One of the joys of Christmas is bringing the presence of angels back to the forefront of our consciousness. Angels are wondrous beings who reflect the unfathomable glory of the Creator. Unfortunately, as too often portrayed in popular culture, they come off as some semi-human celestial hybrids trying to ‘earn their wings.’ (Think of Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.”) On the contrary no angel ever had a body in some previous life nor shared in our human nature. Angels are purely spiritual beings created that way by God.
Perhaps the term ‘angel’ itself is misleading. St. Augustine observes that ‘angel’ is the name of their office, not their nature. In other words, it refers to their job description as messengers and servants of God. Similarly we might speak of ‘my teacher’ or ‘my banker’ without inferring that teaching or banking is what defines one’s humanity. So too with that race of spiritual beings called angels who can perform many assorted functions (guardian angels for instance), but any particular function is incidental to the actual being. I am a writer but first I am a man – which represents the core of my identity. So too with those spiritual beings we call angels simply because their work is good and helpful to humanity. But there are also oppressive spiritual beings who work much evil in the world and whom we call demons. Yet both angels and demons share the same nature, but they are distinguished by their works: one to do good, the other to do evil.
That said, we humans have a great deal in common with the angels. For one thing these celestial beings are our partners and collaborators in salvation, by God’s very design. Notice how the Scriptures are filled with various encounters with angels beginning in Genesis and going right through to Revelation. Christ is every bit as much at the center of the angelic world as he is at the heart of our human world. St. Paul is being quite literal when he writes, “for in him (Christ) all things were created in heaven and on earth.” (Col. 1:16. italics mine) Christ is both causal and central to any understanding of angeldom, so that even when he was born in Bethlehem the angels could not help rejoicing. “Suddenly there were a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” (Lk. 2:13-14)
The implications of this reality are stunning if we follow the logic through. The angels are not merely bystanders in the work of redemption, they have real ‘skin in the game’ because they too were once redeemed by Christ. Of course, we must understand that the angels are not ‘redeemed’ in the same sense that humans are. Christ did not need to suffer and die for the angelic hosts as he did for the human race because these celestial beings, unlike mankind, had never sinned. So in that sense their redemption is entirely different from ours. But our Faith also reveals that they were once tested in some way, near the beginning of time, and that many of those spiritual beings fell away from divine grace under the influence of Lucifer, or Satan.
“Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon… Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth.” (Rev. 12:3-4) Now St. John uses many metaphors in Revelation and stars are a metaphor for celestial beings (also in chapter 6:13 and chapter 8:10-12). During that great trial long ago, as St. John explains, a great number of heavenly creatures (a third of the stars) defected from God’s sanctifying grace and were cast out of the heavens and down to the earth where they would prey on mankind, but only for a time. Still, it appears from the text that an even greater number rejected Satan’s act of rebellion and thus survived the great trial.
Angels, being purely spiritual and immortal beings, possess of an intellect and free will are thus able to choose serving God or not serving him (non serviam). But that choice, once made, is final and irrevocable. As humans this is a difficult concept to grasp because we are so changeable, almost like the weather. We sin, then repent only to sin again and repent again, etc. I venture that such irresoluteness is utterly baffling to a heavenly being. But the main point is this. Where did those angels receive the actual grace to resist the prideful cry of Lucifer to reject God and become one’s own god? The short answer is that those faithful spirits received that grace directly from Christ who, by virtue if his Incarnation as a man, would have merited the special graces needed to preserve the faithful angels from sin. How so? By manifesting total obedience to the Father in abject humility, for that is what the Incarnation represented. In his pride Satan had proclaimed, “My will be done!” In his humility Christ counter-proclaimed, “Thy will be done.”
Christ thereby showed those faithful legions in heaven how to reject the arrogant claims of Satan, which is through humility. The Incarnation was an act of complete humiliation for the Word of God who bound himself totally to the sinful race of man. What theologians glibly refer to as the ‘hypostatic union’ (God inextricably joined to man) became an act of pure and total degradation from God’s perspective. Even the angels must have been appalled that God would endure such an incomprehensible humiliation. He not only assumed lowly human flesh but God elected to be born in a smelly stable, in abject poverty, while subjecting himself to 30 odd years of obedience to human parents. He then chose the lowest possible lot in life as a manual laborer.
Yet the whole time it was the angels who were charged with actively directing these remarkable events, and preserving this helpless divine child: the angel Gabriel appearing to Zechariah, then to Mary; the angel counseling Joseph in his dreams; other angels speaking to the magi, warning of Herod’s treachery. Then at the age of twelve the boy Jesus was drawn irresistibly to his Father’s temple in Jerusalem. Yet when his frantic parents find him there he manifests perfect obedience to them as we read, “He went down with them to Nazareth, and was obedient to them;” (Lk. 2:51) Finally, upon entering his public ministry, Jesus goes into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. Despite being weak from hunger he defeats the wiles of the evil one. At this point, “and behold, angels came and ministered to him.” (Mt. 4:11)
Notice that the angels are not far-off spectators but active participants in many key events surrounding the life of Christ. He thereby gives them a firsthand example of humility because it was by accepting his humiliating Incarnation, the regimen of obedience, and demonic temptations that Christ won the graces that preserved the good angels from sin in their own hour of temptation. In that sense they share in the same Christological redemption of which we humans are also the beneficiaries.Unlike us, however, the good angels never sinned, but similar to us they were once faced with severe temptation which had to be overcome. It was Christ who won that grace for them by being born as a man and overcoming his own temptation in the wilderness. He later won those graces that sinful humans would require by enduring his human passion and death. St. Paul explains both ends of this mystery beautifully when he writes:
“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. It was thus that he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father, Jesus Christ is Lord!” (Phil. 26-11)
The angels are our constant companions and guardians; our friends because we both have something in common: Jesus Christ who is our mutual Lord and Redeemer. So do not be a stranger to these most faithful servants of God who take a personal interest in you. Cultivate that bond of friendship and experience the joy of those celestial beings who constantly gaze upon the face of God. It will change your life. A blessed Christmas to you in the company of the angels!
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.
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