Association of priests meditation.
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Vol. XIV, December 2008

St. Paul 5: Saint Paul, a devotee of the angels

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Sacred Scripture refers on different occasions to St. Paul’s experiences and contacts with the holy angel and also fallen spirits. In the last letter we looked at his doctrine on the nature and mission of the holy angels. Now we want to consider the following question: What does St. Paul have to say about our response, that is our devotion to the holy angels?

1. The merits of the holy angels

St. Paul describes the holy angels as Saints who are totally centered in God and Christ: “When He (the Father) introduces the Firstborn into the world, he says: ‘Let all the angels of God adore Him!’” (Heb 1,6; cf. Dt 32,36). This is the basic supposition behind every angelic mission. A second fundamental truth for the Pauline angelology is the universal character of their mission: All are sent: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb 1:14) This constant helpful presence in man’s life also demands free, loving and grateful response from us.

a) Characteristics of devotion
When God sent his angel to lead Israel to the promise land, he required them to render a certain attention to their angel, He indicated several elements of true devotion.

1) “Behold, I send an angel before you,
2) to guard you on the way and
3) to bring you to the place which I have prepared.
4) Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him” (Ex 23:20-21).

First, he let them know that He has sent an angel into their life. Then, He explains to them what the angel does in man’s life. And based on this knowledge, God demands from them a fitting response, that is, docile obedience and devotion towards these heavenly helpers.

It is natural to respond to help with gratitude and appreciation, to acknowledge benefactor’s dignity with respect and attention. Such honor and dedication is called “devotion”; we speak, for example, of a devoted friend. (for the precise theological meaning of “devotion” see St. Thomas Aq., Summa theologiae, q. II-II, a 82).

b) St. Paul’s devotion to the holy Angels
St. Paul shows such an attitude towards the holy Angels. We perceive his high esteem for confidence in the angel, who intervened shortly before the shipwreck on Paul’s journey to Rome. Although the danger of death is imminent, Paul can exhort them:

I now bid you to take heart,… For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, `Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar … So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. (Acts 27:22-25)

This wasn’t the only time an angel intervened in Paul’s life. Earlier, he had responded immediately with docile and zealous compliance to the angel’s call to Macedonia (cf. Acts 16:9-10). Recall too his rapture into the “third heaven” where “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Cor 12:4)?

2. St. Paul - teacher on devotion to the holy angels

We appreciate and honor those who make us happier and enrich our lives. Graces coming through the angels not only endeared St. Paul to the holy angels, but made him a strong teacher of the devotion to the holy angels. He speaks in his sermons and writes in his letters about the presence and help of the holy angels and makes men aware of their duty towards them.

a) Some direct references
St. Paul experiences the presence of the angels in ordinary and extraordinary moments of his life, in dangers of life as well as in moments of ecstatic prayer. Therefore he recommends reverence and devotion to the holy angels constantly and everywhere.

In prayer or in the liturgy we are, according St. Paul, in the presence of the angels, and their presence leads us to holy fear and respect before God. This is the reason, “why a woman ought to have a veil on her head (in prayer), because of the angels” (1Cor 11:10). To be in their presence is also reason for joy and greater zeal for God. Surely, we may understand his joyful exhortation to the newly baptized to have an autobiographical dimension: “You have come to Mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of many thousands of angels,... and to Jesus, Mediator of a new Covenant (Heb 12, 21-22.23).

b) Some indirect references
St. Paul indirectly reveals his own experience with the holy angels when he exhorted Timothy: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules” (1Tim 5:21). In a similar but opposite direction, he alerts the Ephesians on the danger of turning to and communicating with the fallen angels: “Give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 5:27)!

1) Elsewhere, St. Paul, when exhorting us to love of neighbor, offers as one of the reasons for this the truth, that we might be dealing with angels. He appeals to the life of Abraham, who had offered hospitality to guests who were angels (cf. Gen 19:1). “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb 13:1-2) St. Paul gives us to understand that the angels merit attention and benevolence, even our dedication of time and the offer of the goods we have. They merit such in view of their supernatural holiness and nearness to God. And notwithstanding, they are so near to us as to be our guests. They are humble and do not despise our lowliness; more so, they accept what we offer them, and we can do something for those who serve us.

2) St. Paul also anchors our reverence and devotion to the angels in the divinely revealed truth that all creatures in grace are united under Christ as the Head, both those in heaven and those on earth.

To the Ephesians he wrote: “The Father of glory … raised him (our Lord Jesus Christ) from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above every prince and authority and power and dominion, … and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:16.22-23; cf. Eph 2:6; 1Cor 15:27; Heb 2:7-9). And to the Colossians: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19). In Christ angels and men meet, for they all , “are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). In Him, they have all things in common, so that all “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” and “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:15-16; cf. Lk 15:7,10). Christ is the principle of union between angels and men according God’s plan, namely “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20), to reconcile “for example, the wills of men, of God and of the angels” (St. Thomas, In Col 1:20), or as a recent proposal of translation goes: “to lead all things to unity in Christ” (M.M. Dean, A Primer on the Absolute. Primacy of Christ, New Bedford, MA 2006, 88).

3. Devotion to the angels and the “one mediator … Jesus Christ”

Speaking so much about our devotional deference to the angels, the objection may arise: St. Paul himself seems to contradict this position. He says to St. Timothy: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5). Truly, he wants to underline that Jesus alone is one with the Father and therefore, becoming man and standing on both sides, He alone was able to mediate from one pole to the other. This was truly possible to Him alone. However, it is clear too that St. Paul does not intend to exclude any secondary mediator or instruments which God can use in the execution of His plans. For he accepted their service (e.g. Acts 16:9; 27:23), and adjured Timothy also in the name of the holy angels (1 Tim 5:21).

a) Mediation as condition for Imitation
Mediation is evidently a presupposition for holy imitation, for it is only profitable to imitate the saints because their life and virtue are a shining example which helps orient and lead us to the goal. St. Paul knows that God sends guides to his people. Not least among these are the holy angels, all of whom are “ministering spirits, sent for service for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation (Heb 1:14). Paul himself wants to be an example whom the faithful should imitate: “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” (1Cor 4:15-16). “You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us” (2 Thess 3:6). “Open your hearts to us” (2 Cor 7:2), he says; “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1; cf. Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:6).

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

What a grace it is to know that we are not alone, to be aware of the presence of these powerful angels precisely as our co-servants and helpers. The Church clearly affirms, what we read in St. Paul occasionally: “Devotion to the Holy Angels gives rise to a certain form of the Christian life which is characterized by devout gratitude to God for having placed these heavenly spirits of great sanctity and dignity at the service of man; …(or by) serenity and confidence in facing difficult situations, since the Lord guides and protects the faithful in the way of justice through the ministry of His Holy Angels” (Directory on popular piety, 216). Therefore, we should foster the devotion to the holy angels, giving them their due and proper place in our spiritual life so that by their aid, we might ever more become like Christ, whom they adore together with us.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC