5 Fun Facts about Archangels 39

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!

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39 comments

  1. This morning when I brought up this Feast in First Communion class, the kids and some of their parents were surprised that we don’t become angels when we die. (thank you Hallmark cards, et al) So, along with explaining who are the 3 Archangels we honour today, we had a little discussion about angels as separately created beings.

  2. Beautiful icon! Love the fun facts, Father. They in turn highlight the ever-ling and almighty omnipresence of God our Father. I can’t even imagine the importance of the designations of the other 9 choirs of Angels, when the Archangels are second last.! Which Choir would St. Michael belong to? I know he is a warrior, (my favourite angel) Do you know what their purposes are?
    Another fascinating post!

    • The Bible gives us clues as to what the different Choirs do, but much is left to speculation and imagination. Saint Thomas Aquinas leaves a lot of his questions in the “Treatise on the Angels” in the Summa open ended, because we don’t have many grounds to determine conclusively exactly what they do. Dionysius’s teaching on the angels is well thought out, but it is rooted in a deeply entrenched Neo-Platonic philosophical tradition and therefore highly speculative. He explains the order of angels as a hierarchical system divided into three major groupings (all based on passages from the Old and New Testaments):

      First order: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones have no other duties other than to serve and worship God and are unbound to other creatures.

      Second order: Dominions, Virtues, and Powers serve God through the regulation of cosmic laws such as the movement of heavenly spheres (here is where the heavy Platonism comes in, e.g., think of the cosmological theology in the Divine Comedy).

      Principalities, Archangels, and Guardian Angels serve God by attending to mankind. Principalities are protectors of nations; Guardian Angels, of individual people. Archangels are for VIPs or very important groups of people or nations (Israel, sees Michael as its protector, as does the Catholic Church).

      All of this is perfectly possible but it is not definitive doctrine. The Church does not consider Dionysius’s writings to be authoritative, although some of his teachings were popularized during the mid to late middle ages due to a resurgence of Neo-Platonic thought, and because the author of his works was a forger.

      Pseudo-Dionysius addressed his writings to (none other than) St Timothy, the companion of Saint Paul, during the 5th / 6th century A.D., under the pseudonym Dionysius (the Areopagite, i.e., the philosopher who was converted by Saint Paul’s converted preaching in Athens). His writings were very influential until the 14th century, when I believe it was Blessed John Duns Scotus who figured out the nature of the forgery. Hence the name Pseudo-Dionysius.

      So the short answer to your question is I don’t think anyone really knows for sure.

      • Thanks for all the detail. As I was reading the long answer, a few light bulbs turned on as I remembered bits and pieces I had heard about growing up.Thank you for your teaching.

  3. As usual, very educational. You had me laughing with your remarks along the way. Thank you for making your articles “monotony-less”

  4. I enjoyed reading this very much, but I do have one question regarding “angels not having bodies.” When the angels appeared to Abraham did they not have bodies, as it says, “Looking up he saw three men standing near him.” Genesis 18:2 Abraham went to bow to them also. I may be misunderstanding this, but I always took this to mean these angels did have bodies. Do they take on the “form of man” according to this Scripture? Also, in Sodom and Gomorrah were not these angels also in the form of man? We see in 19:5 again they were called “men.” The people in Sodom and Gomorrah wanted to “know them.” In order for them to “know them” would not these angels have to have the “bodies of men?” So this kind of confuses me with the other information the Bible gives on “angels and bodies/no bodies.” Thanks for answering and sharing this. God Bless, SR

    • Good questions, SR! The answers are tricky (which means this response is going to be a bit lengthy… Sorry!)

      The truth is that no one has ever seen an angel. When angels appear to people in the Bible, what the people see is an apparition. Theories abound as to how the angels take on these appearances, but in the end it does not matter. With God’s power working through them, spiritual substances have dominion over matter and can exert influence over other minds to the extent that God, who gives them the power, will allow it (e.g., Satan’s attacks on Job).

      Angels appear to people in the Old Testament under various forms. For example, the angels Ezequiel saw (Cherubs and Thrones) were not in human form at all (See 1: 4-26). Four of them were mysterious beasts and one was not even animal like, but more like a sort of “living wheel” with eyes all over it. The manifestations are symbolic — that is not to say they were not real, just that the appearances these angels assumed were significant representations of their God-given power.

      Sometimes they appear in human form without wings (my answer to Q #3 above might have been misleading in this regard, but my point was to explain why angels usually appear in the Bible and in art with wings — although I did not mention art). When they take the form of man (with or without wings) people can relate to them better as someone like themselves. And they are like us in some ways, but not in others. Any form an angel assumes as an appearance is always a stepping down from his pure, unbodied form.

      Nevertheless, the most common reaction to an angelic apparition in the Bible is total shock and awe, because they truly are awesome creatures, and even when they humble themselves by stepping down to us, they command respect, even with their appearance.

      The angels in Genesis that you refer to have been given many interpretations. Some rabbinic traditions hold that the “men” who visited Abraham, who turned out to be angels were actually a representation of God. It is interesting that Jewish tradition would teach this, since there were not one but three angels who came to visit Abraham on that occasion. Hence, since early Christian times, this visitation is interpreted as a prefiguration of the revelation of the Trinity and is represented in Catacomb paintings and Icons as such.

