On the Role of the Angels at the Second Coming

Gustave Doré (1868)

This is the last in a series of five posts on the role of the angels in our lives and in creation. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching 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.

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 passages below represent my own additions.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Danielou’s book. It is relatively short (a mere 114 pages) and packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the works of the angels according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

In this last post we consider the role of the angels at the parousia (the second coming) and the glory that awaits those who have been faithful.

The final chapters in the Cardinal’s book, on the eschaton (the last things) and the parousia, 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 his. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

We must soberly admit our need to be ready, by God’s grace. 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.

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 Letter 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 up to this point except to the eyes of faith; at the final judgment it is suddenly made manifest! Cyril asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering all the 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 ninety-nine sheep while humanity is 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).

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 the bodies of even those who had been drowned in the sea or devoured by savage beasts (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, but they will be 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).

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.”

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).

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 everyone (1 Cor 15:26-28).

After rendering judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies

Jesus ascends there, 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).

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).

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).

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).

And thus the Scriptures end, with the longing of the Bride for unity with her Husband. Yes, the Bride, the Church, cries out to her beloved, “Come, Lord Jesus!”


The Angels and Our Death

This is the fourth in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching 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.

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 passages below represent my own additions.

In today’s post we ponder the presence and role of the angels at the moment of our death.

Scriptural and Liturgical Roots We read in Scripture that the Lord shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:31). While this text most likely refers to the Last Judgment, it nevertheless emphasizes the role of the angels in gathering us to the Lord. In one of Jesus’ parables, we read of the poor man Lazarus and how the angels escorted him after he died:

The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. (Luke 16:22).

We also read in Scripture of the role of St. Michael the Archangel at the death of Moses:

But even the archangel Michael, when he disputed with the devil over the body of Moses, did not presume to bring a slanderous judgment against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9)

The Church sees an even broader role for Michael and the angels at the death of each of us. The offertory prayer of the Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form implores that “Michael, the standard-bearer, may lead us forward into the Holy Light, promised of old to Abraham and his seed.” Further, the In Paradisum of the Funeral Mass says,

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.

The In Paradisum is indeed a beautiful chant with beautiful teaching. At the bottom of this post is a link to a recording, sung in Latin. There are also English translations that fit well with the melody.

Thus, we see the biblical roots of the role of the angels at our death. We turn now to the insights of the Fathers of the early Church.

As we know from Scripture, encountering an angel can be disconcerting. In most cases, the first words from angels are “Do not be afraid.” Some of the Fathers speak to this experience:

  • Tertullian says, “When by force of death the soul is snatched from the weight of the flesh that closed it in, it trembles with excitement to see the face of an angel, the summoner of souls, realizing that its eternal abode has been prepared.”
  • Ephrem imagines the confusion of a man when he sees the heavenly powers just after death: “When the armies of the Lord show themselves and when the divine commanders bid him to leave the body behind, he shakes and trembles at the unaccustomed sight of these figures.”

On the other hand, angels also have a consoling effect for the faithful at the moment of death, keeping demons at bay:

  • Gregory the Great says, “The hymns of the angels fill the soul with so divine a joy, that it does not notice the sufferings of death. And during its voyage toward heaven, the angels scatter the demons who try to bar the soul’s advance.”
  • Aloysius Gonzaga (a Church Father, though not an ancient one, living from 1568–1591) taught that when the soul leaves the body, it is accompanied and consoled by its guardian angel so that the soul can present itself confidently before the judgment seat of God.

The angels escort us upward toward Heaven and God’s judgment seat:

  • John Chrysostom says, “If we need a guide in passing from one [earthly] city to another, how much more so will the soul need someone to point the way when she breaks the bonds of the flesh and passes on to the future life.”
  • Ephrem sees the angels “taking up the soul … and carrying it through the upper air.”
  • Gregory notes that the angels of paradise are asked by the lower angels to permit the soul to enter there.

Strangely, there is little mention of the presence of angels while we are at the judgment itself. Perhaps it is because this is a personal matter, just between our soul and the Lord. It seems likely that each of us will need some purgation. St. Paul speaks of a kind of fire that will both purify and refine us:

Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If what he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as if through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).

