Angel: anyone who is a mediator of God’s tenderness.
In the collective imagination, the angel has a well-defined character and those who paint him must adhere to certain pre-established canons. An angel with hippy traits, tail, tattoo on his arm and jeans would have little chance of being accepted, not only by the more traditionalist parish priests but also by the less bigoted faithful. The angel has to radiate a bright light, has wings, flowing hair and the soft features, but still male because no angel has a woman’s name. Painting an angel with shoes would be the grossest error a painter would commit: an angel flies, not walk.
To us heirs of the Enlightenment and positivist culture, this ethereal figure appears more than a real being, a naive, archaic pre-modern legacy; a regression to the world of childhood fairy tales where gnomes, fairies, and elves enter the scene. In the era of science and technology, faith in angels would seem destined to a rapid decline. However, here it is re-emerging and fashionable again. Surveys show that 60% of Italians are convinced to be assisted by a guardian angel, 50% say they talk to him and 6% calls for their protection from accidents.
“You are an angel!” We all have heard this compliment at least once: from a friend to whom we have given a hand at a difficult time; from an office colleague, delighted in seeing us react to an offense with a smile and calm words, by a married couple we helped to reconcile; by a wife to whom we brought coffee in bed caressing her as she sipped it.
“You are an angel.” Is it just a figure of speech, an image, a metaphor? No, it is a reality—today’s readings tell us.
The angel was born to fill a distance. The Hebrew word mal’ak comes from the root la’ak that means to send and is attributed to anyone who is sent to convey a message, gather information or take a specific action in the name of an agent. The Bible does not make any distinction between people’s envoys and God’s. Anyone who goes between people or between distant communities or between God and people is called mal’ak—angel.
Even when the sacred text gives a name to the messengers of God, it is difficult to determine whether it points to real characters, to spirits who assumed human forms, or if one uses an image, a personification to describe the ineffable experience of divine intervention in people’s favor.
The feast of the archangels is an invitation for us to turn around and to recognize the angels who are at our side. They do not move with wings, but guide with caution; they are serene and kind even when the traffic is not flowing. They do not wear a bright robe, but the sari of Mother Teresa, the gown of the doctor, the worker’s suit or jeans of a young priest of the Oratory. And if they do not have shoes it is because they removed them to offer them to the poor.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Lord—that I may be your angel.“