The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition. Who are they? St. Augustine says: “‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit;’ if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel:’ from what they are, ‘spirit,’ from what they do, ‘angel’” (St. Augustine, En. inPs. 103,1,15: PL 37, 1348). With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” they are the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word” (Mt 18:10;Ps 103:20). As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness. ~Catechism of the Catholic Church #328–330
In the fifth or sixth century, an important Church theologian, given the name Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, used the many references in the Sacred Scriptures to clearly articulate what has become the traditional understanding of the hierarchy of angels. In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas built upon that teaching. Both taught that there are nine choirs in the hierarchy. The nine choirs are further divided into three triads. The three highest, comprising the first triad (Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones), is devoted exclusively to the service of God, worshiping Him continuously. The second triad (Dominions, Virtues, and Powers) is tasked with the governance of the created world and the entire Universe. The third triad (Principalities, Archangels, and Angels) is closest to humanity, acting as mediators between God and man. It is the Archangels whom we honor today.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there are numerous mentions of the heavenly spirits. In the Old Testament, they stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, directed Abraham, stayed his hand at the sacrifice of Isaac, destroyed Sodom and protected Lot, spoke to and wrestled with Jacob, went before Moses and the Israelites, and interacted with Israel’s kings and prophets. In the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel announced the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus often spoke of the workings of angels in His preaching. They ministered to Him during His agony in the garden, were present at His Resurrection, and helped set Peter free from prison. Saint Paul spoke about the hierarchy of angels several times.
Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that every human being is assigned a guardian angel. The archangels are next in the hierarchy of angelic spirits and serve humanity directly, performing the most important tasks. The three Archangels we honor today are the only three mentioned in the Bible. However, earlier Jewish traditions name seven archangels, and some speculate that there might be a whole host of archangels whom God uses to assist with the most important aspects of our lives. Raphael describes himself as one of the seven who stand before God.
Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?”, is mentioned several times in the Bible. The Book of Daniel speaks of him as the prince who stands up for the people of Israel in a protective way (Daniel 10:13,10:21, and12:1). The Letter of Jude speaks of Michael fighting against Satan in a dispute over the body of Moses, “Yet the archangel Michael, when he argued with the devil in a dispute over the body of Moses, did not venture to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him but said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you!’” (Jude 1:9). The Book of Revelation also reveals Michael’s battle with Satan, casting him from Heaven, “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven” (Revelation 12:7–8). Based on these passages, Michael is seen as the great defender against Satan and his demons, the protector of the Church, and the Prince of the Angels. Though Saint Thomas assigns him to the second lowest level of the hierarchy of the choirs of angels, others (Saints Basil, Robert Bellarmine, and Bonaventure) have speculated that he directs the entire host of angels, taking the former place of Lucifer, the light-bearer, who was a Seraphim of the highest realm. The prayer to Saint Michael, who defends us in battle, was written by Pope Leo XIII and was prayed thereafter at the end of every Mass until the reforms after Vatican II. Today, it is still prayed in many churches and widely in private devotion.
Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength” or “Strong man of God,” appears several times in the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, Gabriel appears to interpret Daniel’s vision (Daniel 8:15–27;9:20–27). In the New Testament, Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple to reveal the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–20), and to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:26–38). It might have also been Gabriel who spoke to Saint Joseph in a dream, dispelling his fear about taking Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18–25). For these reasons, Gabriel often appears in sacred art blowing a trumpet for his role in conveying divine messages, guiding prophets, and participating in significant events that shape human history.
Raphael, whose name means “God has healed,” is mentioned by name only in the Book of Tobit. Tobit was a wealthy and devout Israelite who had been deported from his home to Nineveh by the Assyrian king. While in exile, he suffered from blindness and sent his son, Tobias, to his homeland to gather his money. On the way, Raphael appeared to Tobias in human form, using the name Azariah. Raphael protected him on the journey and led him to a woman named Sarah who lost seven husbands on the night of their weddings, due to a demon’s attack. The archangel united them in marriage, expelled the demon, and accompanied them back to Tobit, whom he healed. He then revealed to them, “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord” (Tobit 12:15). It is speculated that Raphael is also one of the seven angels in the Book of Revelation who each receives one of the seven trumpets, “And I saw that the seven angels who stood before God were given seven trumpets” (Revelation 8:2).
Though great mystery surrounds the full nature and function of these glorious angelic spirits, what is abundantly clear is that God has used them throughout the course of salvation history. Today, we can confidently assert that God continues to pour forth His grace upon us through the mediation of the angels, especially Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. For some reason, God specifically revealed the names of these spirits to us, and that invites us to call upon their mediation. As mediators, they do more than pray for us. They are entrusted with the duty of implementing God’s will.
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