The Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 24:1-6
Second Reading: Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 1:1-7
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 1:18-24
“Do you believe in angels?”
The questioner was one of my students in an introductory class in religious studies at John Carroll University. It was many years ago, but, if I recall correctly, the questioner was a Saint Ignatius alum.
Familiar with how this sort of question often gets answered in a university setting, I knew that I had several ‘rational’ options. I could have de-mythologized the topic of angels and talked about the symbolic nature of these beings in the ancient world – showing that various cultures have created similar beings who are the imagined personification of the presence of God in the world.
I could have looked at angels through the lens of psychology and talked about angels as the ‘moral’ side in the struggle between the superego and the id – sort of like in cartoons when an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder as Tom decides whether or not to make Jerry pay.
Instead, I relied on the Faith of my youth and the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and I said, “Yes, I do believe in angels.”
From a logical standpoint, angels are certainly within the realm of reason. If there is a hierarchy of being, then there appears to be a one-step-at-a-time progression from inert matter all the way up to God. The progress from purely material created beings like rocks to the purely immaterial uncreated being of God is like a ladder with the penultimate rung missing if there are no angels. Angelic beings fill in the gap between God and humans – between uncreated and purely spiritual Persons and created persons of both a spiritual and physical nature. Like God, angels are purely spiritual, but like us, they are created.
Besides the Thomistic logic of the hierarchy of being, I also had Sacred Scripture on my side. As a Catholic I am forbidden from seeing only the literal in the Bible, but I am equally forbidden from an a priori exclusion of the literal as well. To conclude, for example, that the miracles of Christ cannot be taken at face value because ‘miracles are impossible’ is not only bad theology, it is bad philosophy.
To abandon the possibility of miracles is to abandon all of what has been taught by and since Christ. And this, in the end, was my answer to the class: “If I have already taken the incredible leap of believing that God became man in Jesus Christ through the miracle of the virginal conception in the womb of the Blessed Mother, then the belief in angels is really no great feat.”
To those of us who believe in the Incarnation and everything that it entails, belief in all the rest – including angels – is basically a filling out of the details of the greatest story ever told. To be able to recite the Nicene Creed in its entirety is to say some pretty spectacular things, including belief in “all things visible and invisible.” But compared with the belief in the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, believing in the invisible beings known as angels is small potatoes indeed.
And speaking of potatoes, it would be unfair to leave out the possibility provided by Ebenezer Scrooge on the topic of non-corporeal beings. When confronted by Marley’s ghost – and a ghost is not an angel, but the same logic applies – Scrooge posits that the phantasm is merely the product of “a slight disorder of the stomach,” possibly “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
Fortunately for us, St. Joseph never studied Sacred Scripture at the hands of a professor who explained away the belief in angels, nor did he think that the appearance of an angel was merely a side effect of indigestion. Instead, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” And in so doing, he set an example for all who trust in the angel of the Lord – we should all welcome Joseph’s wife, and the Child in her womb, into our homes.