There are many scenes in the Acts of the Apostles that describe the angels’ presence in the life of the young Church. The book of Acts was written by St. Luke, the conscientious historian whose Gospel describes with great beauty the appearances of the angels from the first pages to the last. Indeed, Luke seems to have a particular delight in relating angelic encounters.
When the Lord ascended into Heaven, two angels were in the midst of the apostles to remind them of their duty: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). After hearing these words, the apostles went back to Jerusalem, and there in the Upper Room with Our Lady and the holy women, they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then the apostles, with bravery and conviction, began to preach Christ in all His glory and truth. In this way, and with the grace of God, they converted many to Christ.
The angels must have looked on with great joy as they witnessed the beginnings of the Church. Their prayer and their presence continued to strengthen and to animate the apostles as they went about their first works and undertook their first missionary journeys. In fact, in St. Luke’s account we see the angels coming and going with an ordinariness that shows us how the natural and the supernatural are woven together in the life of the Church.
There are many deep lessons for us in the Acts of the Apostles, not the least of which is the intimacy and active cooperation between the angels and the early Christians. It should be a model for us as we undertake our own missions for Christ and His Church: Docility to the guidance of the angels helps us to bear spiritual fruit.
St. Peter, the first pope, had a particularly powerful experience with the ministry of the angels:
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (12:1–5)
In this brief passage we see the early Church strengthening the Vicar of Christ with their prayers on his behalf — and the prayers of the Church were heard.
The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. (12:6–7)
We need to picture for a moment what this scene describes. St. Peter has been arrested by Herod, who also played a very important role in the condemnation of Jesus. He is now chained, seated on the floor, his back against a wall, his arms outstretched. At his right and his left there are two guards. In Peter’s half-sleeping, half-wakeful state of anxiety, he must have been thinking about the Crucifixion of Jesus. We know that before the Ascension, Jesus had spoken to Peter about his coming death. After giving him the charge “Feed my lambs. . . . Feed my sheep,” Jesus told the Rock of His Church that in his old age there would be those who would fasten a belt around his waist and take him where he would not want to go (John 21:15, 17–18).
Despite Jesus’ reference to martyrdom in his “old age,” Peter must have been frightened in that cell. As he slept in a posture that physically conformed him to the Crucified Lord, with soldiers who would have reminded him of the two thieves as well as the soldiers at Calvary, he must have been wrestling with his own fears, even as he made interior acts of submission, trust, and hope for his deliverance.
And then suddenly the angel awakened him by striking him in the side, perhaps with his foot. In his fitful state of sleep, it may very well have been to him like the blow of the lance that Christ had received. Why else would the angel have roused the sleepy Vicar of Christ in that fashion? The angel took command of the situation immediately and directed him step by step: “ ‘Dress yourself and put on your sandals.’ And Peter did so. And he said to him, ‘Wrap your mantle around you and follow me.’ And he went out and followed him.” And Luke very clearly tells us, “He did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision” (12:8–9). Peter thought that he was still asleep and that the angel was revealing to him a pathway through death.
But instead, he was about to be restored to the Church. “When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him.” And Peter only then fully woke up, saying, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting” (12:10–11). Just as once the Lord had sent His angel to protect Daniel from the lions in the den and just as once the Lord had sent His angel to protect the three young men in the fiery furnace, so now the Lord sent His angel once more to the first pope, the Vicar of Christ, to protect him and to ensure that the nascent Church might continue to grow and to be strengthened.
God’s holy angels also appear in the story of another one of the great saints of the book of Acts. This time the intervention of the angels was not to save someone from martyrdom but rather to fortify the first martyr of the Church, St. Stephen.
Stephen was a man of outstanding courage and insight. He not only looked after the material needs of the Church with the other deacons, including caring for those who were in need, but he also dedicated himself to preaching and to the study of Scripture. Standing before his accusers, Stephen spoke to them of Moses and the angels of the Lord:
Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. . . . This Moses whom [the Israelites] refused, God sent as both ruler and deliverer by the hand of the angel that appeared to him in the bush. . . . This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living oracles to give to us. . . . You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (7:30, 35, 38, 51–53)
Stephen’s testimony is remarkable because it shows how, as a devout and believing Jew, he understood the importance of the angels, especially their involvement in giving the Law.
We know that among those who were present and gave silent consent to Stephen’s murder was a young man named Saul. Many years later, under the name of Paul, he would use the same words as he approached his own martyrdom: “[The law] was ordained by angels through an intermediary” (Gal. 3:19).
St. Stephen’s deep faith so transfigured him that those at his trial “saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). His faith had purified him, and so he bore on his face the reflection of the guardian to whose care he was entrusted. His faith even allowed him, while yet on earth, to see the heavens open before his eyes with Jesus standing on the threshold to receive him (7:55–56).
There is another dimension of St. Stephen’s martyrdom that we should not overlook here. In the very moments of his final witness, Stephen teaches us to pray as Christians.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (7:59–60)
Stephen addresses these two prayers directly to Jesus, using the words that Jesus had spoken from the Cross to the Father: “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46), and earlier, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This is an important moment in the history of Christian prayer: It is proof that the very earliest Jewish converts addressed their prayers to Jesus in the same way that He (and they) had prayed to the Father previously. In other words, Jesus was praised and adored in the same manner as the Father from the very beginning of the Church’s life. This was not a later development; it was part of the Church’s understanding of the Risen Lord since Pentecost.
