You’ve probably heard about that baby girl who survived a car accident that killed her mother, hanging in her car seat for 14 hours until emergency personnel showed up. The first responders say they heard someone– not the baby, but either a woman or a child– yelling for help, which gave them the strength to flip the car over. They were shocked to find her mother had been dead since the accident. You may even have seen the video. I know some folks have suggested that her mom came back as an Angel to save her child.
For shock value, I really should write something like “that’s nonsense,” to get your attention with a nasty splash of cold water. All the style guides I’ve read support it– but it’s not nonsense, it’s a minor misunderstanding or miscommunication in the course of grasping for something wonderful in the middle of a tragedy that could have been so much worse. It’s also rather rude to manipulate folks to get a reaction, rather than trying to convey information. I don’t know what the folks at the rescue heard, but I definitely get chills thinking about it, and I think it’s interesting enough to stand on its own just fine.
When someone says “angel,” they’re usually picturing something like the classic painting, “Guiding Angel”– a guardian angel with robes and wings, hovering protectively behind two children that are crossing a bridge. Depending on the context, harps may be involved. They might think of popular movies and shows, like the entire genera of “Archangel Michael on earth and probably falling in love” movies. Maybe images of a warrior of God with a flaming sword, smiting the devil. For gamers, they might picture Tyrael of the Diablo games. On a more personal level, they may think back to a lost loved one they were told is now an angel.
One of these things is not like the others– supernatural beings vs dead humans. Angels are not, and never were, human. A dead human who is with God is a saint, but not an angel in the classic sense.
That, I suspect, is part of the reason for the discomfort. There are some American religious groups that have a strong opposition to anything that is even vaguely related to Catholicism, but “angel” is not only alright for all flavors of Christian (that I’ve heard of–never wise to underestimate the creativity of people choosing what they wish to believe) but is a tradition in many other faiths. The name for Angels is even from that for “messenger”– Greek, although don’t draw any more of a conclusion from that than from ‘demon’ coming from the word for supernatural powers below ‘demigods.’ Word origins can tell you a lot, but sometimes all it tells you is that at some point it was most popularly found in a specific context, and it’s especially dangerous when you don’t know the original implications. The Greek was a translation from the Hebrew MLAK, which can be translated as “he who is sent before”. Maybe I’m odd, but that sounds like a herald, not someone that would sit on a stone to inform you that He is not in the tomb, or even get in a wrestling match. (Pardon my digression; I will avoid another and here promise to do an article on (dead human type) saints at a later point.)
What We’ve Got
We don’t have a lot of information in general about angels, although there’s a surprising amount of specific information and a rich tradition of theories based upon that information. I’ll try to summarize. But be forewarned, I will miss a lot– and there is a lot of really bad information floating around online.
To jump backwards a bit and then return to the current point, here’s a quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia on Guardian angels, starting with some other cultures and ending with some Biblical sources. (Courtesy of Catholic.com)
Guardian Angel. — That every individual soul has a guardian angel has never been defined by the Church, and is, consequently, not an article of faith; but it is the “mind of the Church”, as St. Jerome expressed it: “how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it”. (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II). This belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Euseb., “Praep. Evang.”, xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an Assyrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: “He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed.” In the Bible this doctrine is clearly discernible and its development is well marked. In Gen., xviii-xix, angels not only act as the executors of God’s wrath against the cities of the plain, but they deliver Lot from danger; in Ex., xii-xiii, an angel is the appointed leader of the host of Israel, and in xxxii, 34, God says to Moses: “my angel shall go before thee.”
At a much later period we have the story of Tobias, which might serve as a commentary on the words of Ps., xc, 11: “For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways.” (Cf. Ps., xxxiii, 8; and xxxiv, 5.) Lastly, in Dan., x, angels are entrusted with the care of particular districts; one is called “prince of the kingdom of the Persians”, and Michael is termed “one of the chief princes”; cf. Deut., xxxii, 8 (Sept.); and Ecclus., xvii, 17 (Sept.).
This sums up the Old Testament doctrine on the point; it is clear that the Old Testament conceived of God’s angels as His ministers who carried out His behests, and who were at times given special commissions, regarding men and mundane affairs. There is no special teaching; the doctrine is rather taken for granted than expressly laid down; cf. II Mach., iii, 25; x, 29; xi, 6; xv, 23. But in the New Testament the doctrine is stated with greater precision. Angels are everywhere the intermediaries between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: “See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt., x; iii, 10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is here put before us: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels lose not the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfil on earth.
One of my favorite stories is when Saint Peter was freed from jail by an angel, in part because it really humanized the first Pope for me– I would’ve thought I was dreaming, too!
I’ll try to be concise in summarizing what else we know of angels, courtesy of New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia; it is also an excellent starting point for an idea of how very much reasoning has gone into our “knowledge” of angels, and what other traditions have been involved.
Names; please note, they’re descriptive ones– like when a family is always smiths, and so becomes Smith.
Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Lucifer (fallen angel– AKA demon)- from the Bible.
Uriel and Jeremiel- Jewish Apocrypha
Angels, Archangels (too numerous to list)
Cherubim, Seraphim (Cherubim were represented on the Ark of the Covenant, and Isaiah described Seraphim)
Principality, Power, Virtue, Throne, Domination (Ephesians and Colossians)
And as they are several times mentioned as surrounding God’s throne, we can conclude they are where He is… Which is yet another really big topic.
I’d like to end with a gentle reminder to watch yourself for what is charmingly referred to as “superstitious use” of the belief in angels; they are agents of God, rather like the saints, as you probably already know from the various angelic saints’ feasts– not some sort of a way to bypass Himself. There’s also very little that we must believe about them, so please don’t get carried away. However, they are really inspiring.