December 19, 2023 // Perspective

Like the Angels on High, Give Glory to God

You may notice a curious phrase repeated multiple times in the readings at Christmas: “Do not be afraid!” We hear it proclaimed on Christmas Eve, as the angel comforts Joseph with the knowledge that the Child in Mary’s womb is the Son of God, and we hear it again in the liturgy of Christmas afternoon, as the angel choir appears to tell the shepherds the joyful news about the Savior of the world, newly born in nearby Bethlehem.

When you hear the word “angel,” what comes to your mind? Is it a chubby little baby with wings, floating among the clouds? (And if that’s not what first came to your mind, I’ll bet you are picturing it now!) We owe this angelic image to the Renaissance artist Raphael, who painted two cherubs (technically called “putti”) at the bottom of his 1512 masterpiece known as the “Sistine Madonna.”

This is the season of the year when it’s easy to believe that angels are all around us. We hear about them in the liturgy, we see them in our Nativity scenes, we sing about them in our carols (“Angels We Have Heard on High”), we laugh at their antics in our favorite movies (Clarence in “It’s A Wonderful Life”). But what can we know, if anything, about actual angels?

The existence of angels is a truth of the faith, well attested to in Scripture and Tradition from the earliest days of the Church. But what are they? “With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 329). The word means “one sent,” which describes their function, not their nature. As to what they are, angels are purely spiritual creatures, with will and intelligence, more perfect than all visible creatures (cf. CCC, No.  330).

Angels make multiple appearances throughout sacred Scripture, from the earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis, where we read about the angels who guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden after the fall of Adam and Eve, to the Book of Tobit, where we meet the Archangel Raphael, who serves as Tobias’ traveling companion and protector. In Numbers Chapter 22, we read the humorous story of the angel who stopped the foreign prophet Balaam on his journey to curse the people of Israel, causing his donkey to veer off the road and unceremoniously dump poor Balaam onto the ground. (You’ll be pleased to know that Balaam got the message, and eventually prayed a blessing on Israel rather than a curse.)

In the New Testament, we meet the King of Angels, Jesus, for whom and by whom the angels were created. In addition to the angelic tales we hear in our Christmas liturgies, we also read about the angels who attended to Jesus during His 40 days in the desert (cf. Mk 1:14). Jesus taught His disciples about the existence of the guardian angels, who accompany each child while also beholding the face of God (cf. Mt 18:10). An angel appeared to strengthen Him in His sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Lk 22:43). And after the Resurrection, angels explained to the women at the tomb what had happened to His body (cf. Lk 24).

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read about how St. Peter was freed from prison by an angel, though he thought he was dreaming the whole thing (cf. Acts 12). In his Revelation, St. John tells about the trumpet-blasting angels who herald the Lord Jesus’ return before the final judgment. He then describes the heavenly liturgy,
which, fittingly, sounds like the celebration of Holy Mass, where countless angels (accompanied by the saints) sing songs of praise before the altar at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Once you begin to look for them, you see angels everywhere in sacred Scripture.

There is one particular angelic appearance that I think of often, as it’s frankly terrifying. At the beginning of the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, the prophet recounts an encounter with the cherubim, who are the angels who accompany the throne of God. His description of these four angels is hard to fully comprehend, as he writes about seeing enormous beings, human in form but with bull hooves for feet, bright as polished bronze, each with four faces, four wings, and eye-covered wheels within eye-covered wheels, surrounded by burning torches and flashes of lightning, making a roaring noise like “many rushing waters” (Ez 1:4-24).

From Ezekiel’s description of the angels, it’s easy to see why, when they are sent by God to a person to deliver a message, they are wise to begin with a word of assurance: “Do not be afraid!”

But even when the message is a stern word of warning or an urgent call to repentance, angels, ultimately, are ultimately a sign that God does indeed love all that He has created. When we reflect upon the fact that each and every person ever to exist has a guardian angel beholding the face of God, we can be assured that God cares for each and every one of us, and that we have a powerful heavenly protector who we can call upon to be strengthened in temptation or danger (as Jesus was at Gethsemane, or as St. Peter was in prison). And this message is truly one of comfort and joy.

In this Christmas season, let us not be afraid to sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest!”

Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend.

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