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Vol. XIV, November 2008

St. Paul 4: The angels’ nature and mission (cf. Heb 1)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

In our reflection about the angels in life and letters of Saint Paul we saw first the clear statement of their creation in and through and for Christ! Then we saw through the double meaning of “angels” the hierarchy among them, ordered in choirs. This grouping is based on their nature and grace.
Now we want to look closer to what St. Paul says about their nature and their mission.

1. Characteristics of the angels according to St. Paul

a) Some determinations already seen
By the fact, that the angels are created, St. Paul implicitly says that the angels are limited and dependent. They can not be explained of themselves, but indicate a deeper and more radical, a more powerful and higher cause.

Further we said, the individuality of the angels is based on the division of choirs. They are not just an anonymous mass. They are individual persons with a very specific identity. St. Paul says: They have a name (cf. Heb 1:4). The individuality of pure spirits is caused by their essence. Because they are creatures, finite and limited by their essence, St. Paul said: The Son of God is “as much superior to angels as the name He has obtained is more excellent than theirs”.

This leads to another simple, but helpful conclusion: The angels are higher than man in the scale of beings and more perfect than man, but lower than the infinite eternal God. Almost all determinations about them have to fit into this horizon.

b) Symbolic expressions
Beyond these rather metaphysical determinations, we find in St. Paul some symbolic descriptions. The immediate reason is the reference to another biblical text, the remote reason is the necessity to describe to man the invisible angels with visible characteristics due to his being composed of a spiritual soul and material body. St. Paul refers to a rather familiar image in the Old Testament, when he says: “Of the angels He says, ‘Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire’.” (Heb 1:7). He quotes Psalm 104:4 where we read: “Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, thou art very great! Thou … makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.” (Ps 104:1,4). The interpretation as a reference to the angels is supported by another text in St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, speaking about the second coming of Christ: “The Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire…” (2Thess 1:7). Finally, these symbolic expressions are justified through the similarity of the angels with the Holy Spirit; as He was manifested at Pentecost by “a sound … from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, … And there appeared to them tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:2-3). Let us look at these two images more closely.

Wind or the moving air indicates different qualities of the angels which qualifies them as messengers:

St. Thomas observed four similarities:

“Air is receptive of light and of impressions; it gives a true picture of what it receives, and it moves rapidly.

These are the characteristics that a good messenger should have, namely, that he receive the news correctly, report it accurately and do so swiftly.

And these characteristics are found in angels: for they receive divine illuminations correctly, since they are clean mirrors… they transmit perfectly what they receive … (cf. Rev. 1:1). And they are swift: ‘Go, you swift angels, to a nation rent and torn to pieces’ (Is. 18:2). But they are called spirits, because every invisible substance is called a spirit; hence, even the air is called a spirit.” (St. Thomas Aq., In Heb 1:7; Marietti, n. 58)

Receptivity corresponds to the total openness and docility of the angels; further, the angels as holy and faithful servants of God are authentic mediators whom everyone can trust, God as well as we men. The velocity tells us, that the angels do not place any obstacle or hindrance against the Will of God, but fulfill His Will without hesitation. Finally, as we perceive the invisible air through its influence on other realities, only in this same way we observe the presence of the angels too. “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will!” (Ps 103:20-21).

Also fire is an image for the angels.

“Of all the elements fire is the most active and most efficacious for acting; hence in Ps. 103 (v. 5) it is said of the angels: ‘You make your ministers a burning fire’. Fire also causes heat, by which charity is signified: ‘The lamps thereof are fire and flames’ (Song of S.s 8:6). Again, fire always moves upward; so, too, the angels and good ministers always refer what they do to God’s glory, as is clear of Tobias’ angel: ‘Bless the God of heaven’ (Tob. 12:6). He does not say, ‘Bless me’, but ‘bless the God of heaven.’ Not so the evil angel who says: ‘All these will I give you, if falling down you will adore me’ (Mt. 4:9). But the good angel, as a good minister, says: ‘See you do it not’ (Rev. 22:9); and he continues: ‘Adore God’ (Rev. 22:9).” (Ibid.)

