The Mystical Role of the Angels in Baptism

In recent weeks I have been teaching a series at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives. Over the next few days my posts will summarize the talks I presented. The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural references are my own additions.

In today’s post we ponder the role of the angels in evangelization and baptism.

Preparation for Baptism and the Role of the Angels – Prior to baptism itself, there is of course the need for souls to be gathered to Christ. Even in the baptism of an infant, the child must first be drawn to Christ through parents, the parish, and others. In a wider sense, the gospel needs to go forth to all the nations:

Go, therefore, unto all the nations and make disciples of them, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have taught you (Matt 28:19-20).

The Fathers of the Church envisioned that just as the apostles were sent visibly to all nations, so too the angels are sent invisibly to prepare the many for the gospel and to gather the faithful into the Church. Indeed, Scripture says,

And He will send out the angels to gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven (Mk 13:27).

While some see this text only in relation to the end of the world, others see it as a reference to the age of the Church wherein God is sending apostles and angels to gather in the full number of the elect.

And thus:

  • Eusebius remarks that the mission of the angels to draw souls into the Church and unto baptism is also a battle against idolatry and the demons who hold souls captive.
  • The Sacramentary of Gelasius has a prayer for catechumens begging that the Lord vouchsafe to send His holy angels to preserve His servants and lead them to the grace of baptism.
  • Origen records this prayer: “Come, angel. Receive him who has been converted from his former error and the doctrines of demons … Receive him as a careful physician; warm and heal him … Receive him and give him the baptism of second birth.”

 So, the angels perform a preparatory role, working invisibly alongside the apostles, evangelists, missionaries, parents, and catechists. It is consoling to know that we are not alone in this work of winning souls!

The Presence of the Angels in the Liturgy of Baptism

There is a hint at the role of angels in baptism in a passage from John’s Gospel that prefigures the healing power of baptism. It is the passage about the paralyzed man by the sheep pools at Bethesda. It was said that an angel stirred the waters there every so often and that the first one into the water after that would be healed. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed. “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am on my way, someone else goes in before me” (John 5:7).

Thus, in some mystical sense, the angels brought a blessing to those waters to bring healing. In baptism, it is the Lord Jesus, our great High Priest who baptizes; it is He who makes the water holy, uniting it to the water that flowed from His pierced side. But as in all things, He ministers His graces and blessings through His angels. Scripture says of the angels,

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14)

Thus, angels are present and active at our baptism.

  • Tertullian speaks of the role of angels in baptism: “Cleansed in the water by the action of an angel, we are prepared for the Holy Spirit. Thus, an angel is set in charge of baptism.”
  • Origen says, “At the time that the Sacrament of Faith was administered to you, there were present heavenly powers, the ministration of the angels.”
  • Ambrose says, “After Baptism you began to advance [out of the font]. The angels watched, they saw you draw near, and they suddenly beheld the splendor of your state … Thus, they asked, Who is this coming up from the desert shining white? (see Song of Songs 8:5) The angels are lost in admiration! Do you want to know how great their admiration is? Listen to the Apostle Peter as he tells us that we have been given what the angels longed to look upon” (see 1 Peter 1:12).

It is indeed a beautiful insight by Ambrose that the angels should marvel at the transformation and beauty of our soul at baptism. Would that we could see it as well!

In tomorrow’s post we will examine the role of the angels in the Mass.

Below is a video of my first presentation, which was on the angels and the Incarnation.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Mystical Role of the Angels in Baptism

I Hear Music in the Air – A Homily For Christmas Midnight

The mysteries of Christmas are many. Among them is the mystery of the music heard that night. The angels shouted the great declaration, “Glory to God in the highest,” and creation took it up as a song. Why this music? Is it merely window dressing, or does it disclose a mystery to us? Is the declaration only for us, or do the angels also need it?

As always with the things of God, there are realities far deeper than most of us imagine. Tonight’s Christmas feast weaves together, among many other mysteries, those of music and descent, and it points up to music and ascent. You see, over my head I hear music in the air; there must be a God somewhere.

Let’s explore this key point: The Lord descends (to one song) so that we might ascend (to a new song) to the highest heavens.

