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“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

—Hebrews 13:2

WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK OF ANGELS? A tall, graceful figure in a white robe with large wings? A babyish cherub with a mischievous face and halo? Maybe you think of a cartoon angel perched on your shoulder giving advice, along with that little devil on the other side—or do you possibly imagine depictions from popular culture like the film It’s a Wonderful Life or the TV series Touched By an Angel? We may not realize it, but our popular ideas of angels have a long history. Over the centuries,artists showed angels in a way not meant to capture angelic features, but instead to remind us of their inner nature. Wings imply swiftness as God’s messengers. Haloes shed light to indicate bothspeed and the “light from God” they bring. Angels themselves might find our descriptions amusing because, above all, the one primary thing that defines angels is that they are completely spirit. No body at all.

 

Holy Messengers

“You should be aware that the word ‘angel’ denotes a function rather than a nature. Those holy spirits of heaven have indeed always been spirits. They can only be called angels when they deliver some message. Moreover, those who deliver messages of lesser importance are called angels; and those who proclaim messages of supreme importance are called archangels.” —Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity often differ widely on theology, but one thing they all agree on is the existence of angels and their main characteristics: they are spirits, they can take on physical form, and they are messengers from God.

This is supported by biblical stories featuring angels physically announcing salvation or helping in God’s divine plan. Angels guarded the gates to paradise when Adam and Eve were cast out, came to dinner with Abraham, got Lot out of Sodom, helped Tobiah find a bride, and, most famously, asked a young Jewish maiden if she would be willing to give birth to the Messiah. Angels ministered to Jesus after the temptation and comforted Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. And when Jesus ascended to heaven, angels prodded His disciples to move forward with their mission.

We should never forget that angels are spirits of great power. Biblical descriptions from the prophets show us their incomprehensible nature. The book of Ezekiel describes cherubim with four faces, four wings, and feet like a calf. It is worth taking a minute to go read the first chapter of Ezekiel aloud. His account of angels in their “natural habitat” sounds like some of the most experimental science fiction ever written. If nothing else, it shows how difficult it can be to translate angelic appearances into language and concepts.

It also helps explain why so many angelic encounters 
begin with the angels telling people, “Do not be afraid.” There are hints that even when angels take on human form, it is not quite normal. For instance, Daniel 10:5-22 describes an encounter with a man whose face was like lightning and whose eyes were like flaming torches. No wonder Daniel trembled.

The call to “not be afraid” can also be considered a divine reminder to pursue the virtue of courage. As Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles once wrote, “‘Be not afraid!’ is what the angel tells Mary at the annunciation. At the resurrection, another angel uses the same words to tell the women at the tomb that Christ has risen. And the Gospels tell us that these were [Jesus’s] first words after the resurrection. This is fortitude. It is the ability to live in the presence of God and serve Him without fear—without being afraid of God or being afraid of what others might say or do.”

 

We Know Their Names

Three angels are actually named in the Bible: Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Michael in Hebrew means “Who is like God?” or “Who is equal to God?”

Michael is mentioned 
three times in the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Revelation, he leads God’s armies and defeats Satan’s forces during the war in heaven. In the Epistle of Jude he is referred to as “the archangel Michael.” Michael has been depicted from earliest Christian times as a military commander, oftentreading on a dragon (symbolizing Satan).

Gabriel means “Man of God” or “Might of God.” He announces God’s salvation to men. In the Old Testament, he appeared to the prophet Daniel. In the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel foretold the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and asked the Virgin Mary for her consent in bearing Jesus. Artists often show Gabriel clothed in blue or white garments and carrying a lily, a trumpet, a shining lantern, or a scroll.

Raphael means “God’s healing” or “God the Healer.” He appears only in the Book of Tobit which is considered canonical by Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans. Because of his healing role in Tobit, tradition has associated Raphael with the pool at Bethesda, where the first person into the pool would be healed after “an angel of the Lord descended” (John 5:1–4). Raphael is often depicted 
holding a bottle or flask, walking with Tobias, or holding a fish.

 

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