You are here

Creator of Things Unseen: the Angels

1986, July 30

General Audience

In the previous catechesis we dwelt on the article of the creed in which we proclaim and confess God as Creator not only of the whole visible world, but also of the "things unseen." We treated of the question of the existence of the angels who were called upon to make a decision for God or against God by a radical and irreversible act of acceptance or rejection of his salvific will.

According to Sacred Scripture the angels are purely spiritual creatures. They are presented for our reflection as a special realization of the "image of God," the most perfect Spirit, as Jesus himself reminded the Samaritan woman in the words: "God is spirit" (Jn 4:24). From this point of view the angels are the creatures closest to the divine exemplar. The name given to them by Sacred Scripture indicates that what counts most in revelation is the truth concerning the tasks of the angels in regard to humanity-angel (angelus) means "messenger." Used in the Old Testament, the Hebrew malak signifies more precisely "delegate" or "ambassador." The angels, spiritual creatures, have a function of mediation and of ministry in the relationships between God and man. Under this aspect the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ has been given a "name," and therefore a ministry of mediation, far superior to that of the angels (cf. Heb 1:4).

The Old Testament especially emphasizes the special participation of the angels in the celebration of the glory which the creator receives as a tribute of praise on the part of the created world. The Psalms are the interpreters of this voice in a special way, when, for example, they proclaim: "Praise the Lord from the heavens praise him in the heights! Praise him all his angels..." (Ps 148:1-2). Similarly in Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word!" (Ps 103:20). This last verse of Psalm 103 indicates that the angels take part, in a way proper to themselves, in God's government of creation. They are "the mighty ones who do his word" according to the plan established by divine Providence. A special care and solicitude for people is entrusted to the angels in particular, whose requests and prayers they present to God, as mentioned, for example, in the Book of Tobit (cf. especially Tob 3:17 and 12:12). Psalm 91 proclaims: "For to his angels he has given command about you...upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Ps 91:11-12). Following the Book of Daniel it can be said that the tasks of angels as ambassadors of the living God extend not only to individual human beings and to those who have special duties, but also to entire nations (Dan 10:13-21).

The New Testament highlights the role of the angels in Christ's messianic mission, and first of all in the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God. We observe this in the account of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (cf. Lk 1:11), of Christ himself (cf. Lk 1:26), in the explanations and orders given to Mary and Joseph (cf. Lk 1:30-37; Mt 1:20-21), in the indications given to the shepherds on the night of the Lord's birth (Lk 2:9-15), and in the protection of the newborn child from the danger of persecution by Herod (cf. Mt 2:13).

The Gospels also speak of the presence of the angels during Jesus' forty days of fast in the desert (cf. Mt 4:11) and during his prayer in Gethsemane (cf. Lk 22:43). After Christ's resurrection an angel appeared under the form of a young man, who said to the women who had hastened to the tomb and were surprised to find it empty: "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here...go, tell his disciples..." (Mt 16:5-7). Two angels were seen also by Mary Magdalene, who was privileged with a personal apparition of Jesus (Jn 20:12-17; cf. also Lk 24:4). The angels appeared to the apostles after Christ's ascension, and said to them: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:10-11). They are the angels of him who as St. Peter writes, "has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him" (1 Pet 3:22).

If we pass to the second coming of Christ, in the Parousia, we find that all the Synoptic Gospels note that "the Son of man... will come in the glory of the Father with the holy angels" (thus Mk 8:38; as also Mt. 16:27; and Mt 25:31 in the description of the last judgment; and Lk 9:26; cf. also St. Paul in 2 Thess 1:7). The angels, as pure spirits, not only participate in the holiness of God himself, in the manner proper to them, but in the key moments they surround Christ and accompany him in the fulfillment of his salvific mission in regard to the human race. In the same way the whole of Tradition and the ordinary Magisterium of the Church down the centuries have attributed to the angels this particular character and this function of messianic ministry.