I. Divine Descent The text says, Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Lk 2:8-12).

We look first to Jesus’ divine descent. Note that Jesus, who is called Savior, Anointed One, and Lord, is said to be found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, a trough from which animals are fed.

What sort of king and Lord is this? It is almost a divine comedy. Imagine the shepherds quaking in fear at the presence of an awesome angel, who then says that they will find the Christ lying in a feed box inside a nearby stable.

Indeed, there is a remarkable divine condescension here! The Lord did not merely descend from Heaven to earth but to one of the lowest places on the earth: a smelly cave among animals. His bed a feeding trough not a cozy cradle. Yet how fitting, that He who is the Bread of Life would be born in Bethlehem (which means “House of Bread”) and be found lying in a manger.

Why this descent? The Lord descends today to one song in order that we may ascend with Him one day to a new place and sing a new song. To what song does He descend and to what song will we ascend? Let’s read on.

II. Delighted Declarations  The text says, And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The angels rejoiced in God’s plan and longed for its day! One of the Church Fathers, Eusebius, spoke of discouragement among the lower angels at the advance of evil in the world that had been entrusted to their care. Even the giving of the law and the sending of prophets had done little to stem its tide. Now, God himself would intervene!

Thus, as Christ descends at the Annunciation and is manifest today at Christmas, the Church Father Origen has some of the higher angels say,

“If he has put on mortal flesh, how can we remain!? Come, Angels, let us descend from heaven!” That is why [Scripture says] there was a multitude of the heavenly Hosts praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels! (Hom in Ex. 1:7)

As the Lord is made manifest to the world on this day, the highest angels who descended with Christ at the Annunciation now send word through and to the lower ranks of angels, and a great heavenly throng makes the declaration, Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace!

Another Church Father, Pseudo-Dionysius, says of this Gloria,

The highest order composed of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, and which is closest of all, by reason of its dignity, to the secret sanctuary of God [instructs] the second order, composed of Dominations, Virtues and Powers. This order in turn reveals the mysteries to the lower tier of angels the Principalities, Archangels and Angels who are set in charge of the human hierarchies (Hier Ceol. 9,2).

This great sung hymn is not just for the human family. According to the Fathers of the Church it is also a signal to the lower ranking angels from the higher-ranking angels: Lift up your heads, Ye ancient Gates, that the King of Glory may come in! Of this mystery, St. Peter would later say, … The things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you … are things into which angels longed to look (1 Peter 1:12).

An ancient hymn from the Liturgy of St. James says of this moment,

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the shadows clear away.

Why all this music at the divine descent? Because the music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and are meant to lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler, higher song.

III. Dignity of our Destiny – The Psalm for tonight says, Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all you lands. Sing to the LORD; bless his name (Ps 96:1-2).

So again, this music (Gloria in Excelsis) and the descent are related and meant to lead us higher. Christ descends to one song in order to lead us to an even nobler, higher song—a song sung in the highest heavens! Without this descent and this first song, the second song and our ascent would be impossible. Christ descends to the song of the lower heavens so that we, by his saving grace, may ascend to the place and song of the higher heavens.

What is this new song and where is this place? Isaiah heard the music and saw the place:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3).

Here is our new song, a higher song, one sung only in the highest heavens before the throne of God, one sung only by the redeemed: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Hosts! At every Mass, our High Priest, Jesus, speaking through His ministerial priest, says, “Lift up your hearts.” The congregation replies, “We lift them up to the Lord.” In other words, we are told to come higher, to come into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, to come before the throne and sing the hymn of the highest in Heaven.

Our ascent to this highest place is made possible only by the Lord’s descent to the lowest places on earth: the manger, the cross, and Sheol. In the early Church, only the baptized were permitted to sing the Sanctus at Mass. The unbaptized were not allowed to attend. The catechumens, though permitted to sing the hymn announced to the lower realms (The Gloria), were dismissed prior to the singing of the Sanctus, the song of the highest heavens. Only when we are caught up higher by grace can we hear and join the Sanctus. One day it will be fully our song when God says to us, “Come up higher.” By Him who descended, we will then ascend and sing a new song to the Lord!

