Jesus affirms the truth that we have guardian angels: See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father (Mat 18:10). On the Feast of the Guardian Angels, we consider the beautiful truth that God assigns each of us an angel to have special care for us; it is a sign of His very specific love for each of us as an individual. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has much to say on angels. Here are just a few verses:
The whole life of the Church benefits from the mysterious and powerful help of angels … In her liturgy, the Church joins with the angels to adore the thrice-holy God … From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God (CCC #s 334-336 selectae).
All this said, it is important to recall that to some extent we have sentimentalized the role of the angels in current times, and have drifted from the biblical testimony regarding them. I would like to propose a few corrective ideas to balance the sentimental notions we may have. I do not say that sentiment is wrong, just that it needs to be balanced by the deep respect we ought to have for the angels.
1. Angels have no bodies – They are not human and never have been human. Human beings never become angels or “earn wings.” Angels are persons, but persons of pure spirit. Hence they have no designation as either male or female. Since we have to envision them somehow, though, it is not wrong that we portray them with masculine or feminine qualities. But it is important to remember that they transcend any such distinction.
2. Angels are vast in number – The prophet Daniel was granted a vision of Heaven and said of God, gloriously enthroned, A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him (Dan 7:10). A hundred million angels! Of course these were only the angels Daniel could see, and it is really just another way of saying that their number is vast, beyond counting.
3. Angels are ranked hierarchically – The term “choir” of angels denotes not a musical group, but rather a rank. Tradition gleans, from both Scripture and custom, nine ranks (or choirs) of angels in three groups of three ranks each: Seraphim, cherubim, and thrones remain closest to God and serve primarily in Heaven itself (and among them the seraphim are closest to God’s throne (Is 6:1-7)). Dominions, virtues, and powers exert various governing powers; they organize the angels and the cosmos (to include nature) and they hold the power of the evil one in check. And finally principalities, archangels, and angels are those most directly involved with humanity; they also act as intermediaries between us, God, and Heaven.
4. Biblically, angels are not the rather fluffy, charming creatures that modern portraits often depict – In the Bible, angels are depicted as awesome and powerful agents of God. Many times the appearance of an angel struck fear in the one who saw him (cf Judg 6:22; Lk 1:11; Lk 1:29; Lk 2:9; Acts 10:3; Rev. 22:8).
- Angels are often described in the Bible in warlike terms: they are called a host (the biblical word for army), they wage war on behalf of God and His people (e.g. Ex 14:19; Ex 33:2; Nm 22:23; Ps 35:5; Is 37:36; Rev 12:7).
- While they are said to have wings (e.g. Ex 25:20; 1 Kings 6:24; inter al), recall that they do not have physical bodies so the wings are an image or symbol of their swiftness.
- They are also mentioned at times as being like fire (Ex. 3:2; Rev 10:1).
- And what about those cute little “cherubs” we have in our art, those cute, baby-faced angels with wings and no body? Well, read about the real cherubim in Ezekiel 10. They are fearsome, awesome creatures, powerful and swift servants of God and more than capable of putting God’s enemies to flight.
- And this is my main point: angels are not the sentimental, syrupy, cute creatures we have often recast them to be. They are awesome, wonderful, powerful servants of God. They are His messengers and they manifest His glory. They bear forth the power and majesty of God and are to be respected immensely. They are surely also our helpers and, by God’s command, act on our behalf.
5. What then is our proper reaction to the great gift of the angels and in particular to our guardian angel? Sentimental thought may have its place, but what God especially commands of us toward our angel is obedience. Read what God said in the Book of Exodus:
Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him (Ex 23:21).
So our fundamental task is to hear and heed the voice of our angel. How, you might ask do we hear the voice of our guardian angel? I would suggest to you that we most clearly hear the voice of our angel in our conscience. Deep down, we hear God’s voice; we know what is true and what is false. In terms of basic right and wrong, we know what we are doing. I am convinced that our conscience interacts with our guardian angel. Now be careful: we like to try to rationalize what we do, to explain away our bad behavior, to make excuses. But in the end, deep down inside, we know whether what we are doing is right or wrong. I am sure it is our angel who testifies to the truth and informs our conscience.
God’s command is clear: listen to and heed this voice. Respect this angel whom God has given to you, not so much with sentimental odes, but with sober obedience.
6. Finally, and perhaps controversially, as I have noted on this blog before, though we often think of angels in “choirs” singing, there is no scriptural verse that I have ever read that actually describes them as singing. Even in the classic Christmas scene in which we depict angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” the text actually says that they SAY it, not that they sing it (cf Luke 2:14, in which the verb used is λεγόντων (legouton) = saying). If you can find a Scripture text that describes the angels as singing, please share it. But I’ve looked for years and can’t find a single one. It’s not a big point, and I am aware that some get almost annoyed by my mentioning this, since it seems almost instinctive to us that angels DO sing! My point here is simply to report the silence (not denial) of Scripture on this common notion. Perhaps singing is a special gift given only to the human person.