The gift of the angels
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1) In many ways that seems to be the message of Pope Francis as he has spoken words of mercy and compassion throughout his time in the USA. The photos that have grabbed at our hearts have been the ones where he leans down and kisses a child or embraces someone who may be marginalized by society. He has spoken of mercy almost ceaselessly, which is of course, the gospel message of Jesus. It seems to me that Pope Francis sees everyone, particularly those whom we might call strangers, as those for whom we are to take the message from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews to heart. In showing love and by opening our hearts to strangers we might just be encountering angels without realizing it.
Appropriately, this week we celebrate two feasts of angels. The first, on September 29, is the Feast of the Archangels, Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. It is an ancient observance with roots in the 5th century when St. Michael was venerated in what is now southern Italy. The second, on October 2, is the Feast of the Guardian Angels, a celebration which dates back to the teaching of St. Basil the Great (4th century) who taught that we all have a protecting guardian angel. However, the tradition of celebrating the angels goes back many centuries before St. Basil’s writing. The angels have been written about since Old Testament times. We see examples of this beginning with the Book of Genesis, when an angel spoke for God to Abraham, through the Book of Revelation when angels are described as doing the work of God in the fight against evil. In short, there is nothing new in believing in the existence of angels as spiritual helpers sent by God. They are among us doing what they have always done: offering guidance and help from God. However, it seems that they come among us in many forms, and often we may not notice because we are simply not aware of them.
There are nine choirs (or classes) of angels according to Jewish and Christian tradition. The Archangels are the ones who do the direct bidding of God, “messengers in significant matters.”* There are seven Archangels, although only the three we celebrate on Sept. 29 are mentioned by name in the Scriptures. St. Michael is the warrior who glorifies God and fights evil, leading armies of angels. St. Gabriel is the messenger who announced the coming of the Son of God to Mary and also guided St. Joseph, assuring him that Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy was true. St. Raphael is the angel of healing and safe travel. In the book of Tobit he came disguised as a human to help Tobit, his son Tobias, and Sarah (the eventual wife of Tobias). He not only helped God to answer their prayers for healing, both physical and spiritual, but he kept Tobias safe in his travels.
We can look at the Archangels as agents of God, but we can also see them as inspiring faith, hope, and love. For example, the message of Raphael is that of faith: the people who prayed fervently to God found that their faith was what enabled them to receive God’s help through him. Tobit and Sarah prayed with belief that God would help them in their desperation and indeed God heard and answered their prayers through the work of Raphael. The message of Gabriel is of hope: God sent him to announce the message to Mary that all men and women would have the promise of a savior fulfilled through the Son she would bear. Therefore, Gabriel’s message is that in Jesus all hope is found. Finally, the message of Michael is love. While being a warrior might not sound very loving, the way evil is fought is through love, which is indeed the gospel message of Jesus. In protecting us, both he and the guardian angels try to inspire us to respond to everyone in love, just as Jesus taught. Through our prayer and through the assistance of the angels, we can continue to build the Kingdom of God.
If we were to think of the people we encounter as potentially those ‘angels of whom we are unaware’ then that might affect our way of responding. If we see people around us as sacred and filled with the grace of God, then we will be moved to live as Jesus taught. He taught us to not to retaliate, but rather to return kindness in the face of violence, to go the extra mile, and to share what we can. He taught us to forgive by forgiving us. He taught us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned. He taught that all life is a sacred gift; therefore from the moment of conception to natural death life is to be upheld and protected. He taught that everyone has dignity no matter where they are from or what they believe. He taught that everything we are given is a precious gift from God, and therefore it is important to live with a sense of gratitude. If we live our lives this way, then we are living hospitably, because the way of the gospel is the way of opening our arms to all those who we meet. It is the way of Jesus, who offered His life for us. It is the way of trying to work together for peace and justice, embracing the common goal of building the Kingdom of God.
The other aspect of remembering to be hospitable is to recognize that we are called to act as the angels do. For every act of kindness given, for every act of forgiveness offered, for every act of mercy shared, we bring healing and hope into our world. When we reach out to the poor and marginalized, offer a welcome to those who are vastly different than ourselves, open our hearts to the lonely, weak, neglected, ill or spiritually impoverished, we are acting as angels to them. In short, it is not only that we want to be aware that we might be ‘entertaining’ angels,** but we need to remember that sometimes we are to be as the angels whom others might be ‘encountering unaware.’ The lives of some people depend upon us acting in concert with the angels. And often we will never know just how important our little acts of love can be in the lives of those who receive them.
It seems to me that the visit of Pope Francis this week has driven home the message that we all ought to act with humble hospitality. We have been almost entranced by him and his every act even more than by his words. But if we are so awed by the holiness of Francis, we also ought to emulate him. His words and actions are from his heart. He is not a politician and he does not favor Republicans or Democrats. Rather, he is speaking the words of the gospel of Jesus. Therefore his words are difficult challenges, just as the gospel of Jesus is often a difficult challenge. Instead of simply being awed by him, which is not what he would want given that he is a very humble man, we need to do as he does: 'entertaining angels' and being as the angels in putting the love he models into action. The things we see him do are incredibly simple and beautiful. Beauty begets beauty, and so, too, must we do what we see him do. Love begets love. If our hearts are moved by the Pope, then our hearts are moved by Jesus. If our hearts are moved by Jesus than we can truly grow in holiness, sharing the love we have seen and heard through our own actions and words. If we are humble, we can accomplish much by simple, loving acts.
As Jesus taught, and as Pope Francis reminds us, we need to care for all our brothers and sisters as well as having respect for ourselves, remembering that we are all children of God. We must welcome strangers, teach evildoers through our acts of love and forgiveness, and work to become closer to the Lord through our prayer so we can learn to recognize His presence and listen to His voice. If we want others to come to Christ, we need to offer our love and mercy, ‘preaching the gospel’ through how we live our lives. In doing so, we can help them to encounter angels, just as we discover the angels in those whom we meet. The angels are God’s gift to us. It a way that He shows His care and concern for us and for our world. Let us not be unaware, then, but rather let us offer to those who are strangers the same hospitality He gives us. What we have received, let us give as a gift so others may encounter angels through our love, too.
May we pray to the Angels and Archangels for aid in doing the work of the gospel! May we live the gospel with humility and mercy! May we learn to recognize the angels among us and respond with gratitude! May we be as angels for all those who are in need of healing, hope, and mercy! May we have a heart for the poor, disabled, abused, lonely, and forgotten, bringing the love of Jesus to them! And may we come to know Jesus through prayer and find Him present in our good works! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Quote from page 97, The Catholic Source Book, edited by Rev. Peter Klein.
** Another translation of Hebrew 13:1 which is often quoted is: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (ESV)
The first icon is of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
The second icon is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols called Archangel St. Michael. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/archangel-st-michael-193-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The next photo is one of my own taken in Hermann Park, Houston, TX.
Next is a photo of Pope Francis taken at his one year anniversary of being elevated to the Papacy.
The final photo is also one of mine, taken in the Alps of Switzerland, just outside Davos.
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