As the book of Acts continues, we see another wonderful episode in which the angels intervened in the life of the Church. While Peter was staying in Joppa, he heard the Lord Jesus’ voice commanding him to eat non-kosher food. This was a preparation for the next chapter in Peter’s mission. Shortly thereafter Peter was informed that a group of Gentiles was outside, calling him to go to the house of a certain Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea.
He said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, saying, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.’ ” (10:28–31)
These words are almost exactly the words that the angel Raphael speaks in the book of Tobit. We do not know whether the angel who appeared to Cornelius was Raphael himself or another of the “seven who stand before the throne of God,” but the language is reminiscent of that promise of assistance that was made in the Old Testament. The angel went on to tell Cornelius:
“Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.” So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord. (10:32–33)
And St. Peter, impressed by this angelic message that confirmed the revelation made to him in Joppa, replied:
Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (10:34–38)
Our Lord uses His angels as messengers in this critical moment when the first Gentile convert to Christianity, together with his family, was received and baptized by Peter. A centurion was a proud and feared soldier, a leader whose men obeyed him unquestioningly, and he was formed by the violence and discipline of an often brutal military culture. The conversion of such a man required nothing less than an overwhelming transformation. Grace had already invaded his soul, since he told Peter that he was keeping a time of prayer when the angel appeared to him.
This beautiful sign shows us how the angels participate in the work of conquering the world for the love of God with the weapons of faith, hope, and love — and through the grace of the living Christ that God has entrusted to His Church. This love is so powerful and transcendent that it unites men and women of every nation in a common work that the world might be lifted up and the redemption of Christ might bear fruit in the hearts of all men and women.
St. Philip the Deacon
In the story of St. Philip the deacon, we see another instance in which an angel arranged all things for God’s plan and purpose. Philip was one of the seven original deacons, together with St. Stephen, and he preached in Samaria among the people the Jews considered to be heretics. His preaching was marked by many miracles, especially by the casting out of demons. But as he completed his work there, an angel appeared and said to him, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26).
Philip followed the angel’s message immediately. Along the road, he came upon an important servant of the queen of Ethiopia. This man was a eunuch who had come to know the Jewish faith. He was seated in his carriage reading aloud (as was the custom of the time) from the scroll of Isaiah, but he was confused about the meaning of the passage. Philip immediately realized that the reason he had been brought to that place at that moment by the angel was to speak to this man — to answer his need and to preach to him the Gospel of Christ. The man immediately responded to this grace and asked for baptism, which Philip conferred.
This passage is especially important because, in enlightening and baptizing the eunuch, Philip did something extraordinary for the building up of the Church. Eunuchs were outside the community of Israel (Deut. 23:1), and so this baptism initiated the extension of the preaching of the gospel to all peoples of the world.
St. Philip’s acceptance of the angel’s message should remind us that when we receive in our prayer an inspiration to do an act of charity or to speak a word of comfort, we should always respond with trust. In this way we become the instruments of His love — sometimes with an impact that goes well beyond anything we could imagine. Even a single inspired word might be the first step in bringing about a conversion.
After people have been away from the Church for a long time, their return to the Church often begins with a simple invitation, from a friend or a family member, to Mass or to a special church event. Fallen-away Catholics and non-Catholics who attend the funeral Mass of a Catholic friend frequently find great grace in that moment. They look within themselves and begin to realize what God is offering in the Catholic Church — the life of joyful faith, love, peace, and forgiveness of sins. The Liturgy in which the angels participate and for which they serve as models — and from which flows the grace of God — is one of our greatest resources for evangelization. This is another reason for us to pray for our priests and deacons at every Mass we attend, particularly funerals, so that they may have the grace of touching souls and healing them.
Over and over again, we realize in the course of our lives that when we’re more concerned about our Father’s business than the trifling things that too often fill the hours of our day, God makes of us instruments of His love to touch the hearts of others and draw them closer and closer to Him. I will always remember a man I met at my first parish. He had been married to a Catholic for thirty years and regularly attended Mass with his wife. One Sunday I said to him, “When are you going to come into the Church?” And he stopped, looking confused, and said, “No one’s ever asked me before. I’d love to come into the Church.” Within a week he began his instructions, and since he had attended Sunday Mass for so long and had participated in raising Catholic children, his time of catechesis was very short indeed. And a very little while later, I experienced the joy of receiving him into the Faith and giving him his first Holy Communion.
His wife was amazed; she thought that she had done everything in her power to bring her husband into the Church — and she had! His conversion was the result of her long years of faithful and patient witness, her loving prayers, and the wonderful family relationship they had formed. But it took only one question — one invitation at the right time — to complete the process.
When the angels suggest to you to say a word of love, of comfort, of truth, or of invitation, speak that word, and you will find that the Lord will work through you, just as He worked through Philip and all the great saints, known and unknown, who have gone before us. You, too, with the angels by your side, will help to build up His Kingdom and to bring His joy to many others.
Holy guardian angel, my friend and companion, my elder
brother and teacher, keep my mind and heart always open to
your words and guidance. You see better than I how much
good there is to be done. Open my eyes to the needs of those
around me. Open my ears to their unspoken prayers and
soundless cries. Open my heart so that I may be brave and
unashamed in loving my neighbor with the very love of Jesus. Do
not let me hold back in doing even a little good for others. Like
the widow in the Temple who gave all she possessed, though
it was only a penny, inspire me to do even the very smallest
things with great love, for anyone whom I can help. Amen.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in His Angels at Our Side: Understanding Their Power in Our Souls and the World, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.