Although Scripture itself does not furnish systematic or comprehensive information regarding the exact nature of angels, the names of these three archangels (meaning chief angel in Greek) appear in the Bible and offer us some fascinating clues about them. Most of what we know about angels in general is scattered and sometimes simply “hinted” at throughout the Bible, but 2000 years of Church theology helps clarify what is there.
Angels are pure angelic spirit, so they are immortal (Luke 20:36) but not eternal (because angels are created beings). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, angelic power is superior to human power in its abilities because it is exclusively spirit, without any need for a body (Summa 61.4). Angels freely think (Dan 9:21-22; 10:14; Rev 19:10), will (Jude 6; cf. 2 Peter 2:4), emote (1 Pet 1:12—desirous; Job 38:7—joyful), act, are self-aware, exercise power, are immortal and indestructible and responsible, all without the use of the tool, the “flesh”, in which we humans operate (Catechism of the Catholic Church 330).
The number of angels is unknown, but Daniel says “a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (7:10), and the number of demons and fallen angels is “legion” (Mark 5:9). They have existed since the dawn of creation and have the benefit of millennia of experience with humanity.
Because angels are pure spirit, they are not bound by the physical laws that govern a spatial universe of time and matter (CCC 330). Like angels, the human soul is spirit, but the human soul does not become angelic after death, when it is separated from the body.
The human person was created to be a fusion of body and soul; the human spirit is individual and personal, ordained to freely will, think, emote, desire, imagine, remember and act by way of the physical senses. The separation of the body and soul that occurs at death, then, is an unnatural and temporary state, a condition that as Christians we believe will one day be corrected and restored to an even more glorious state through the redemptive work of Christ at the “resurrection of the body” we proclaim in the Creed.
Angels are the earliest works of God’s creation that are known to us. We know they must have been created on or before the first “day” of creation, because Job indicates that the angels were eyewitnesses to the creation of the universe: “the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy” when “God laid the foundations of the earth” (Job 38:4, 6). Morning stars and sons of God are literary terms for angels and have been interpreted as such since the Septuagint (“all my angels,” Job 38:7, Septuagint).
“’Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature,” instructs St. Augustine. The word “angel” means messenger in Greek, an indication of their function. Their nature is spirit, and their names (as all names in Scripture do) indicate something of who they are, and their mission and purpose: Michael protects and defends; Gabriel consoles and announces; Raphael heals and guides.
St. Michael, Defend Us
The warrior angel, “Who is like God?” is both Michael’s name and battle cry as leader of all the angels, against Satan and the demons in their rebellion against God, and in defense of his Church. He is mentioned by name four times in the Bible: in Daniel 10 and 12, in the letter of Jude, and in Revelation.
In Daniel’s vision he is “the great prince, who stands for the children of [Daniel’s] people,” Israel, against its enemies; in the Book of Revelation, Michael leads God’s armies in an apocalyptic victory over the forces of evil.
Altogether the Bible attributes three “arch-purposes” to St. Michael: to fight against Satan; to defend the souls of the faithful and protect them from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death; and to be the champion of the Church until the end of time.
Devotion to Michael is the oldest angelic devotion, beginning in the fourth century. He is such a powerful ally of the Church on earth, the “St. Michael Prayer” for protection is actually a condensed form of the general exorcism against Satan and demonic powers.
St. Gabriel, Bringer of Good News
Gabriel, meaning “Strength of God,” is also mentioned four times in the Bible. The Old Testament Book of Daniel says he explained a vision and prophesied of Christ. In the New Testament he announces the precursor to the Christ, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ Incarnation in Mary’s womb.
There is also speculation among theologians that Gabriel may have been the angel who appeared to the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:9), “strengthened” Jesus in his agony in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43), and heralded his resurrection on Easter morning (Matt. 28:2-3), since his purposes seem to revolve around Christ and his mission from the beginning.
St. Raphael, Heal Us
Raphael, meaning “God has Healed,” is mentioned specifically and only in the Book of Tobit in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Scriptures the apostles used and quoted. As to his function and mission, Raphael speaks for himself: “For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord . . . when I was with you I was there by the will of God: bless him only, and sing praises to him” (Tob. 12:15).
Raphael guides Tobiah away from his own route and plan, but through a series of fantastic adventures that leads to healing for everyone involved. Raphael reveals himself in Chapter 12 as a divine healer not only of physical infirmity, such as the blindness of old Tobias, but also of spiritual affliction and demonic harassment. So his office is generally accepted as that of healing and guidance.
For this reason, Augustine identifies the angel who descends on the healing pool of water at Bethsaida in John 5:1-4 as Raphael (Sermon I on Tobit). Those with disabilities of all varieties entered the water after it moved, it was thought, under the healing ministrations of the angel, and the first to enter was healed. It is Raphael’s health and healing ministry that is speculated to be at work in the miraculous cures in many of the sacred shrines throughout Christian history all over the world.
Powerful Invisible Helpers
The most gifted writer could never do justice to the magnificent beauty, eclipsing intelligence, and surpassing power of an angel; every biblical person who saw an angel became terrified at their magnificence. And angels are actually the lowest order and rank of the pure spirits! The Bible tells us the ascending ranks are said to be archangels, principalities, powers, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. Possibly the archangels like Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, are as far above an angel in perfections as an angel is above man.
We should remember that, although they seem like a fantasy, angels are as real as the air we breathe. Your guardian angel has been with you, tirelessly helping and guiding you from the womb to the tomb (Matt 18:10). They are with us this very moment. They surround us at every Mass.
As I celebrate this angelic feast with the Church today, how can I thank Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael for their ministry and service to me and to the Church I love?
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