Frank Capra was a bad guy, at least when it came to educating people about angels. I’m sure most of you have seen Capra’s movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which mankind learns that “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets it wings.” That bit of angel lore combined with movies, TV shows and songs about angels have given us a skewed understanding of who or what an angel is.
Let’s start with the basics: in God’s creation, as it has been revealed to us, there are two types of beings with free will: humans and angels. As St. Thomas Aquinas might have posited in scholastic terms: Men and angels are not just different in degree, they are different in kind. That is, humans are not angels, angels are not humans, nor can one ever become the other. Angels are created by God in the supernatural realm (the invisible or spiritual realm), while men are created by God in the natural realm (the visible or physical realm). If a human being moves from the natural realm to the supernatural realm of heaven, he becomes a saint, not an angel.
If an angel falls from the realm of glory, as, for example, the angel Lucifer did, he becomes a “fallen angel” or “demon.” Man can become neither a demon nor an angel, as it is neither who, nor what, we were created to be. A human being’s essence is that of a human person with a human nature, an angelic being’s essence is that of an angelic personage and an angelic nature.
He’s an angel?
So, if you are at a funeral and you hear someone say “Uncle Luigi was a good man, but God took him home to be one of his angels,” please realize that what that person said is theologically wrong. Of course, when people say things like “Uncle Luigi is now an angel in heaven,” they say it in a well-meaning moment of emotion; however, even the deepest emotion has to reach its end at the door of truth. Men do not become angels.
You might ask, “What are angels if they are not good men and women attaining heavenly wings?” Let’s start by plucking the angelic wings: angels don’t have wings in the physical sense. Angels are purely spiritual beings. They are from the realm of supernatural. The church holds that angels have appeared to mankind at different moments in history but those visible appearances are rare, and they are visions. They are the human mind attempting to put sight to that which is of the supernatural realm. In our human senses we cannot see angels as they are. So, how have people understood what an angel “looks like?” Mainly through artists who knew that angels, at least the kind that draw near Earth, were God’s messengers speaking his truth to us. Since they had this image of angels coming through the heavens to us, artists gave them wings to help us, in our human senses, to understand them better.
I mentioned, “angels, at least the kind that draw near Earth, are God’s messengers.” You may wonder: are there other kinds of angels? Yes, there are. There are nine ranks or choirs of angels, each with a different purpose as created by God. You may have heard of some of these other angels at Mass, without even realizing that angels were being spoken about.
Let’s examine those nine choirs (types) of angels. Let’s start by understanding the proper “order” for these angels. Angels are ranked, so to speak, highest to lowest, based on their understood proximity to God. Think of it like a medieval king’s court; the people most important are those sitting closest to the king. So, too, it is with angels. The higher ranked choirs are those closest to God and his throne, and they are grouped in threes:
Angels of the Heavenly Court
• Seraphim. The seraphim are, as the 1960s song might put it, the leaders of the packs. These angels are the guardians that are astride God’s throne in heaven. At Mass when we say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts” we are imitating the words which the seraphim use to praise God around his holy throne (based on Isaiah 6:1-7). According to Scripture, seraphim have six wings (two cover their face, two cover their feet and two are for flying).
• Cherubim. The cherubim (sometimes just called cherubs) are the second of the nine choirs. Most people don’t like being called two-faced, but imagine having four faces. The cherubim do. They have the faces of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. While the seraphim had six wings, the cherubim only have four, but their wings are also covered with eyes. In Genesis, the cherubim guarded the way to the tree of life. They also stood guard as heavenly attendants to God, endlessly praising him. Sometimes cute little pretty-faced winged babies (like you see on Hallmark cards and angel calendars) are called cherubs – they are not. They are actually “putti” –simply angelic decoration.
• Thrones. The thrones are like the gateway to see the big guy. No lower ranked angel (Nos. 4-9) gets to stand before God, unless the thrones, doing the will of God, let them in. The thrones and some of the lower angel choirs are referenced in Colossians 1:16, “For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him.” These references, which many might take to mean earthly political descriptions, are actually references to types of angels.
Angels Governing the Heavens
• Dominions. These are ones who make known God’s will for the angels beneath them. To use a postal metaphor, they are the regional postal sorting office, which delivers all the letters to each local post office in its jurisdiction for delivery. Thus, in the Eucharistic prayer prefaces, when the priest invokes thrones and dominions, he is referring to the angels (dominions) that spread the words of our prayers to the other angels, and the angels (thrones) that let those words into the heavenly sanctuary.
• Virtues. The name of these angels is translated as an alternate way of expressing a Greek word meaning “might” or “strength.” The virtues carry God’s messages and commands to the seasons, the stars, the sun, etc. To us humans, these angels carry God’s message and call to virtue and make known to us the miracles of God in the world.
• Powers. These are God’s shock troops — these are the warrior angels; they are sometimes called “Potentates” (like the word we use for one who exercises great political or military power). They fight against the powers of darkness and evil that attempts to corrupt mankind and our world (and indeed our universe). In the cosmic battle between good and evil, the powers are God’s Green Berets.
Angels Governing the Earth
• Principalities. This is an odd group of angels. You see, tradition says they are hostile to God — why, because of mankind’s multitude of sins, which God has forgiven. Though hostile, they are unlike Lucifer, as they did not rebel against God because they realized that there is but one God and he must be obeyed, if not out of pure love, than out of obligation and truth. They send a good message to us: Even when we can’t make sense of God’s plan for us, we must remain faithful. What do they do? They bring God’s messages of inspiration in the arts and science; they are lighters of the way to knowledge. The principalities unveil, by the grace of God, the mysteries of the world and universe. Are you educated? Well that is because you listened to God’s message brought via the principalities.
• Archangels. Why are archangels so low on the list? These are the ones who helped many folks in the Bible; these are the rock stars of the world of angels, no? Well, no. Remember the angelic rankings are based on closeness to God vs. closeness to man/earth. The archangels — Michael, who fought Satan in the Book of Revelation; Raphael, who healed Tobit; and Gabriel, who brought God’s message to Mary – are close to us, in the celestial sense. They have a special role to mankind at critical moments in salvation history; these are key angels for us men and for our salvation. The lowest of the levels of angels are, well, angels; the prime angels in that group are the archangels. The three archangels I mentioned are celebrated by the church on Sept. 29, Feast of the Archangels. However there are four other archangels generally lost to antiquity: Uriel, Simiel, Orifiel and Zachariel.
• Angels. These are, in part, our guardian angels, celebrated by the church on Oct. 2. They are closest to the material world. They bring God’s messages of guidance, truth and grace to each of us. We can listen to those messages or not. The angels hope we listen, and they never stop bringing God’s messages to us.
While there is much more to be said about this topic, I hope this article sheds a little light on the background and tradition for the beings we call angels.
For more information about angels read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (328-336).
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.