As to this purgation, one ancient source (“The Apocalypse of Paul”) speaks of a man lifted up to a mystical vision of a river of fire; he asks an angel what it might be. The angel tells him that if anyone is impure yet repentant, he is led forward, first to adore God, and then by command of the Lord handed over to Michael and other angels, who “baptize” him in the river of fire and lead him to the City of God. At this point, it would seem that the guardian angel intercedes before God and seeks help among the people on earth to pray for the soul in its care. After the purifications have been completed, the guardian angel leads the soul into Heaven.

The angels in Heaven reserve special attention for virgins and martyrs:

  • Eusebius says that virgins will not walk toward the King, they will be carried by the angels.
  • Of the martyrs, Origen says that the angels look at them with wonder and greet them as conquerors. The angels sing, “Who is this coming from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength?” (Isaiah 63:1)
  • St John Chrysostom says, “The martyrs go up to Heaven surrounded and preceded by the angels as an escort. When they arrive in Heaven all the holy powers from on high run forward and stand before them, trying to see their wounds. They receive them with joy and embrace them. Then they form an immense procession to lead them to the King of Heaven … taking part in mystical songs … leading them into the Holy of Holies.”

Surely, every soul is greeted with joy by the angels and saints, and they are caught up into the great movement and “dance” of love between the members of the Trinity. The Eastern Church calls this movement and experience of love the perichoresis.

To summarize, here are the traditions articulated by the ancient Fathers about angels:

  • The angels help our soul escape the sufferings of death.
  • Our guardian angel accompanies our soul and assures it of a peaceful journey.
  • Our guardian angel defends us against the demons, who want to stop our journey.
  • Our guardian angel leads us to the judgment seat of Christ.
  • Our guardian angel stands along the way of the river of fire and there intercedes as our soul is purified.
  • Our guardian angel bids the angels of the gates of Heaven to open them.
  • The angels of the gates of Heaven welcome our soul.
  • All the angels welcome us with joy.
  • The angels reserve special honor and joy for virgins and martyrs.

What happens to our guardian angel after we die? There is no doctrine, but there is a general consensus:

  • If a soul enters communion with God, it joins its angel in praising the one and triune God for all eternity.
  • If the soul goes to Hell, its angel can only praise God’s divine justice and holiness.
  • It is not clear whether our guardian angel takes up other souls or duties after we die. However, given the vast number of them (myriad), it seems unlikely. Perhaps in the case of a soul that departs to Hell (where the angel surely cannot go), its guardian angel is assigned to a new soul, but this is pure speculation.

This is how the angels care for us at the hour of our death.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Angels and Our Death

On the Role of Our Guardian Angels

Angel Fighting for the Soul – Alexey Tyranov

This is the third in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching 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.

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 passages below represent my own additions.

In today’s post we ponder the existence of guardian angels and their role.

Scripture attests to the existence of guardian angels.

We begin with a text from Exodus in which the Lord says,

Behold, I am sending an angel before you to protect you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice; do not defy him, for he will not forgive rebellion, since My Name is in him. But if you will listen carefully to his voice and do everything I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For My angel will go before you and bring you into the land (Exodus 23:20-23).

Though this text does not speak specifically to one’s personal guardian angel, it reminds us that not all guardian angels are personal; God also sets angels over nations, territories, and organizations. It is also clear from Scripture that local churches (dioceses) have angels. In the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation the letters to the seven churches all begin in the same way. For example,

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write this: ... (Rev 2:1),

To the angel of the church in Smyrna, write this: … (Rev 2:8).

Some contend that the angels referred to in these letters to the churches are in fact the bishops of those churches, but most of the Fathers make a more literal interpretation. Some of them assert that the angel assigned to each local church is the invisible and spiritual double of the human bishop.

As for our personal guardian angels, there many references to them in scripture. For example, in the following text from Genesis, Jacob (Israel) blesses his sons, referring to his guardian angel in the process:

And Israel … blessed [his sons] saying, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, and the angel who has delivered me from all evil, bless these sons; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac …” (Gen 48:15-16).