Over my head I hear music in the air; there must be a God somewhere. The Lord descends to one song that we might ascend to a new song in a new place, in the highest heavens. May He who descends to the manger today cause you to ascend to the highest heavens to sing that new song.

Of the Angels and of the Mysterious Providence of God

Angels Accompanying Tobit, Francesco Botticini (1470)

God most often works through His angels; He mediates His presence through them. Why is this? He is of course all-powerful and therefore does not need the mediation of the angels, but He does seem to will it. It is common in both Scripture and doctrinal traditions to ascribe to the angels the work of mediating God’s presence and messages.

Scriptures assert this. At times, such as when Jacob wrestles with God, it is not clear whether it is an angel or God (Genesis 32:22-32); Abram greats three angels but calls them “Lord” (Genesis 18). At other times, it is clearly an angel that people such as Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), Tobit (Tobit 12), and Mary (Luke 1) encounter. These angels speak for God and mediate His presence but are not God. Throughout the Book of Revelation, angels are sent forth to mediate God’s justice. In many places in Scripture, we are told by the Lord heed the voice of the angels who are sent to guard and guide us.

In the sacred Liturgy (Roman canon), the ministry of the angels is spoken of in connecting our sacrifice to the true altar in Heaven. The Book of Revelation describes how the heavenly and earthly liturgy is the work of angels and men. Angels bring the prayers of the saints before God and minister at the altar of incense.

There are numerous other passages and teachings that I could present, but suffice it to say that God, though almighty, all-powerful, and omniscient, most often chooses to mediate His presence to creation through the work of the angels.

An example may help to illustrate a likely reason. The laptop computer on which I am typing is not plugged directly into the wall outlet; its delicate circuitry cannot endure the 110-120 volt alternating current; it would blow out. Instead, an adaptor between the laptop and the wall outlet mediates, reducing the voltage to 19 V. direct current. Similarly, direct encounters with God may well be impossible for us on this side of the veil unless God hides His face or mediates His presence through the angels and/or the sacraments.

For us and for all of His creation, the ministry of the angels is a great mercy of God. Doctrinal traditions emphasize the ministry of the angels in mediating all of God’s providence. The highest angels minister in God’s Heaven, other ranks of angels minster the cosmos, and still other ranks minister here on earth. Nations, cities, local churches, and individuals have presiding angels. The Book of Revelation describes angels controlling winds and earthquakes as well as executing God’s justice and authority over history and events. Angels mediate God’s providence and sustenance throughout the whole of creation. We seldom talk or even think this way today.

Let’s consider another example. In explaining how a large passenger airplane rises off the runway, a scientist would speak of lift and thrust. The angle of the wing creates an area of lower air pressure above the wing and higher pressure beneath. Combine this with enough thrust to overcome gravity and you have the lift required for the plane to take off. However, a theologian from the Middle Ages might simply say, “the angels lift the plane.” In a certain sense both explanations are correct. If God sustains all of creation, and if He mediates His actions through the angels, it is not incorrect to say that the angels lift the plane, just as they serve God in all His creation. The theologian speaks to the metaphysical while the physicist speaks to the physical/material.

Yet there are many today, even among believers, who scoff at ascribing so much (or anything at all) to angels. To them one must point out that physics and mechanics alone cannot fully answer the legitimate questions that arise as we watch the plane take off into the sky. Science is good at answering mechanical questions and quantifying things such as force and lift but it is not able to answer deeper questions such as why, from what, or for what ultimate reason things exist. Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Where does the order and intelligibility of the material world come from? How is the world sustained in a steady-enough state that we can interact with it reliably and depend upon its laws and order? In fact, why is there anything at all?

There are deeper realities to things than the mere mechanics, and many of the mechanics are not even fully explained or understood. Science still has not explained all the physical mysteries of a plane’s vertical rise.

Perhaps the deepest mystery at the physical level is gravity. We can quantify this force, but its presence in the physical order is mysterious and even counterintuitive. Why do objects attract one another? How does this attractive force work? Are there invisible strings that pull us toward the earth or other large bodies? What is it about gravity that affects time, as it seems that it does? There are not definitive answers. That gravity exists and can be measured is clear, but precisely what it is and how it works is not.

