Over the course of a week, we have two feast days which celebrate angels: the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Rafael on September 29th, and the Holy Guardian Angels on October 2nd. Catholics set up altars honoring Guardian Angels as early as the 4th century, and the feast of the Guardian Angels has been celebrated in some locales since the 11th century.
We inherited belief in, and veneration of, angels from Judaism. Archangels Michael and Gabriel appear in the book of Daniel, and Raphael in the Book of Tobit. There are more than 100 references to unnamed angels in the New Testament. Gabriel is probably the best known by name. He alone appears in the Gospel, and announces two births. Gabriel announces to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist, and announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of God.
Gabriel is also associated with the blowing of a trumpet, a matter of tradition rather than scripture. Trumpet blasts are mentioned in Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 4, Revelation 8 and 1 Corinthians 15, but Gabriel is not identified as the blower. The earliest reference to Gabriel as a trumpet-blower comes from medieval Armenia. Much later, Gabriel’s role as a trumpet blower was reinforced in American Negro Spirituals, and even the Broadway musical, “Anything Goes,” in which Ethel Merman belted out the memorable, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.” (Miss Merman was a bit of a brass instrument herself…)
Some of us run into problems regarding Christian theology about angels, because we are disinclined to look beyond the visible world. Therefore, there is a tendency that some will regard angels as a Christian mythology which is no longer credible.
Angels are created beings who, like humans, have the power to accept or reject God. (Think of Lucifer, the rebellious and fallen angel.) They were not created for their own sake – God doesn’t need them, God doesn’t need anything, angels must never be overestimated as demi-gods. They were created as an important part of the salvation economy, both as messengers, and as spiritual and personal beings. They show God’s concern for every creature in God’s world.
We can be of two minds about angels. Quite a few years back, St. John Paul II gave a talk on the subject of angels which was met with not a little skepticism. Yet at the same time, every time you turn around, you see angel pins and angel paraphernalia in shops and on bumper stickers. Angels are one of the relatively few explicit manifestations of traditional Christianity that have made their way into popular, materialist culture.
Why is that? Angels are one of the clearest signs that there is a whole world of spirit to which our radically materialist culture is blind.
Angels are created spirits, personal and immortal, with intelligence and free will, and therefore a degree of independence. Angels do not have physical bodies, but they nonetheless have a special relationship to the material world as messengers and helpers.
The whole life of the community of believers benefits from their mysterious and powerful help. From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. As St. Basil reminds us, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.”
Fr. Bill Donahue