On this fourth Sunday of Advent, let’s begin with a quiz. Aside from Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what other figurine do most people feel is essential to their Nativity set. Most likely, the answer will be an angel. What would the season of Christmas be like without angels? Angels in our songs. Angel ornaments on our trees, child angels in the Christmas pageant and of course, the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which a “second class” angel in training named Clarence earns his wings after helping a suicidal man want to live again.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that “the existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that sacred Scripture usually calls “angels” is a truth of faith. We are drawn to the angels in faith. We trust Archangel Michael to “defend us in battle.” We believe in the scene of Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, and we invoke the assistance of Archangel Raphael when we are in need of God’s healing.
How many images of angels do you see in your parish church? Look for them in the windows or in paintings. Older churches may have angel figurines that hold the holy water fonts, or the “Sanctus angels” that stand at the sides of the tabernacle. Remember, however, that the artistic renderings of angels with wings are not actually what they look like. They are pure spirits, they have no bodies. Wings are depicted on angels because it implies their swiftness in sending messages between God and man.
Our Catholic tradition teaches that God created nine ranks of angels. In addition to the angels and archangels, there are principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. While we are accustomed to images of angels with one set of wings, in Scripture we read of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of seraphim, having six wings, two covering their faces, two covering their feet and two for flying.
During the liturgy, listen for where the angels are mentioned. Each time we sing the Gloria, it is considered the song of the angels. At the conclusion of every preface we are reminded that we are joining our voices to that of the angels, as we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and in the first eucharistic prayer the priest prays, “Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven.” At a funeral liturgy we sing the beautiful hymn “In Paridisum” asking that the angels lead our beloved into heaven.
Angels have a real and important role to play not just at Christmas, but every day of the year. The catechism sums it up best in #350—352: “Angels are spiritual creatures who glorify God without ceasing and who serve his saving plans for other creatures: “The angels work together for the benefit of us all” (St. Thomas Aquinas). The angels surround Christ their Lord. They serve him especially in the accomplishment of his saving mission to men. The church venerates the angels who help her on her earthly pilgrimage and protect every human being.”
As we draw closer to Christmas, let us indeed be grateful that Jesus has come among us and it is a “wonderful life.” Let us smile each time we hear a bell ring, in hopes that an angel is getting wings.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.