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Vol. XIV, January 2008

 

“A man clothed in linen, His body was like beryl…”
(Dan 10:5-6)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

The book of Daniel has already afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the holy angels as messengers and on the prerequisites required of men for their reception. The following chapter takes us a step further in angelology: We receive a description of the physical appearance of an angel:

In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia … I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. … On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, that is, the Tigris, I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold—a man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with gold of Uphaz. His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the noise of a multitude.

And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves. (Dan 10:1-7)

1. The physical appearance of an angel

After centuries of philosophical and theological reflection, it has become clear for us today, that angels have no bodies, they are pure spirits. In the Catechism we read: “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls angels is a truth of faith” (CCC 328). “As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures” (CCC 330).

In a certain sense, St. Raphael had already explained this to Tobit and Tobias. He said: “All these days I merely appeared to you and did not eat or drink, but you were seeing a vision” (cf. Tob 12:19).

Nevertheless, we cannot just reject any visible or materialized manifestation of an angel. First, because the testimony in Sacred Scripture is too frequent, and so it is that in the history of the Church and in the lives of the Saints, be it in a very human form (as St. Raphael in Tobias) or in the almost unimaginable form of the Living Beings (as in Ezekiel). We may just recall one given by St. John the Evangelist in the book of Revelation, which is very similar to the one which Daniel describes here in our text:

I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.… And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring; when he called out, the seven thunders sounded. (Rev 10:1-3)

A second reason, why we cannot deny a physical appearance of an angel lies in our specific human nature: How should an angel communicate a message of God to man, without making himself perceivable to man? All man’s perceptions begin in his senses! So the angels have to communicate to man in a certain palpable or perceivable manner. Of course, normally, when an angel appears, man should realize that he is facing a heavenly creature, a person who is higher, and more perfect than he, someone who is more powerful, who has greater authority, and not just another human being. There are many testimonies in this regard (cf. e.g. Judges 13:16,19-23; Jos 5:13-15; Lk 1:19; Rev 19:10).

2. The symbolic expression of the “world” of an angel

Therefore, it is worthwhile to look more closely at the angel’s appearance and ask what is it telling us men about this angel or about anything for that matter, since as higher beings angels have a higher knowledge than men in all things?

—Daniel begins by saying that upon looking up, he saw “a man clothed in linen”. This man is again Gabriel according St. Gregory and St. John Cassian (cf. Cornelius a Lapide, Commentary on Daniel). His vestment of linen expresses the angel’s purity and innocence, as well as the service of priests. Lapide does not miss the chance to point out that such a vestment does not only cover a body; it also directs the attention to the person and to his interiority. The less the body is shown, the more our attention is directed to the spirit. Therefore, all the following observations immediately suggest a spiritual meaning.

—He sees the “loins were girded with gold of Uphaz”. The girdle of “gold of Uphaz” underlines already a deeper significance. It symbolizes love, the intention of this man, his will to care for the best of others. To be girded means to be ready and disposed for anything, especially for the defense of the beloved. That means then, that the angel is willing and ready to fight for the people of God. Lapide goes still further to a mystical significance. In this sense, the girdle symbolizes charity which unites and perfects all the other virtues like under their crown; girding the loins indicates the power of Divine love in putting together all concupiscence, delights and loves and turns them to God. And as a third interpretation, Lapide sees in this girdle those men united who control their love of the flesh and of the world and the concupiscence through the love of God; and, herewith, become worthy of the company, dialogue and consolation of the angels!

Already this simple sign or indication of discipline and strength of will leads our comprehension of an angel in another direction than baroque art had indicated. The angels are not weak, sweet or sensual, but pure spirits, knowing what they want and wanting this with all they are and have. The following indications underline this point:

—“His body was like beryl,” observed Daniel. Beryl is a precious stone with golden color and somehow transparent. This points, on the one hand, to God as everything in the holy angels does. On the other hand, it shows the instrumental character of the angels, their readiness to be sent and give testimony solely of God. This attitude shows, in the depths, their total surrender to God and perfect forgetfulness of self. And, finally, it shows the angel’s worthiness to be present before God and serve Him. (This is actually the essential point!) Again, what we said with regard to the vestment of linen and the attention to the spiritual part, becomes still clearer here (cf. Benedict XVI, Homily on Sept. 29, 2007).

