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In the sight of the angels

Kate Barrett | Thursday, September 29, 2011

Do you believe in angels? Do you think they really exist or do they only live in movie characters like Clarence, the big-hearted angel-in-training from “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Or are they just handy for solving philosophical puzzles — say, about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin?

When you Google “angels” (and get past the Angels of Anaheim fan sites), you can find sites that offer proof — proof!! photos!! — of the existence of ghosts and angels … together!! Despite a surplus of superstitious information, as well as Google’s 45.6 million images of angels (with about 45.5 million of them sporting bird- or bat-like wings), quite clearly the existence of angels is well-documented through both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And they have their work cut out for them: in the Bible we find many instances of angels defending heaven, attending the Lord, or “standing before God’s throne,” and serving as intermediaries. The word angel itself means messenger, primarily a messenger from God to humans.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Archangels — Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, three angels specifically named in the Bible. St. Michael led the “war in Heaven” described in the Book of Revelation, in which he fought Satan and his fallen angels, hurling them out of heaven and down to the earth. Gabriel brought messages from God to such well-known Biblical personages as Daniel, Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist), Mary the Mother of God and Joseph. According to Luke’s gospel, Gabriel also comforted Jesus while he hung on the cross. Raphael appears in the book of Tobit, one of the canonical books of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox Churches, to protect Tobiah, son of Tobit, on an adventurous journey. When Tobiah and Raphael return to Tobit, Raphael heals the blind Tobit and restores his sight.

When we celebrate the feast days of saints, as we have done this week for St. Vincent de Paul, St. Cosmas, St. Damian, St. Wenceslaus and St. Jerome, or of angels and archangels as we do today, we have the opportunity to focus on God, on the communities which surround us and on our own hearts as well, and ask ourselves significant questions. Who has protected us from evil as Michael did? Who has helped us to hear God’s words to us, as St. Gabriel brought God’s message to Mary? Have we comforted anyone on a difficult journey like Raphael did for Tobiah or taken special care of the poor and the outcast as did St. Vincent de Paul? Do we study the Scriptures with patient care and attention as St. Jerome did?

Too often we mark these special feasts in the life of the Church with admiration for the angels and saints we celebrate … and we leave it at that. Much of the reason the Church calls us to rejoice in the lives of these saints is so that we will feel compelled to live as they did, to follow their examples of finding the fullness of life in their own particular relationship with God and with the world.

Consider Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism who tirelessly advocated for the poor and lived absolutely simply among the homeless and near-homeless of New York. She once said, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” She feared being pigeonholed as someone different than the rest of us even as she spent her life trying to focus on what we all had in common. Further, Dorothy feared that canonization — even admiration — of the saints leads us to believe that the work of following Christ is reserved for certain people with extraordinary gifts or a unique relationship with God.

Perhaps today, then, on this Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, we might ask ourselves who the angels have been in our lives? Even more importantly, we can remember that we too are called to be protectors, messengers and companions — to sing the Lord’s praises as today’s Psalm proclaims, “in the sight of the angels.”

Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus Program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.