02Oct 2nd Oct. 2012. Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels

Ex. 23:20-23. I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way.

Mt 18:1-5, 10. Their angels in heaven look upon the face of my heavenly Father.

Guarding us from harm

A guardian angel is a spiritual being assigned to protect and guide particular persons or groups. Belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout antiquity. The concept of tutelary angels was extensively developed in the middle ages, and is part of the Church’s devotional beliefs. It is a colourful and popular expression of our underlying belief in a personal Providence taught by Jesus: “The very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Mt 10:30-31) and “if God so clothes the grass that is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more you, O ye of little faith?” (Lk 6:28).

When I consulted my personal angel about how to present the meaning of this feast, s/he prompted me to offer some biblical and historical background, drawn from Wikipedia and other sources, as material for today’s homily. The concept of guardian angels  is clearly present in the Old Testament, and its development is well marked. Some texts portray God’s angels as his ministers who carried out his behests, and who were at times given special commissions, regarding human beings.

In Genesis 18-19, angels carry out God’s wrath against the cities of the plain, and deliver Lot from danger; in Exodus 32:34, God says to Moses: “my angel shall go before you.” Later we have the story of Tobias, which enshrines the words of Psalm 91:11: “He has given his angels charge over you; to keep you in all your ways.” (Cf. Psalm 33:8 and 34:5) In Daniel 10 angels are entrusted with the care of particular districts; one is called “prince of the kingdom of the Persians”, and Michael is termed “one of the chief princes”; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8 (LXX); and Ecclesiasticus 17:17 (LXX).

In late Judaism the belief developed that the people have a heavenly representative, a guardian angel.   The belief that angels can be guides and intercessors for human beings is implied in Job 33:23-6, and in the Book of Daniel (Dan 10:13) where the “prince of the Persian kingdom” contends with Gabriel. The same verse mentions “Michael, one of the chief princes,” and Michael is one of the few angels named in the Bible. In the New Testament Book of Jude Michael is described as an archangel. The Book of Enoch, part of the Ethiopian Church’s canon of scripture, says that God will “set a guard of holy angels over all the righteous” (1 En 100:5) to guard them during the end of time, while the wicked are being destroyed.

In Rabbinic Literature, the Rabbis expressed the notion that there are indeed guardian angels appointed by Yahweh to watch over people. Rashi on Daniel 10:7 “Although a person does not see something of which he is terrified, his guardian angel in heaven does see it; and so he becomes terrified.” Modern rabbis clarify that people may indeed have guardian angels. God watches over people and the guardian angels are emissaries to aid in this task. Thus, while not prayed to directly, they are part of how our prayer and response come about.

In the New Testament belief in guardian angels seems to have greater precision. Angels are envoys between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: “See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is seen here: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels do not lose the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfil on earth. The idea that people are protected by guardian angels is perhaps also implied in Hebrews 1:14, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?”

Acts 12:12-15 suggests that a specific angel is assigned to protect each individual. After Peter had been escorted out of prison by an angel, he went to the home of Mary the mother of John Mark. When the servant girl ran to tell the group that Peter was there, they thought it must be his angel. Since then, Peter’s guardian angel is the most commonly depicted in art, most famously Raphael’s fresco (in the Vatican) of the Deliverance of Saint Peter from prison. Another key example is the angel who comforted Christ in the garden (Lk

Whether guardian angels attend every individual is not consistently upheld by the Church Fathers, and is not an “article of faith”, although the concept is clear in both the Old and New Testaments. According to St. Jerome the concept is in the “mind of the Church” and he stated that: “how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.”

The belief in and theology about angels has undergone many refinements since antiquity. Belief in both the East and the West is that guardian angels serve to protect whichever person God assigns them to, and pray to God on that person’s behalf. The first Christian theologian to offer a detailed doctrine about guardian angels appears to have been Honorius of Autun (1080-1154), who said that every soul was assigned a guardian angel the moment it was put into a body. Scholastic theologians augmented the theory of angelic guardians. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Honorius and held that the lowest order of angels served as guardians, and his view was most successful in popular thought, but Duns Scotus said that any angel might accept the mission.

This feast, like many others, was local before it was placed in the Roman calendar. It was not in the breviary of Pius V, published in 1568; but there was a request from Cordova in 1579 for permission to have a feast in honour of the guardian angels. In the 17th century Clement X (1670-1676 ) made the Feast of Guardian Angels an obligatory feast for the whole Latin Church to be celebrated on  October 2nd. This gives the sanction of papal authority to an ancient and cherished belief. The multiplicity of feasts is in fact quite a modern development, and that the guardian angels were not honoured with a special feast in the early Church is no evidence that they were not prayed to and reverenced. Pope John Paul II urged belief in guardian angels in conjunction with devotion to our Blessed Lady: “Let us invoke the Queen of angels and saints, that she may grant us, supported by our guardian angels, to be authentic witnesses to the Lord’s paschal mystery”.

First Reading… Exodus 23:20-23

The Lord spoke to Moses and the people during their journey across the desert wilderness: ‘I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. My angel will go in front of you.’

Gospel Matthew 18:1-5, 10

The disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”
He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said,
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Whoever humbles himself like this child
is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones,
for I say to you that their angels in heaven
always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”

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