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The Good Angels Glorify God and Serve as His Messengers to the Human Race
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
God created the angels for one main purpose: to glorify the Holy Trinity. What needs to be stressed, however, is that the angels' glorifying God includes serving His divine majesty. Our title for the present conference could be re-worded to say that: "The angels in heaven glorify God and serve Him as messengers to the human race."
Without exaggeration, the subject of the present conference is really a summation of the whole of revealed angelology. Whatever else we say about the angels is already implied in the title of this conference. Given the vastness of the subject we are addressing ourselves to, and assuming there are more conferences to follow, I thought it best here just to explain what we are saying: the angels are glorifiers of the infinite God and messengers of His goodness to us.
The Angels Glorify God
Everything which God has created is for His divine glory. The material world of mountains and seas, of animals and trees glorifies God by its very existence. But this is not the full meaning of glory as our faith teaches us. God is truly glorified only by His intelligent creatures who have a mind to know God and a will to love Him.
Absolutely speaking, God might have created only an angelic world of pure spirits without bodies. We know that He chose to also create a visible world of rational human beings to glorify their creator by knowing the God who brought them out of nothing into existence and by surrendering their created wills to His divine will out of love.
We have already seen that somewhere early in angelic history, many of these spiritual beings refused to acknowledge God as their supreme Master and submit themselves to His almighty will. Their refusal to glorify God brought hell into existence.
Our concentration here is on the angels who remained faithful in their allegiance to the Creator. As a reward for their fidelity, they behold the face of God in what we call the beatific vision. They do not merely believe in God, nor do they merely know about God. They behold Him "face to face," which means that there are no created intermediaries between their minds and the triune God. They do not even have thoughts about God. As far as our human language allows us to say it, they see Him as He sees Himself. The only obvious difference is that the angelic vision of God is finite, whereas God sees Himself with infinity.
Can we be more clear? How, precisely, do the angels glorify God? They glorify Him by their adoration, which deserves some explanation.
They glorify their Creator by their recognition of who God is. Their minds are conformed to His divine mind. What He sees, they are enabled to see by sharing in the wisdom of His infinity. They glorify their Creator by loving Him as the origin of their existence and the purpose of their being.
Of course, the angels had to merit the heavenly happiness which they now possess in adoring the One except for whom they would not even be. They enjoy the glory they are giving to God but only because, during the time of probation, they had resisted the temptation of Lucifer who had the folly of thinking He was like God.
If there is one theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to the Apocalypse, it is the angelic world as a living community.
There is a choir of angels, from which such English words as chorus and choir are derived. There is a host of angels, which implies an organized and coordinated assembly. There is a multitude of angels, whose number is beyond counting and who are simply described as a legion.
All of this implies that the glorified adoration which the angles give to God is a collective and community worship. God is glorified by the angels as a united assembly whose principle of unity is their undivided praise and worship of the undivided Holy Trinity.
Behind this article of our faith is the deeper mystery that God Himself is the divine community. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct intelligent beings, which is the standard definition of a person. He therefore wants to be glorified by angelic persons, indeed, but by these persons who are united among themselves in a spiritual collectivity as the created expression of the uncreated divinity.
All the while that we are speaking of the angels as glorifying God, we dare not forget that their principal angelic activity is to pray.
Too many people think of prayer as first or even mainly asking God for what we need. This is not Christianity. Our principal form of prayer, like that of the angels, is the prayer of adoration where we ask for nothing from God but simply tell Him that we acknowledge His existence and respond to His greatness and goodness as our God.
Adoration by the Seraphim
Traditionally we believe there are nine choirs of angels. Each of the choirs has three categories. They are, we may say, stratified. Each angelic choir has its distinctive role to play, and each level within each choir is graded from the highest to the lowest. The plural, Seraphim, identifies the highest of the first of the three choirs of angels. Seraph literally means, "to burn". Evidently Sacred Scripture wants to teach us what is the first role of adoration, whether of angelic or of human beings.
The Seraphim are burning with love for God. We speak of the flames of love, the ardor of love, the fire of love, the love that consumes itself with the heat of its charity.
The most dramatic description of the Seraphim is in the call of the prophet Isaiah. He was to be the most detailed foreseer of the Messiah whose love for a fallen human race was to move Him to an agonizing passion and death on the cross.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the highest of the angels were to call Isaiah to his prophetic mission. The biblical text is a bit long, but it is worth quoting in full. Isaiah is speaking:
I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of His garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings; with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft.
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" They cried out one to the other. "All the earth is filled with His glory." At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook, and the house was filled with smoke.
Then I said, "Woe to me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the Seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
He touched my mouth with it. "See," he said, "now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged."
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" "Here I am," I said, "send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8)
Nothing could be clearer. The Seraphim are the leaders of angelic adoration of the love of God. In heaven they adore the God who is love. Their mission from heaven is to purify us human beings of our self-love by giving ourselves entirely to the will of God. Inspired by the Seraphim, we too will then be able to say, "Here I am, send me!"
The Seraphim give us a clue to what the adoration of God finally means. It certainly begins in the mind in acknowledging the majesty of the Most High. But its purpose is to inspire the will, enlightened by the mind, to surrender oneself entirely to the will of a loving God.
Thus we see that angelic adoration is the model of what our adoration of God should be. It must be, for us here on earth, the admiration of the greatness of the Lord who was, and who is, and who always will be the totally Other Being, except for whom no other being would exist. But our adoration, no less than that of the Seraphim must reach out to God for whom we were made and in whom alone we shall find that perfect joy which only the all holy Creator can provide.
