Most of us don’t think much about angels, at least not in any serious way. Even in religious discussions involving the role of angels in the doings of the world and the purposes of heaven, angels play a very marginal role. But there is one occasion when angels are very much on our minds, and that is Christmas. During Christmastime angels come out of the woodwork. They are everywhere: in our Christmas cards, in our yard decorations, and in the songs we sing to celebrate the holiday.
The Two Mistakes We Make About Angels
Christians make two mistakes about angels. The first is to think too little about them, and the second to think too much. In some older theological traditions, a whole lot more is asserted about angels than we can actually justify. But most of us have the opposite problem: For most of the year, very few of us think about angels at all.
Mortimer Adler tells the story of the creation of the Great Books of the Western World series, published by Encyclopedia Britannica. The Great Books series was to be made up of fifty-four volumes of the greatest works of Western civilization, and there was to be a special index to these great works organized around the great ideas of Western civilization, which was to be called the Syntopicon.
Adler was on the editorial board of Encyclopedia Britannica and editor of the Great Books series, and he was responsible for deciding which ideas would be on the list.
By 1945 he had identified the 102 great ideas for which he planned to write 102 introductory essays. Each idea was to receive a full chapter’s treatment in the Syntopicon, complete with a breakdown of where that idea was discussed in the great books. The Syntopicon is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history.
But not all of the 102 great ideas he had chosen enjoyed the full support of his collaborators on the project. Adler said:
My recollection is that I had little difficulty in getting my associates’ approval of almost all the ideas I proposed to include. But I also remember that I was almost alone in my insistence on the inclusion of the idea of Angel.
Adler’s explanatory essays for each idea were to be sent to Robert M. Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and also to Sen. William Benton, who was the Britannica publisher at the time, for feedback. Adler decided to write them in the alphabetical order in which they would be published, making the article on Angel the first to be submitted.
I will never forget Senator Benton’s immediate reaction. He was flabbergasted by my choice of Angel as one of the great ideas. He thought it did not belong in that company at all. What made matters worse was the prominence given it by putting it first.
Adler refused to back down, and, when the Syntopicon was published in 1952, Angel was there, the topic of the very first chapter. When he went to write his book Angels Among Us some thirty-five years later, he reaffirmed his confidence that his decision was right.
Adler was not alone in his fascination with angels, but he was notable for his insistence that the discussion of angels be done in a responsible and intelligent way.
The Popular Conception of Angels
At Christmastime, our normal disregard for angels seems to turn into an obsession. We call upon angels to proclaim the Messiah’s birth in “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” We are told in “The First Noel” that it was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay that angels sang the first noel, and we harken unto the angels’ song proclaiming Christ’s birth in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
But it is not entirely clear that this obsession is a good one, partly because our ideas about angels themselves are not entirely clear, and are usually a mashup of scriptural depictions and angelic characters from popular culture. Angels show up in Christmas movies—lots of them. There is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which an angel shows George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, the significance of his life. There’s “The Bishop’s Wife,” in which Cary Grant plays the angel who helps a bishop out of some of his difficulties. There is even the implication that Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” is somehow angelic.
The popular conception of angels is often, of course, quite different from their portrayal in the Bible and in much of the tradition of Christian thought. Clarence Odbody, the angel who helps Jimmy Stewart’s character see how important he has been to so many people, ridiculously tells the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life” that he will be “two hundred and ninety three, uhh, next May.” And angels don’t need to “earn their wings,” as Clarence clearly thinks he does. Angels are not romantically attracted to humans as Cary Grant’s Dudley is in “The Bishop’s Wife.” And there really are no “ghosts” of Christmas past, present, or future as the quasi-angelic beings in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” are portrayed. It is easy to unthinkingly accept these lighthearted popular depictions as truth.
The Questions We Can Ask About Angels
So what do we know about angels? If you have taken my course on material logic (and shame on you if you haven’t!), you will know that there are questions we can ask about something—about anything—that do not depend on our senses. These are questions crafted by perhaps the greatest thinker of all time: Aristotle. Aristotle was the main philosophical influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, who many consider to be the greatest thinker of the second thousand years of the Church, and who wrote one of the more important treatises on angels.
Aristotle said that we can ask four questions about anything:
What kind of thing is it? (its formal cause)
What is it made up of? (its material cause)
What brought it about or keeps it in existence? (its efficient cause)
What is it for? (its final cause)
Of these four questions, Aristotle says that the most important is the fourth, the Final Cause: What is a thing for? What is its purpose? If we ask this question of angels, what do we find?
What Are Angels For?
We know that God created angels, but what did he create them for? What is their purpose? As with all creatures, their telos is to glorify God, but, as Adler points out, angels also seem to have two specific missions: one in heaven and one on Earth.
Scriptural passages such as those in the Old Testament Book of Daniel and the New Testament Book of Revelation indicate that the heavenly role of at least some of the angels is one of attending the throne of God and worshiping Him.
Among their roles on Earth, there is that of guardian. Although the Scriptures never say conclusively that each person has a guardian angel, as some people believe, angels who guard people are mentioned throughout Scripture. Abraham appears to have angels assigned to him. And Jesus, when speaking of “these little ones” in Matthew 18, speaks of “their angels” in heaven.
But the primary role of angels on Earth seems to be that of messengers of God; they show up frequently, and on important occasions. An angel appears in Genesis 22 to stay the hand of Abraham as he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, to Moses in flame out of the burning bush, and to the apostle John, to give him the Revelation. An angel tells Gideon that he is to save his people, foretells the birth of Samson, and announces the birth of John the Baptist.
We should remember that the very word “angel” comes from the Latin angelus, which comes from the Greek angelos, which means “envoy” or “messenger.” The chief earthly role of angels seems to be that of communicating the things of God to men. And it is this role of annunciation that brings us back to Christmas.
So maybe our emphasis on angels at Christmastime is appropriate after all. If we look carefully at the Christmas story, we see angelic fingerprints all over it. In fact, the involvement of angels is more pronounced surrounding this one event than any other in Scripture. And why should we be surprised at God using his most important messengers to deliver His most important message?
Christmas is the time of year when we retell to ourselves the story of the coming of the Savior of the World. Angels figure prominently throughout this story—in telling Zacharias that his wife Elizabeth “shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” and in announcing to the shepherds Christ’s arrival: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
The angel who announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father is identified as Gabriel. It is one of his four appearances in the Bible (though some think he appears unnamed in others). In the first (Daniel 8), he prophesies the destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. In the second (Daniel 9), he prophesies Jerusalem’s widowhood, the seventy weeks of years that must elapse before the coming of the Christ.
Gabriel seems to be the angel most involved in the coming of the Messiah, and his final recorded angelic message is, of course, that to Mary:
Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. (Luke 1:30-32, KJV)
The primary earthly purpose of an angel (at least some of them), we have said, is as a messenger. We don’t know how a purely spiritual being communicates with a human at all. It is a mystery. But more mysterious still is the drama of this scene in which Gabriel, a creature whose home is in eternity, announces the most important announcement in the history of the world to a young Jewish woman living in a particular time and a particular place—a spiritual being having converse with a physical being in order to announce the coming of a being who reconciles one to the other.
As we are confronted during Christmas with the musical, cinematic, and decorative onslaught of angels, we should try to give a thought to the astonishing reality of their role in the event we celebrate.