and merit the Beatific Vision. They will see the Face of God for all eternity and never fall out of God’s presence.
In the Beatific Vision they see all things in God to the extent that their limited intellects will allow. They see us in God as God sees us and according to God’s plan for us. Thus, they are constantly watching over us, with pure vision, through, with, and in God. That’s better than the way we actually see ourselves. What do they do with that knowledge? They pray!
I’m No Angel!
Like I said before, once we set out trying to answer questions about angels, we find ourselves with many more unanswered questions. But I think that entertaining these questions is good, because it also raises questions we might want to consider about ourselves and perhaps helps us to understand ourselves more deeply, or at least to leave us more assured that we’re not angels.
We could go on and on about angels and still not find answers to all our questions. Tuesday, the memorial of the Guardian Angels, will present us with another occasion to talk about them a little more. Hope to see you then!