—After this indication of the body the prophet speaks of the radiance of the face: “His face like the appearance of lightning” reflects the intensity of God’s splendor and glory, just as Moses did when he came down from the encounter with God. It is also a symbol of the glory of the angels which comes from the divine knowledge. Further, this fiery dynamism speaks also about the zeal of the pure spirits, their anger about the sinners and enemies of the faith. Lapide believes this lightning also expresses the brilliance of the Resurrection, as is said in St. Matthew: “An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow” (Mt 28:2-3).

—This nearness to God and the transformation in it explain “his eyes like flaming torches.” They speak to us about the clarity of the angelic intellect, according to nature as well as through grace and even the divine glory, which is the object of their love and fruition in God. But in these eyes can be seen also prudence, zeal, vigilance, which are needed in war.

—Due to so much power in the will, the prophet found the angel’s “arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze,” strong for action and quick of movement.

— Finally, “the sound of his words [was] like the noise of a multitude.” The voice of a crowd is loud but confused; it is like the roar of many waters, which is often used as a description of the voice of God and of the angels (cf. e.g. Ez 1:24; Rev 1:15). In as much as the voice is a certain expression of the intellect and will, the powerful voice of the angel expresses his power. Another interpretation refers to the fullness of science they have, their power to teach and enlighten others.

3. The importance of knowing the angels

By the appearance of the angels we not only know something about the angel and his ministry, we also know something about God and the divine plan, for they reflect His perfections and act according to His will.

The familiar contact of the angel with the prophet shows that God wants to form the communion of “saints” among His faithful creatures. In this the mystery of the Church is prepared, even the communion between the heavenly and triumphant Church with the militant and suffering Church. And to this sacred assembly the angels also belong, for “already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336). The liturgical life is the first activity in which we share their companionship, as the Holy Father just mentioned on Christmas night: “According to the Fathers, part of the angels’ Christmas song is the fact that now angels and men can sing together and in this way the beauty of the universe is expressed in the beauty of the song of praise. Liturgical song—still according to the Fathers—possesses its own peculiar dignity through the fact that it is sung together with the celestial choirs. It is the encounter with Jesus Christ that makes us capable of hearing the song of the angels” (Benedict XVI, Homily, Midnight-Mass Dec. 25, 2007).

Our communion with the holy angels will increase and grow more intimate when we come to know them better. For this reason, the description of the angel, given here through Daniel, is important for us. The better we know the angels, the more intensely we will love them and try to imitate them. We recognize them clearly as ministers of God who are stronger, wiser and more fervent in the love of God than we are. Accordingly greater should be our desire to approach them, to associate with them and to receive their help. The knowledge of their greatness strengthens our hope and confidence, much the way, Pope Benedict XVI wants to guide us through his last encyclical, Spei salva.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

This vision of the angel leads our attention to what is above—rather than that which is below; to what is good—instead of to what has failed; to the light instead towards darkness. Pondering the angels in glory reminds us that the final victory has already been achieved by Christ. It makes us optimistic in the midst of the daily reality. Let us give this testimony before the souls entrusted to us which today are so often lost and discouraged.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC

NB: We highly recommend that you consult the webpage of the Congregation of the Clergy (www.clerus.org) for an extraordinary impulse given to the universal Church. John Paul II asked the Church: “Let our adoration never cease!” (CCC 1380). Benedict XVI asked in the Post-apostolic Letter Sacramentum Caritatis for Eucharistic Adoration. Now the Congregation asks to form a spiritual movement of Perpetual Adoration “so that a prayer of adoration...will be raised to God incessantly and from every corner of the earth” for reparation and sanctification of priests and their adoption by spiritual motherhood to which she encourages: “Let every one be involved”! Please give it all your attention and dedication! For your parishes, you may be interested in looking into our Crusade for Priests and spiritual adoption of priests program.