Last week a priest appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, at the scene of a car crash in Missouri last week. He prayed with the victim, Katie Lentz, and then vanished without so much as leaving his name. The event sparked a frenzy of religious excitement. Among Christians, speculation grew that this mysterious figure was a guardian angel sent to protect the teenage girl. Bloggers were even hypothesizing about the identity of the angel himself.
When it was revealed that the angel was flesh-and-blood priest Father Patrick Dowling, the news was greeted with mild disappointment. A humble and helpful priest who wouldn’t even take the credit for saving the girl’s life wasn’t quite as flashy as the “Miracle on the Highway.”
What everyone seemed to agree upon was that if angels exist they are helpful supernatural entities there to shield us from harm.
But are they?
In the Bible angels are mostly errand boys, the word itself means "messenger." As God’s intermediaries they give tours of heaven to righteous visionaries like Daniel, deliver messages to God’s chosen ones, and sing eternal praises to God. There are many kinds of angels, from the familiar (the angels, archangels, cherubs) to the strangely inanimate (St. Paul opaquely talks about “thrones, principalities, and powers” which sounds a lot like celestial furniture).
But they have a violent streak.
The first angel mentioned in the Bible is the angel that guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a fiery ever-turning sword. Guardian angels are in the Bible, but they’re not there to protect us.
The Eden story isn’t an isolated affair. The Angel of the Lord is always packing heat. More often than not if an angel shows up to an event in the Hebrew Bible it is to harm someone. On one occasion, during the reign of King David, when the Angel of the Lord is about to destroy Jerusalem, God has to tell it to put his sword away. This is small fry for the Archangels. They lead armies into battle and are in training for the final showdown at Armageddon.
They’re not as telegenic as they appear in Lifetime specials, either. Seraphim are large six-winged snakes that fly. Cherubs aren’t well-fed babies, they’re winged lions. Hardly the kinds of creatures you want watching over you as you sleep.
And these are the good angels. Some supernatural beings are less obedient than others. In Genesis we learn that the “sons of God” noticed how attractive human women were and took them as wives. Later Jewish interpretations called these angelic beings the “Watchers” and blamed them for teaching humanity the evils of technology. God is so angry at the ensuing wickedness that he sends the flood to wipe almost everyone out. Perhaps the winged snakes weren’t so bad after all.
By the time we get to the New Testament, angels have settled into their roles as messengers and heavenly bouncers. They look like human beings. The two young men who talk to the disciples at the empty tomb of Jesus can be identified as angels only from their dazzling white garments.
They can still be a bit testy though. The Angel Gabriel, best supporting actor of modern nativity plays, is less serene when he announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah. When Zechariah protests that he’s getting on a bit, Gabriel replies “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words…you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
That’s how he delivers the good news. As the poet Rilke wrote, “Every angel is terror.”
In the fifteen hundred years since the Bible was put together, angels have been made over into the shoulder-length-haired, white-robed Caucasians that adorn laminated prayer cards. They’ve been identified as supernatural figures who provide assistance in times of trouble.
But, biblically speaking, angels are as likely to be sending a message as delivering one. If you’re looking for spiritual assistance then you should call upon a saint. If you meet an angel you should probably run.