The saints — holy men and women — are held up before us by the Church for a double purpose: as an example, and as intercessors for us in heaven. But with the angels, it doesn’t make sense for us to even attempt to imitate them. They are completely different beings from us. They are pure spirit. They have never had bodies and never will. They exist outside of time, and don’t know what it’s like to experience change or growth as we do.
The angels then are commended to us by the Church in the first place for us to ask their intercession, especially to ensure our safety from dangers both spiritual and physical.
The people of Israel needed precisely such protection on their way out of Egypt. They were promised: ‘Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared,’ (Ex. 23:20) and God told them to ‘listen carefully to his voice’ (v.22). The voice of God had previously terrified the Israelites when the whole people heard it at Mount Sinai:
Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Ex. 20:18–19)
The voice of the angel is meant to be less intimidating. God does not want to scare us. He wants us to picture him as our heavenly Father, and we are more willing to do that if he is not playing the part of an overprotective parent. We might make a comparison between God sending his angels to look after us, and parents asking one child to keep an eye on another, rather than being seen to interfere themselves.
If God did intervene directly in our lives all the time, with great sounds from heaven and a voice breaking through the clouds, we might begin to question our freedom. But if the angels get on with quietly protecting us in the background, we don’t feel quite so infantilised.
That so many of the angels spend time running round after us should not mean that we underestimate them. Christian artists of the last 500 years have a lot to answer for in representing angels as chubby babies, decorative in a painting but not much use in a fight. The descriptions of angelic beings in the scriptures are terrifying, and draw on images of mythical beings carved by the ancient Assyrians. If you want an idea of what the Israelites thought angels looked like, visit the monumental hybrid creatures that once guarded the Assyrian city of Nimrud and are now on display in the British Museum. When God chose to describe angels through his prophets, he drew on images such as these, which would have been familiar to the people of Israel from their neighbours. Of course the bodiless angels don’t really look like these monsters. Without bodies, they can’t look like anything. But God caused his prophets to picture them in this way in order to convey the sense of immense spiritual power that angels wield. Today’s feast is a day to thank God that such power is used for our benefit.