Messengers to the Human Race
In our next conference we shall reflect on the guardian angels as our protectors on the way to heaven. The angels are, indeed, our divinely appointed guardians. But before they are guardians they are messengers from God to communicate the divine will to the children of Adam and Eve. One theme that stands out, in both the Old and New Testaments, is the role of the angelic spirits to enlighten the minds of human beings. Throughout the Old Testament the angels were messengers from Yahweh to His chosen people. One prophet after another was the special recipient of messages from God to the chosen people. So true is this that we might almost say there were two kinds of prophets in the Old Testament. There were angelic prophets who came directly from God to enlighten the leaders of the chosen people, and there were human prophets who were the immediate channels of inspiration to the people of God.
The whole book of Tobias is a witness to the prominent place which the angels held in the history of mankind before the coming of the Savior.
Not coincidentally, it was an angel who appeared to Zachary to announce that his barren wife Elizabeth would conceive a son. The same angel was sent from God to inform the Blessed Virgin that she was to conceive and bear the son of the Most High. The angels at Bethlehem were the first messengers from the Father to proclaim the human birth of His divine son.
One narrative in the Gospels after another is the story of angelic messengers informing the people about what they were to believe and especially how they were to put into practice the teachings of the Messiah.
The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul could almost be described as the history of angelic communication with a new chosen people after Christ left the earth in visible form and established His Church, shall we say, in angelic custody until the last day.
On what we commonly call the last day, what is really the first day of the new Jerusalem, it will be "when the Son of Man shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory" (Mt 25:31).
The closing book of the Bible may almost be called the apocalypse of the angels. One chapter after another describes in prophetic imagery how the war which began with the fall of the angels from paradise will continue until the end of human history. Two kinds of messengers are foreseen by St. John as battling for the control of the human family. Lucifer will continue sending his dominions to seduce the sons and daughters of Adam. His method is to seduce his victims by the attraction of human wealth and glory and power, and thus drag them into hell. Michael, on the other hand, is foretold as proclaiming the dominion of Christ and attracting people to follow Jesus Christ in humility, and patience, and the courageous bearing of the cross.
The angelic role of serving as God's messengers was revealed in detail in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. This role continues. Their principal service of God is to enlighten the minds of human beings on earth. When we say that they are messengers of the human race, we could just as well say they are missionaries from God to teach the sons and daughters of man what God wants all of us to know. They teach us that eternal life is faith in the one true God and in Jesus Christ whom He has sent. They teach us that we have a free will for only one purpose to choose what God wants in preference to our desires. They teach us, as they told the shepherds at Bethlehem, that we shall be at peace only if our wills are conformed to the will of our Creator. They teach us what the angels told the disciples on Ascension Thursday, that Christ will come again, but this time in His glory, to lead us to join them in that heavenly eternity for which we were made.
I do not hesitate to say that our happiness on earth and our destiny after death depends on our deep and clear understanding of the role of the angels as our constant teachers in the spiritual life. You do not have to have a body to have a mind. The angels are highly intelligent persons, constantly beholding the face of God, who are the Lord's messengers to direct us on our way to celestial beatitude. Our task is to believe that angels are constantly speaking to us, seeking to enlighten our minds on our road to heaven. We must have the faith and humility to listen to their words and put them into practice.
Imitating the Angels
It must seem strange to talk about imitating the angels. And yet that is exactly our responsibility as professed followers of Christ. To imitate someone is to follow that person's example. In fact the highest form of admiration we can pay to someone is to imitate that person's behavior.
How are we to imitate the angels? We are to imitate the angels in combining what is the most difficult synthesis in our lives, the practice of prayerful adoration of God and serving the needs of our fellow human beings in this valley of tears.
Adoration of God. The primary reason why God created the angels was that they might glorify the Holy Trinity by their incessant prayer of contemplation of the infinite majesty of God. They always behold the face of the Holy Trinity. Seeing God with their minds, their wills are inspired with a love for God that only the celestial inhabitants can conceive. If the deepest joy comes from possessing the greatest good, the angels experience a beatitude for which all the joys and pleasures of earth are only a weak prelude.
What is our principal responsibility here on earth? You might say we have an ocean of duties to perform and obligations to fulfill. True, but what is our primary purpose this side of eternity? It is to pray, and the highest form of prayer is adoration of the infinite God.
As all the masters of the spiritual life point out, the hardest task we have is not to completely dedicate ourselves to a prayerful contemplation of the all holy God, and enjoy His presence here on earth by faith, in anticipation of seeing Him by intuitive vision in heaven.
No, our hardest task is to combine a life of contemplative enjoyment of God's presence in prayer with the dedicated service of those whom God's providence puts into our lives.
By now volumes have been written about contemplation in action, apostolic prayer, prayer and work, living in God's presence and fulfilling one's duties, intimacy with God and meeting the needs of people. So the litany goes on. What the underlying mystery is how to combine living in heaven with God and remaining on earth while serving the needs of our fellow man.
There is no simple explanation of how this can be done. It partakes of mystery and must finally be believed that it can be done. Why? Because that is precisely what the angels have been doing since the dawn of human history. Christ told us to respect little children because they always behold the face of my Father. That is exactly what the angels are doing in heaven. They are in heaven ecstatically happy because they see the Holy Trinity. Yet they are equally busy on earth caring for the needs of the human family.
Our imitation, therefore, of the angels as mystics and apostles is based on our faith in what the angels are doing. They are at once in heaven and on earth. They are adoring God and serving our needs. They are praying and meeting human needs. They are at once adorers of the Almighty and servants of human beings.
There is one closing observation that I think should be made. In the last analysis we shall do only as much real good to others as we are interiorly united with God. By now there is a score of definitions for the active apostolate. But I believe the simplest is to say that an apostle is a channel of grace from God to everyone whose life he touches. The more angelic our lives, in combining prayer and good works, the more effective we shall be as messengers of the Trinity to a desperately needy humanity.
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