We may one day uncover gravity’s secrets, but this still does not satisfy our legitimate metaphysical questions. Simply scoffing at or being dismissive of the ministry and existence of angels (or demons, for that matter) does not do away with our questions. The existence of order, intelligibility, and predictability present questions that cannot be sidestepped. Who or what ordered creation so that we can discover its order and its laws? If creation can speak to our intelligence by its intelligibility, what intelligence introduced it there to be discovered? If creation moves from simplicity to complexity, how do we explain this when it seemingly violates the physical principle that entropy always increases?

Granted, simply saying, “the angels do this” amounts to a kind of “God of the gaps” argument (wherein every unknown thing is simply ascribed to God), but completely dismissing the role of the angels (and ultimately the role of God) is to fall into the opposite error of scientism, which holds that everything can and must be explained by physical/mechanical causes. This cannot explain why things exist at all, nor can it speak to metaphysical concepts that are real but nonphysical such as justice, beauty, infinite longing, or our sense of good and evil.

God interacts with His creation. It is revealed to us that He does this most often, if not exclusively, through His angels. This is not to deny that the material order has observed laws and that chains of material causalities can be measured and observed. The theological world would remind us to reverence all the orders of creation: physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual.

Blessed be God, who created all things through His Word, His Son Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17). Blessed, too, be the angels, who mediate God’s interaction with His creation and are His ministers. Blessed also is the created world, from the tiniest parts of atoms to the largest galaxies. Yes, blessed be God, all His angels and saints, and all that He has ordered and sustained. Blessed are we, who by God’s gift of our intellect, can observe and understand the beauty, order, and laws of His creation.

May you, O Lord, keep us humble and fill us with wonder and awe. Help us remember that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1). Thank you for your angels. Keep us mindful that although they are hidden from our eyes, myriad angels mediate your presence to this world and are at work all about us in your creation and unto your highest heavens. May Raphael and all the angels witness to our prayers and actions before you, and may they bring your graces to us swiftly. May the angels one day lead us to paradise.

The Second Coming and Its Stages

During Advent, as we continue to meditate on the Parousia (the Second Coming), we do well to allow our imaginations to be engaged in contemplating the glory that awaits those who are faithful, to meditate on the joy and ecstasy of the culmination of all things!

We must soberly admit our need to be ready by God’s grace, but if we are, what glories await us! The “great and terrible day of the Lord” will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.

I was stirred some years ago in reading a magnificent book by Jean Cardinal Danielou on angelology (an-GELL-o-gee), which is the study of angels. The book, The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church, is must reading (and a mere 114 pages long). It is packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the wonderful works of the angels, according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

The final chapters, on the eschaton (the last things) and the Parousia (the Second Coming), are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the assembling of the material is fundamentally that of Cardinal Danielou. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

1. Sending forth the multitude of angels:

Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great Second Coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 A.D., but surely also describes the end of time:

Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).

The first epistle to the Thessalonians says,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).

St Cyril describes the extraordinary magnificence given to the final judgment by the presence of the multitude of angels. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible until now, except to the eyes of faith. Suddenly, it is made manifest! He asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering the vast numbers of human beings who have ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, standing before the Lord Jesus. Then he asks us to consider that the angels are vastly more numerous than that, for they are the 99 sheep whereas humanity is but the one! As Daniel poetically says,

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 (Dan 7:9-10).

Such a vision and such multitudes can scarcely be imagined.

2. Waking the dead (the angels are surely part of this):

The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death and raising up even the bodies of those who had been drowned in the sea or whom savage beasts had devoured (Sib, 2:214–235).

St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, saying,

Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.

St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, our bodies, but gloriously transformed:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).

3. The Judgment by Christ and its execution by the angels:

Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).

Matthew 25 describes the angels as being with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape.” But the angels are also uniting the just.

Matthew 13 describes the angels leading evildoers away:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who caused others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace (Mat 13:41-42).

St. Ephrem describes the angels leading the elect to paradise:

Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.

Origen speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:

When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.

St. Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians:

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

4. The final ordering of the Kingdom:

Of this final ordering, Scripture says,

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one (1 Cor 15:26-28).

5. After executing judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies:

He ascends there, now with all the members of His body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). Though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is (as Father) the Principium Deitatis.

At this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:

 Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory (Psalm 24: 7-10).

6. The transformation of all creation:

The longing of creation for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God is prophesied through St. Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23).

And now it comes! Heaven and earth are united and creation receives its original glory and more, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Scripture says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).

7. The Joy and rest of the angels:

Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,

On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom, [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).

Of this magnificent beauty, St. Methodius says,

Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.

Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints (Rev 22:17; 20-21).

The Ministry of Angels, as Seen in a Commercial

Most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen to us. Why does He not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various kinds and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?

While mysterious, the clearest answer is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this to be so; some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut for me or that I endure some suffering. If my college sweetheart had not ended things, I would most likely not have the very great blessing of being a priest today. Had I gotten some of my preferred assignments in my early years as a priest, I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those difficult assignments have drawn me out and helped me to grow far more than the cozy, familiar placements I desired would have. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my thirties, I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do, and I would not have learned important lessons about myself and about life.

So despite that fact that we understandably fear suffering and dislike it, for reasons of His own (reasons He knows best), God does allow some degree of it in our lives.

Yet I wonder if we really consider often enough the countless times God did step in to prevent disaster in our lives. We tend to focus on the negative things in life and overlook the enormous number of blessings we often take for granted: every beat of our heart, the proper functioning of every cell in our body, and all of the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.

Just think of the simple act of walking, all of the possible missteps we might take but most often do not. Think of all the foolish risks we have taken in our lives—especially when we were young—that did not end in disaster. Think of all the poor choices we have made and yet escaped the worst possible outcomes.

Yes, we wonder why we and others suffer and why God allows it, but do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped enduring the consequences of some awfully foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings, and magnify and resent our sufferings.

I have a favorite expression, one that I have made my own over the years, that I use in response to people who ask me how I am doing: “I’m pretty well blessed, for a sinner.”  I’ve heard others put the same sentiment this way: “I’m more blessed than I deserve.” Yes, we are all pretty well blessed indeed!

I thought of all those things as I watched the commercial below (aired during the 2014 Super Bowl). While it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely preserved me from many disasters.

As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many times He has rescued you through the intervention of your guardian angel. Thank Him too for His hidden blessings—blessings that, though you know nothing of them, are bestowed by Him all the same. Finally, think of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.

 

Why and How Does Satan Roam the Earth?

One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?

Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:

  • God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
  • And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
  • Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).

Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:

  • But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
  • The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).

Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!

Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).

So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.

Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.

For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.

On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.

As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.

Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.

We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!

While these videos are light-hearted, their message is serious:

A Brief Reflection on the Ministry of the Angels Throughout Creation

The conclusion of the Book of Tobit on Saturday featured the Archangel Raphael revealing himself to Tobit and others and explaining his ministry to them. This post I write is not a full angelology, it is just a grateful reflection for God, his angels and his creation. Book-length treatments are necessary for a good angelology. If you are looking for a readable, and brief account of angelology I might recommend The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church, by Cardinal Jean Danielou.

Let’s look at a brief excerpt of Archangel Raphael and ponder gratefully the ministry of the angels. Raphael says,

I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead….

God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” (Tobit 12:14-16)

This passage presents a description of how God interacts with his creation through the ministry of the angels. Notice how Raphael presented the prayers of Tobit and Sarah before God. More than this, the text implies that Raphael presented a record of the prayerfulness of the two and described Tobit’s good deeds. Thus, he stood before God more as a witness of their love and prayerfulness than as a mere conveyor of requests.

Why is this? Is God not omniscient? He is of course and therefore does not need the mediation of the angels, but He does seem to will it. It is common in both Scripture and doctrinal traditions to ascribe to the angels the work of mediation.

