|Photo by Louise Docker|
Angels came up during last night's dinner with friends. We talked a little about the difference between popular culture’s understanding of angels and the historic Jewish and Christian understanding. Jews and Christians, for example, do not believe that human beings “become” angels. Angels and humans are two different “species” if you will, but both adopted children of God.
We human beings are a union of spirit and body; that is our nature. Even the saints in heaven await the resurrection of their bodies. They are perfectly happy in contact with God, but they are not all they were created to be. Angels on the other hand, are created spirits; that’s their nature. Pure intelligences if you will. So what’s up with the wings, right? If angels do not have bodies, are not composed of matter, then why did people in the Bible (and all the centuries since) report seeing angels? If they are immaterial, then how did an angel roll the stone away from Jesus’ tomb? Valid questions.
There are some great books out there (Mike Aquilina’s Angels of God: The Bible, the Church and the Heavenly Hosts and Jean Danielou’s The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church), but let me throw some thoughts out there “off the cuff”:
First, how do people see angels? Is it with the eyes or the mind? I would wager that the majority of the time it is the mind. For us, being present to one another in an intimate way means physical presence – sight, voice, touch. When God desires an angel to communicate something to us in a spectacular way, it discloses itself to our mind through images and words we can understand. Angels are immaterial and yet seen in human form – such as the young men at Jesus’ tomb. When Elisha the prophet faced an invading force, he looked up and saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around,” far outnumbering his enemy (2 Kings 6:17). God had sent angels to protect him and it was communicated to his mind by the sight of an army composed of fire.
To get a bit technical, “angel” is the term used for the spiritual beings sent by God to men and women. (Angel comes from the Greek word angelos, "messenger.")There are beings much mightier and powerful than the angels with which we have dealings. I am thinking of the “cherubim” seen by the prophet Ezekiel, "In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings ... Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle ... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches" (Ezekiel 1:5-6,10,13). The cherubim are creatures of intelligence (face of a man), authority (lion), strength (ox), and swiftness (eagle).
But how can an immaterial being, pure spirit, interact with matter? To go back to my earlier example, how did that angel roll the stone from the entrance to Jesus' tomb? Let me answer with another question: How does your soul, your own immaterial center, start the firing of the neurons in your brain and cause your arm to move? The realm of spirit is apparently able to affect the material. What the specifics are, your guess is as good as mine. My point is simply that if you believe you have a soul, and that your soul affects your body, then you shouldn’t have a problem believing that angels can affect things in this world. And if our little human souls can bring about amazing shows of physical strength, just imagine what a higher-level spirit can do!
Some theologians have even speculated that angels may “make use of a body.” No, I’m not talking about “possessing” someone – that’s the style of fallen angels. There has been speculation that some angelic appearances may not be images infused into the human mind, but God allowing an angel to exert its power upon the material world and fashion atoms into a temporary body through which, for a brief time, it carries out its mission. Now that’s speculation; but it seems within the realm of possibility. (When we discuss angels the realm of possibility is wider than for most subjects.) If, when, or under what circumstances God would allow such a thing isn’t available to us, at least not at present.