Exodus 23:20-23; Matthew 18:1-5, 10
Belief in guardian angels has enjoyed a venerable history in Christianity and, before, that, in ancient Judaism. The primary meaning of angel is “messenger,” and the primary mission of angels is mediation. From a theological perspective, angels help solve a critical problem in monotheism. How can God be involved in the world and continue to be God? The distinction between the godness of God and the “not-godness”-to invent a word- of the world is critical if one is to avoid falling into pantheism—the divinization of the world—on the one hand, and radical monism—the notion that all is divine, on the other. Angels mediate between God and the world, delivering the messages of God to us and allowing God as God to avoid direct contact with what God is not, namely the limited, contingent world of ours.
As our reading today suggests, belief in mediating angels was widespread in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Some theologians note that many early Christians thought of Jesus in angelic terms. We can see this especially in the Letter to the Hebrews. Clearly Jesus is seen as the mediator between the Father and us. What is different in the Christian understanding, however, is that Christians also believe that Jesus is fully God. Said another way, in Jesus, God has become radically present in the creation, without the mediating role of angelic messengers. Sometimes I ask my students this question: if the one you love is in Paris and you are here, which is better, to send them a love letter or to hop on a plane and go in person? Angels are like love letters, Jesus is the personal visit.
In a way, Jesus does away with the need for angels as mediators—he has accomplished all the mediation that we need in himself. In him we have become completely and totally reconciled to the Father and God has become reconciled to the world. Nevertheless, there is still something very comforting about the notion of guardian angels. Who would not like to have some heavenly being watching out as we navigate the complexities of human life? It seems to me a belief in angelic intercession in this sense fits nicely within the Catholic notion of the communion of the Saints. That is, in the reality of God, all of God’s servants can pray and intercede for each other, even those who have died, and even those who are angels. It is not dissimilar to praying for your friends and asking them to pray for you.
By David Cosby