Angels in Scripture often speak for God and mediate His presence. At times, such as when Jacob wrestles with God, it is not clear whether it is an angel or God (Genesis 32:22-32); Abram greats three angels but calls them “Lord” (Genesis 18). At other times, it is clearly an angel that people such as Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), Tobit (Tobit 12), and Mary (Luke 1) encounter. These angles speak for God and mediate His presence but are not God. Throughout the Book of Revelation, angels are sent forth to mediate God’s justice. In many places in Scripture, we are told by the Lord heed the voice of the angels who are sent to guard and guide us.

In the sacred Liturgy the ministry of the angels in connecting our sacrifice to the true altar in heaven is spoken of (Roman canon) and the Book of Revelation describes how the heavenly and earthly liturgy is the work of angels and men. Angels bring the prayers of the saints before God, minister at the altar of incense, and so forth.

There are numerous other passages and teachings that I could present, let it suffice to say that God, though almighty, all-powerful, and omniscient, most often chooses to mediate His presence to creation through the work of the angels.

Perhaps an example may illustrate a likely reason. The laptop computer on which I am typing is not plugged directly into the wall outlet; its delicate circuitry cannot endure the 110-120 V. alternating current; it would blow out. Instead, an adaptor between the laptop and the wall outlet mediates, reducing the voltage to 19 V. direct current. Similarly, direct encounters with God may well be impossible for us on this side of the veil unless God hides His face or mediates His presence through the angels and/or the sacraments.

For us and for all of His creation, the ministry of the angels is a great mercy of God. Doctrinal traditions emphasize the ministry of the angels in mediating all of God’s providence. The highest angels minister in God’s Heaven, other ranks of angels minster the cosmos, and still other ranks minister here on earth. Nations, cities, local churches, and individuals have presiding angels. The Book of Revelation describes angels controlling winds and earthquakes as well as executing God’s justice and authority over history and events. Angels mediate God’s providence and sustenance throughout the whole of creation.

We seldom talk or even think this way today. Let’s look at another modern example. In explaining how a large passenger airplane rises off the runway, a scientist would speak of “lift” and “thrust.” The angle of the wing creates an area of lower air pressure above the wing and higher pressure beneath. Combine this with enough thrust to overcome gravity and you have the lift required for the plane to take off. However, a theologian from the Middle Ages might simply say that “the angels lift the plane.” In a certain sense both explanations are correct. If God sustains all of creation, and if He mediates His actions through the angels, it is not incorrect to say that “the angels lift the plane,” just as they serve God in all His creation. The theologian speaks to the metaphysical while the physicist speaks to the physical/material. The physicist speaks to efficient causality while the theologian speaks to final causality.

Yet there are many today, even among believers, who scoff at ascribing so much (or anything at all) to angels. To them one must point out that physics and mechanics alone cannot fully answer the legitimate questions that arise as we watch the plane take off into the sky. Science is good at answering mechanical questions and quantifying things such as force and lift, but it is not able to answer deeper questions such as why, from what, or for what ultimate reason things exist. Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Where does the order and intelligibility of the material world come from? How is the world sustained in a steady-enough state that we can interact with it reliably and depend upon its laws and order? In fact, why is there anything at all?

There are deeper realities to things than the mere mechanics. And many of the mechanics are not even fully explained or understood. Science, despite the use of numbers and formulas, still has not pierced all the physical mysteries of the plane’s vertical rise.

Perhaps the deepest mystery at the physical level is gravity. We can quantify this force, but its presence in the physical order is mysterious and even counterintuitive. Why do objects attract one another? And how does this attractive force work? Are there invisible strings that pull us toward the earth or other large bodies? What is it about gravity that affects time, as it seems that it does? There are not definitive answers. That gravity exists and can be measured is clear, but precisely what it is and how it works exactly is not clear.

Perhaps one day we will uncover gravity’s secrets, but this still does not satisfy our legitimate metaphysical questions. Simply scoffing at or being dismissive of the ministry and existence of angels (or demons, for that matter) does not do away with our questions. The existence of order, intelligibility, and predictability presents questions that cannot be sidestepped. Who or what ordered creation so that we can discover its order and its laws? If creation can speak to our intelligence by its intelligibility, what intelligence introduced it there to be discovered? If creation moves from simplicity to complexity (in seeming violation of the usual entropy of physical things), how do we explain this?