According to St. Thomas, the active and efficacious fire indicates the powerful influence of the angels, its movement their agility and flexibility as well as their docility and obedience, its direction and illuminating effect their God-centeredness and the heat it produces means the love they cause.

2. The mission of the angels according to St. Paul

These characteristics are based on the purely spiritual nature of the angels with which they act. Let’s look closer at what St. Paul says about the mission of the angels.

a) They adore God
The very first activity and most known of the angels is that most fundamental attitude which they share with all creatures, the adoration of God. It is the recognition of God’s sovereignty and the total submission of the creature’s “nothingness” (cf. CCC 2096-7). “And again, when He brings the first-born into the world, He says, ‘Let all God's angels worship Him’.” (Heb 1:6).

b) They mediate the Word and will of God
Another activity is their mission in the History of Salvation. God sent them to reveal His Will and to teach man His law. What St. Stephen said and Paul very probably heard (cf Acts 7:53), the apostle affirms himself: “The law? … it was ordained by angels as through an intermediary.” (Gal 3:19; cf Heb 2:2: “For if the message declared by angels…”). This is the main meaning of the expression “angel - messenger”.

c) They contemplate Christ
The third activity refers to Christ. St. Paul mentions the angels as a proof of Christ’s Divinity: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He (Christ) was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1Tim 3:16). According to St. Thomas, it means that Christ showed Himself to the angels, therefore, they learned from Him a new dimension of God’s love for His creatures (cf. Eph 3:10).

d) They serve
Finally, St. Paul speaks in a very universal way of the ministry of the angels: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb 1:14)
This is an affirmation which can be understood only in relation to the Incarnation of their Lord and God: Him they want to serve always and everywhere, even though He made Himself man and through Him alone can be obtained salvation. It reveals the greatness of human nature, elevated through baptism above the angels by grace in Christ.

We may observe that St. Paul sees the holy angels as adorer in relation to God, then as mediators between God and man through the word as law and revelation, from the Old Testament till the book of Revelation (cf. 1:1). Then the apostle describes the angels as contemplators of Christ, the God who became man; and finally as servants of men. This is almost a glance through the entire history of salvation, an indirect affirmation that they are always with “God and his reign” (cf. CCC 392): They “have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan … (till) Christ's return” (CCC 332-3).

3. Like the priests
It should surprise us also, that these characteristics of their life and mission – and we hope we considered all of them in the apostle’s letters – come close to those four fundamental directions which we are taught in the Work of the Holy Angels, that is, adoration and contemplation, expiation and mission.

We also will be very astonished when we ponder, how much of what St. Paul says about the mission of the angels we can and have to apply to our priestly ministry. Their similarity to the air and wind not less than that to the fire can be applied, point by point, to the nature of the priesthood also.

With regard to adoration said Pope Benedict XVI, that “the secret of their [the priests’] sanctification lies precisely in the Eucharist. (…) The priest must be first and foremost an adorer who contemplates the Eucharist” (Angelus, 18 September 2005; quoted in the “Explanatory note to help promote the practice of continuous Eucharistic adoration in dioceses,” by Congregation of Clergy, Dez 8th, 2008).

Mediation expresses the main characteristic of the priestly ministry: “sacer-dos” means “give the sacred”, and for that reason he is also called an angel: “The priest himself, as being between God and man, is called an angel” (ST III, 22, 1 ad 1um). This is true, then, with regard to the transmission of the word and all graces; it is a “ministry,” a service, which points out to the angels who are sent – just like the priest - to serve those “who are to obtain salvation”!

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

These parallels between the life of the angels and our priestly life gives us much to reflect upon. Even the way St. Paul speaks about the holy angels is instructive: He speaks about them occasionally and then only to emphasize the greatness of God. Should this not also be a characteristic of us priests: Never drawing attention to himself, but always, pointing up to God; a servant for man like the angels.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC
ASSOCIATION OF PRIESTS
IN THE WORK OF THE HOLY ANGELS