Last week someone called me “an angel” for something I had done for them. It’s not the first time I’ve been called “an angel” and I’m getting to like it. At least, it makes a change from some of the other names I’m sometimes called! I’m sure, like me, many of you are familiar with the Prayer to Our Angel Guardian which as children we recited alongside our Morning Offering Prayer. “O Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side to light, to guard, to rule and guide”. But what are angels and what is their role in the story of salvation? The forthcoming feast of Our Guardian Angels (2 October), seems like a good opportunity to explore these questions.
The word “angel” derives from the Greek word for messenger. In most of the many scriptural references to God’s angels, they appear as the intermediaries who serve God’s will by mediating with humankind. They are the deliverers of “news” or a “revelation” and, as such, play a large role in the New Testament. They are there at the birth of the Messiah, the Annunciation, the Resurrection and are also to be found in key passages in the Book of Hebrews and the Book of the Apocalypse (or Revelation). Jesus refers to angels on several occasions, most notably in Mark 12:25, where he states that they are sexless spirits who enjoy the presence of the Father and who will form the accompanying army of God which will return with the Son of Man at the end of time for the Final Judgement.
What theology we have about angels owes a great deal to the teaching of some of the early Fathers of the Church. St Irenaeus (c 135-200), taught that angels were distinct creatures of God and, like humanity, had a destiny to serve and worship Him. Another Father of the Church, Origen (186-255), taught that angels were the original “souls” created by God and that humankind had once been angelic but had fallen into a bodily state through sinfulness. It was Origen who brought the popular belief in Guardian Angels into Church life with his teaching that God had appointed angels to watch over his creatures and his creation.
Yet another Father of the early Church, Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), taught that God had made three creations: the first was the angelic order, the second was the animal and material creation, and the third was humanity. The first two creations were simple and straightforward. Humanity was a different matter, being a”mixed creation” (flesh and spirit). However, by faithful obedience to the will of God, human beings could attain to the glory of angelic status in the afterlife.
I must say I like the idea that one day the faithful soul will be transfigured into angelic glory. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to keep on the right side of my Guardian Angel!