The second reading at Mass today provided the framework for the Curator’s homily, which turned out to be an inspiring commentary on the 9 Choirs of Angels.
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 2 Col 1:15-20
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
Very often, saints and angels are thought of being very similar, but in fact they are very different — two totally different species on God’s list of creation. The Catholic Church honors the three biblically named archangels on September 29. It will honor our guardian angels next month on October 2.
The whole concept of what angels are has taken a beating over the past few years. Angels are not fat babies with wings. They are not gold lapel pins. In fact, the word “angel” is not even what they are; it is what they do!
The word “angel” means “giving a message, a messenger.” And, in the angels’ case, they are messengers from God. What they do is bring messages; what they are, are spirits. They are spirits who are fearsome and formidable; they are warriors. Nearly every time angels appear in the Bible, they first say, “Do not be afraid.”
The lowest of angels has a more brilliant mind than 100 Einsteins put together. They have power far beyond the most fantastic fictional character. Superman would not have a chance. (And to think that we each have our own personal guardian angel, but more about that later.)
Angels are all of this, but in reality they are nothing — they have no parts, no physical energy; there is nothing about them that is physical or tangible. They do not belong to the universe; they are guests.
When angels appear in the Bible, the appearances are not the angels themselves, but disguises they take on. Contrary to greeting cards and garden statues, angels do not have wings or harps; these are all images created by human artists.
If we believe in Jesus, then we have to believe in angels because he mentions them several times. If they don’t really exist, then Jesus was not telling the truth, and if Jesus was not telling the truth, then he is not divine, he is not God.
In fact, all three monotheistic religions have a firm belief in angels. Angels are repeatedly mentioned in the Jewish and Christian Bible, as well as in the Muslim Koran.
According to Sacred Tradition, there are nine choirs of angels. This is not a dogma of the faith, but it is scripturally based and steeped in Sacred Tradition. Without going into much detail, here they are in order from highest to lowest:
Seraphim, which means “the burning ones”: Lucifer was a seraphim, but we will save that for another apologetics column.
Cherubim, which means “fullness of wisdom”: This is where we get the word “cherub,” but, as I said, they are not fat babies; they are among the highest of angels.
Thrones: They contemplate God’s power and judgments.
Dominions: They are the commanders of the angels below them.
Virtues: These run the heavenly bodies of the universe.
Powers: They fight the evil influences that oppose God’s providence.
The final three levels of angels are the ones who deal directly with human affairs:
Principalities: These care for earthly principalities like countries. Did you know that the United States has its own angel?
Archangels: These are the ones that are actually named in the Bible: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. These are the ones who carry God’s most important messages, like the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
Finally, the lowest level of angels are our guardian angels. As I stated above, this hierarchy of angels is not dogma, but it has been the belief of the church from very early times, at least to St. Gregory the Great, who was pope in the sixth century. But the person most responsible for fleshing out the details of the angels was St. Thomas Aquinas.
The angels most important to us personally are the guardian angels. Jesus himself refers to our guardian angels (Matthew 18:10). Our guardian angel is first and foremost concerned with our spiritual well-being, not our physical well-being. If someone survives a terrible car accident without a scratch, very likely a guardian angel had something to do with it, but only for the purpose of eternal salvation in mind. Our angel is always with us, never leaving our presence. If we keep this always in mind, it might help us live a more virtuous life.
Even though angels are always with us, it is at the Mass where they are most present. We have statues of angels in our churches to point to the reality that where God is, so, too, are the angels; when the Eucharist is present, so, too, are the angels. Our churches are packed with them.
St. Alphonsus de Liguori once wrote that when we receive Communion, twelve angels surround us, worshiping the Eucharist we have just consumed. A little food for thought the next time the devil tempts us to leave Mass early.