Angels grab the attention of so many. They somehow make us feel closer to heaven, making that veil between earth and paradise seem a bit thinner. Within his writings, St. Paul makes it clear that angels must never take precedence over Christ; an important reminder for all. However, if we use angels as mentors, or guides, they can be helpful spiritual chaperones, leading us closer and closer to the Lord.
Many saints and theologians have put a great deal of time into studying and pondering angels. Unfortunately, no one is able to conduct interviews with angels, observe them in action, or analyze them under a microscope. We do know from the Bible, however, that they exist.
Through careful study of Scripture, and much contemplation by many early Catholic theologians (a few examples: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Dionysius, St. Gregory the Great), it has become tradition to organize angels into three groups, with three divisions per group (nice Holy Trinity symbolism!), creating a total of nine hierarchies known as “choirs.“
First Triad: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
Tradition holds that this top level of angels is closest to God and that their main purpose is to praise, honor, and glorify Him.
Seraphim are typically believed to be the angels closest to God; spending their time giving Him constant praise. It was a seraph angel who touched the lips of Isaiah with an ember, purifying him from sin to prepare him for his ministry as a prophet for God. Saint Isaiah describes seraphim as having six wings: two to veil their faces, two for covering their feet, and two to hold them in flight.
Over the centuries, cherubim have become regarded as baby angels. However, they are actually described quite differently in the Bible. The cherubim in Genesis held a fiery sword. Ezekiel had a vision of four cherubim, each with features of an ox, man, lion, and eagle (these particular cherubim have become representations for the Gospel writers.) Numerous Scriptural references on cherubim describe them as serving as a throne for God.
The angelic label “thrones” can be found within Paul’s letter to the Colossians; where Paul stressed the supremacy of Christ over all creation, angels included:
For in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or
principalities or powers;
all things were created through
him and for him.
Second Triad: Dominions, Virtues, Powers
Dominion, virtue, and power angels are scarcely mentioned in the Bible; we have very little Scriptural evidence of what their purposes might be. Some have declared that they work somewhere in between heaven and earth, not right with God, but not too close to humans either. In Paul’s letter to the Christians of Ephesus, he stressed Christ’s superiority to these angels:
Which he wrought in Christ, raising him up from the dead, and setting him on the right hand in the heavenly places. Above all principality, and power, and virtue, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. – Ephesians 1:20-21 (Douay-Rheims)
The First Letter of Peter reiterates this dominance:
Who is on the right hand of God, swallowing down death, that we might be made of heirs of life everlasting: being gone into heaven, the angels and powers and virtues being made subject to him. – 1 Peter 3:22 (Douay-Rheims)
Colossians 1: 16 (see above) includes a brief mentioning of powers and dominions as well.
Third Triad: Principalities, Archangels, Angels
This third level of angels brings in a bit more familiarity and Scriptural reference. It is claimed that this cluster of angels is closest to humans; that they exist to help and guide us during our time on earth.
Of the three hierarchies in this level, the principality angels are probably the most obscure; they are lightly touched-upon by Paul in his letters.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul almost gives the sense that some principality (and power) angels might be malevolent, causing dark struggles for humans on earth.
For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. – Ephesians 6:12
Although the term “archangel” can be found in only two places within the Bible (Jude 9 and 1 Thess. 4:16), the title is widely used among Catholics. We hold that Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are all archangels and have come directly to humans during special events in religious history.
Luke 1:19, 26
The choir called “angels” is the division nearest to human beings. There are multitudes of references to angels throughout Scripture. What Catholics have come to know as guardian angels are clumped within this particular choir.
Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no mention of these choirs, it clearly acknowledges the existence of angels, describing their attributes as spiritual, serving, messengers, mighty, obedient to God, centered around Christ, ministering, protective, strengthening, evangelizing, and mysterious. While it is still thought-provoking to consider what some of the great saints before us deduced, it is important to keep in mind what Saint Paul made very clear: that Christ is above and has authority over all angels. Angels do not deserve our adoration or worship; however, they do rate our attention and friendship.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Catholic Comparative New Testament, The
Catholicism for Dummies by Rev. John Trigilio and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti
Heavenly Army of Angels by Bob and Penny Lord