Psalm 91 speaks to the care of the angels for us:

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone (Psalm 91:11-12).

There is also this well-known passage in which Jesus refers to guardian angels:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven (Mat 18:10).

There is a text in The Acts of the Apostles in which an angel helps Peter to escape from prison; the community also refers to Peter’s angel:

Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. … When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me ….” He went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind,” but she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel” (Acts 12:6-15, selected).

Thus, we see the care of the angels for us in special ways as well as in an ongoing, personal way.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church confidently teaches,

From its beginning until 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 #336).

The Fathers of the Church attest to the existence of guardian angels and describe their roles.

Note that angels do more than protect and console; they also reprimand and punish, exhorting us to penance. The Fathers also generally assert that the angels assist in our prayer and transmit our petitions to God.

  • Origen says, “We must say that every human soul is under the direction of an angel who is like a father.”
  • Basil says, “An angel is put in charge of every believer, provided we do not drive him out by sin. He guards our soul like an army.”
  • Eusebius says, “Fearing, lest sinful mankind should be without government and without guidance, like herds of cattle, God gave us protectors and superintendents, the holy angels in the form of captains and shepherds. His First-Born Son is set above all these.”
  • Hilary says, “In the warfare we carry on, to remain strong against the evil powers, the angels are our helpers.”
  • Athanasius says, “In opposition to the turmoil into which demons throw the soul, the vision of the angels works softly and peaceably, awakening joy and exultation.”
  • The Shepherd of Hermas says, “We are not at first chastised by the Father of the family Himself, but by the angels whom he has sent as masters over us, with the office of chastising and correcting each one of us.”
  • Origen says, “If there are good thoughts in our heart, let there be no doubt that the angel of the Lord is speaking to us. But if evil things come into our heart, let there be no doubt that an angel of the evil one is speaking to us.”
  • John Chrysostom says that among the faithful, those who have higher offices in the Church are the object of special protection: “The virtues of heaven are always with those who are charged with such offices.”

Here are some other terms used by the Fathers and/or in Scripture to describe the function of the guardian angel:

  • Guard
  • Protector
  • Superintendent
  • Overseer
  • Assistant
  • Shepherd
  • Herdsman
  • Instructor

Opinion is divided over whether non-believers have guardian angels. St. Thomas says that they do but adds that the guardian angel has an entirely new role after baptism. Before a person’s baptism, Satan has certain “legal rights” over him and the angels can only set limits. Baptism reverses the situation and increases the power of the angel to defend.

We live in the midst of a supernatural world, a spectacle wherein everything that appears to be empty space is in fact filled with the angels. Yes, the angels surround us!

Be careful to remember that angels are our guardians, not our pets. We must respect and revere them, being immensely grateful for their ministry on our behalf. Each of us must listen to our angel’s voice, which echoes in our mind and conscience, and obey. We ought not to name angels because they are above us; we name those beneath us, for example, our children. When Samson’s parents asked the name of the angel who visited them, they were rebuked: Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding (Judges 13:18). We owe our guardian angels reverence, obedience, and joyful gratitude.

Angel of God, my Guardian dear,
to whom His love commits me here,
ever this day be at my side,
to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Role of Our Guardian Angels

The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

Ghent Altarpiece – Jan van Eyck (1429)

This is the second in a series of five posts on the angels and their role in our lives. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching 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. 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 passages below represent my own additions. In today’s post we ponder the presence and role of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy.

Origen reasons that if the angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him and shall deliver them (Psalm 34:7), then it is probable that when many are assembled legitimately for the glory of Christ, the angel of each that fears God encamps around him. Thus, when the saints are gathered there is a twofold Church: that of men and that of angels.

We cannot see the multitude of angels because our eyes are dimmed due to sin; nevertheless, Scripture attests to their presence. For example,

When the young servant of Elisha the man of God got up and went out early in the morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. So he asked Elisha, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” “Do not be afraid,” Elisha answered, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw that the hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

So, there are multitudes of angels who gather with us, though our eyes, blinded by sin and sensuality, cannot see them. Scripture says further and thrillingly,

The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. (Psalm 68:17).