It will be granted that simply saying “the angels do this” amounts to a kind of “God of the gaps” argument (wherein every unknown thing is simply ascribed to God), but utterly dismissing the role of the angels (and ultimately the role of God) is to fall into the opposite error of scientism, which says that everything can and must be explained as merely the result of physical and mechanical causes. This cannot explain why things exist at all, nor can it speak to metaphysical concepts that are real but nonphysical such as justice, beauty, infinite longing, or our sense of good and evil.

God interacts with his creation. It is revealed to us that He does this most often, if not exclusively, through His angels. This is not to deny that the material order has observed laws and that chains of material causalities that can be measured and observed. The theological world would remind us to reverence all the orders of creation: physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual.

Blessed be God, who created all things through His Word, his Son Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17). Blessed, too, be the angels, who mediate God’s interaction with His creation and are His ministers. Blessed also is the created world, all that is in it from the tiniest parts of atoms to the greatest galaxies. Yes, blessed be God, all His angels and saints, and all that He has ordered and sustained. Blessed are we, who by God’s gift of our intellect, can observe and understand the beauty, order, and laws of God’s creation.

May you, O Lord keep us humble, and fill us with wonder and awe. Help us remember that Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor 8:1). Thank you for your angels. Keep us mindful that although they are hidden from our eyes, myriad angels mediate your presence to this world and are at work all about us in your creation and unto your highest heavens. May Raphael and all the angels witness to our prayers and actions before you and may they bring your graces to us swiftly. May the angels one day lead us to paradise.

Our Guardian Angel – As Seen on TV

Blog10-2Most of us struggle with the fact that God allows bad things to happen to us. Why does He not intervene more often to protect us from attacks of various sorts and from events that cause sadness, setbacks, or suffering?

While mysterious, the clearest answer is that God allows suffering in order that some greater blessing may occur. To some degree I have found this to be so in my own life; some of my greatest blessings required that a door slam shut or that I endure some suffering. For example, if my college sweetheart had not dumped me, it is likely that I would not now have the very great blessing of being a priest. Had I received some of my preferred assignments in my early years as a priest I would not have been enriched by the assignments I did have. Those assignments have drawn me out and helped me to grow far more than the cozy, familiar placements I desired would have. Had I not entered into the crucible of depression and anxiety in my 30s I would not have learned to trust God as much as I do and would not have learned important lessons about myself and about life.

So despite that fact that we understandably fear and dislike suffering, for reasons of His own (reasons He knows best) God does allow some degree of it in our lives.

Yet I wonder if we really consider often enough the countless times that God does step in to prevent disasters in our lives. We tend to focus on the negative things in life and overlook an enormous number of often-hidden blessings: every beat of our heart, the proper function of every cell in our body, and all the perfect balances that exist in nature and the cosmos in order to sustain us.

Just consider the simple act of walking and all the possible missteps we might make but do not. Think of all the foolish risks we have taken in our life, especially when we were young, that did not end in disaster. Think of all the poor choices we made and yet escaped the worst possible outcomes.

Yes, we wonder why we and others suffer, and why God allows it.  But do we ever wonder why we don’t suffer? Do we ever think about why and how we have escaped enduring the consequences of some awfully foolish things we have done? In typical human fashion, we minimize our many, many blessings, and magnify and resent our sufferings.

I have a favorite expression, one I’ve adopted over the years, that I use in response to people who ask me how I’m doing: “I’m pretty well-blessed for a sinner.”  I’ve heard others put the same sentiment this way: “I am more blessed than I deserve.”  Yes, we are all well-blessed indeed!

I thought of all that as I watched the commercial below (it aired during the Super Bowl). And while it speaks of the watchfulness of a father, it also makes me think of my guardian angel, who has surely preserved me from many disasters.

As you watch the commercial, don’t forget to thank God for the many times He has rescued you, through the interventions of your guardian angel. Thank Him, too, for His hidden blessings—blessings that, though you know nothing of them, are bestowed by Him all the same. And think, finally, of the wonderful mercy He has often shown in protecting you from the worst of your foolishness.