      I hope this answers the question about the angels who appeared in Sodom and Gomorrah. My own additional thoughts here are that, first of all, the angels would not have let themselves be defiled in this way, but even if the evil men of Sodom and Gomorrah had tried, they would have failed for numerous reasons. Second, because they were angels, the fact that the Sodomites wanted to know them in this way, whether they knew the angels’ true nature of not, emphasizes the depravity of that nation and why they deserved the destruction they received.

      At any rate, like I said, we could go on, and on, and on, and on about angels and never exhaust the questions, let a lone give comprehensive answers. To me that means we are supposed to come up with questions like these. Thanks for asking them!

      • Thank you so much for this wonderful explanation. It makes a lot more “sense” to me now. Somehow on my own, I could not wrap my mind around it all. This has helped me to piece it together. So what is astonishing about that when I ask a question on this blog or on mine to you????

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my question in such depth. Again it was truly helpful! God Bless, SR

    • I think the official number is a googolplex squared… or cubed. I’m sure it is more than we could possibly imagine with all our minds put together. Thanks for the comment, LHW!

    • Thanks, Reinkat! I’m glad you liked it.

      Just this morning, while researching a bit more on this, I found an interesting blog on WordPress. I have not checked it out thoroughly, but I plan to do so. It looks good on the surface. Here is the link in case you or anyone else is interested: http://thelordsangels.wordpress.com/. It looks like the this blog has not been active in a number of years, but what remains appears to be some good research done on angels, as a quick go to, perhaps. … For what it’s worth.

  5. Loved this! As an aside I have to say that I am often intrigued that in Nativity plays, it’s little girls who are almost always chosen to play angels, but the Bible always speaks of angelic beings in masculine terms. I am prone to believing that we need to rethink our views of angels, which are almost invariably clouded by perceptions of them as Tinkerbell-like entities! These spiritual beings are of immense power. Another informative and enjoyable read! God bless!

    • Thanks, Ivan.

      You are so right. The most common reaction to angels in the Bible is utter shock. Tinkerbell-like depictions of angels in art fall short of their representation in the Bible. Perhaps our society’s infatuation with cupid has a lot to do with this.

      God bless!

  6. Thank-you for a wonderful post! As always, I’ve learned a lot. I must admit that I sometimes call my daughter “my angel” even though I know it’s not correct. That being said I do believe she is a gift from God, if not a messenger!

  7. Great post, James.

    And to piggyback on a comment from above, I am sure angels laugh.

    Laughter is one of God’s greatest gifts to us; can’t see how/why He would deny it to angels. Plus, there’s no way they could observe all the stupid things we do, all day, and NOT laugh…or at least utter the occasional wry chuckle.

    That’s not a Biblical conclusion, obviously; that’s just me. :)

    • Right, JTR!

      Irony exists because humans exist. Even the things in nature that we find funny are only funny because someone with a sense of humor sees the irony in it. If everything just makes sense to an angel, then they have to be roaring with laughter at the senseless things we do all the time. Besides, Jesus is in heaven. When he tells a joke, everyone has to laugh.

      • Well, everyone usually laughs at your boss’ jokes, so that’s to be expected.
        The difference is that Jesus has gotta be pretty funny.

        I mean, He knows every joke EVERY, right?

  8. Regarding the statement: “Many Protestant churches only recognize Michael as an Archangel, since he is the only one named in the Bible as such (Jude 1:9).” Too bad publishers of protestant bibles deleted the “Book of Tobit” from the canonical text given to the Church prior to the reformation. Chapter 12 verse 15 reads: “For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord. (ego enim sum Rafahel angelus unus ex septem qui adstamus ante Dominum)” And then we have Luke 1:19 which identifies Gabriel as another that stands before the Lord: “And the angel answering, said to him: I am Gabriel, who stand before God and am sent to speak to thee and to bring thee these good tidings. (et respondens angelus dixit ei ego sum Gabrihel qui adsto ante Deum et missus sum loqui ad te et haec tibi evangelizare).” So, we’ve got the names of three out or seven so far (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) and apparently Pope Zachary specifically forbade using proper names of Angels that are not found in the Catholic Bible. Check out the Forum Thread at the Catholic Answers site: http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=247071 for more on the subject.

    • Thanks for sharing your research. I mentioned the 7 (and sometimes 8) Archangels recognized and venerated by the Eastern Orthodox traditions here, since we have followers from those traditions on this blog too. They are pretty close to us, with the exception of a small schism back in the day; but the Church considers their line of Apostolic Tradition to be in tact, so I like to think their contributions are worth considering. Ut Unum Sint!

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael the Archangels, pray for us! Dear Jesus, Thank You for all the graces You have bestowed upon Saints Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and all of Your Archangels, Angels and Saints. In Thy great mercy, forgive our sinfulness, heal our brokenness and renew our hearts that we may be one with Thee. Dear Virgin Mother we beseech thee to please offer up to the Eternal Father a drop of Jesus’ blood, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today for: the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for the unity of the Church Militant and for all those for whom love and duty bid us pray, Amen.

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