Because the Mass is a participation in the heavenly liturgy, we are further assured that there are myriad angels and many saints round about. Scripture says of the Sacred Liturgy,

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly, to the congregation of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven. You have come to God the judge of all men, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24).

The Fathers, tapping into these traditions, speak of the angels’ presence:

  • Origen warns that the angels are listening to the homily and judging it.
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia sees in the deacons who arrange the sacrifice on the altar an image of the invisible powers of the angels also ministering.
  • St John Chrysostom says that the angels surround the priest, and the whole sanctuary is filled with angels honoring Christ, present in the Eucharist. He adds that we, though lowly, have been deemed worthy to join the powers of Heaven in the worship of the Lord.
  • The Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer also attests to the presence of many angels. For example, “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts …” (Common Preface I). St John Chrysostom says of the Preface, “Reflect upon who it is you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God—the Cherubim! Think of the Choirs you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth (sursum corda). Let him lose himself of every earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven. Let him abide there beside the very throne of glory hovering with the Seraphim and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty.”
  • St John Chrysostom further notes that the Gloria is the song of the lower angels and that even catechumens can sing it. The Sanctus, though, is the song of the Seraphim in the very sanctuary of the Trinity and is reserved for the baptized.
  • John Chrysostom also says, “For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more the Church! Hear the apostles teaching this when he bids women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels. … The angels exult, the Archangels rejoice, the Cherubim and Seraphim join us in the celebration of [the] feast … What room is there for sadness?”

In this last point St. John seems to suggest that because a woman’s hair is her glory, it should be covered in the presence of God and the angels. Men, who tend to indicate rank and status with their hats, should similarly shed such distinction in the presence of God and the angels. This is why bishops, priests, and all clergy remove their head coverings prior to entering the sanctuary for the Eucharistic prayer.

Here, then, is but a brief reflection on the role and presence of the angels in the Sacred Liturgy. Tomorrow’s post will be a short treatise on the role of the angels at the Last Judgment.


Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Role of the Angels in Every Liturgy

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

Don’t Name Your Guardian Angel

Guardian Angel Protecting Child, Domenico Fetti (1615-18)

The Feast of the Guardian Angels, celebrated on Tuesday, seems an appropriate time to point out that the common practice of naming one’s guardian angel should be avoided.

A document authored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2001 states, “The practice of assigning names to the holy angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, whose names are contained in Holy Scripture” (Directory on Popular Piety in the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines, # 127).

While the Congregation does not offer reasons for discouraging the practice, I would like to offer two of my own.

First, there is the understanding of what a name is. For most of us in the modern Western world, a name is simply a sound by which we are addressed. In the ancient biblical world, and even in many places today, a name has a far deeper meaning; it describes something of the essence of the person. This helps to explain the ancient Jewish practice of naming an infant on the eighth day. The delay gave the parents some time to observe the baby’s nature before deciding on a name. Most biblical names are deeply meaningful and descriptive. It is presumptuous to think that we can know enough of the essence of a particular angel that we can assign a name. Hence, naming our guardian angel seems inappropriate.

Second, assigning a name indicates some superiority over the one named. Parents rightly name their children because they have superiority over them. Angels, however, are superior to us. Even though we often speak of angels as serving us, they do this on account of their superior power and to act as our guardians. Thus, God commands us to heed the voice of our guardian angel (cf Ex 23:20-21).

Whenever I mention this admonition to refrain from naming guardian angels, it seems to stir up controversy. Nevertheless, naming an angel seems problematic and is to be discouraged. As for the name being revealed to you, let me respectfully offer that this is not likely the case. It seems unlikely that an angel or the Holy Spirit would act contrary to the directive of the Church herself, graced to speak for Christ. Further, I would be willing to bet that we could not even pronounce the true names of our angels because their names are mysterious!

Consider, too, the silence in the following Scripture passage, when Jacob asked the name of the angel who wrestled with him: Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him (Gen 32:29).

In other words, if you ask the name of your angel the likely response is a rebuke followed by silence. There are some things we need not know.

Interestingly enough, God entrusts us with His name and some of His titles. Enjoy this old classic, but notice that the actual name of God, יְהֹוָה, is not uttered.

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.