In the Presence of the Angels

The impact of certain life encounters will stay with you for years. This summer will mark the twenty-year anniversary of one such encounter.
August of 2001 saw me visiting my sister in La Crosse, WI and taking a brief tour of the chapel in the motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, on the campus of Viterbo University, where my (now retired) sister taught.

There are many angels to be seen there, and so the chapel is named Maria Angelorum. Among the angels are a number of the heavenly host who bear the instruments of the passion and death of Jesus: the nails, the hammer, the thorns, the dice rolled for his garment, Pilate’s washbasin, the reed that struck him, the cock that signaled Peter’s betrayal, and so on. That these objects were angel-borne at first shocked me, as it was my first encounter with this particular angelic symbolism. (The shock would likely be even greater for those who have grown accustomed to soft, easy, fluffy angels, made safe for mainstream media consumption on the airwaves, social media, and in greeting card racks.)

Yet angels are—first and foremost, above all else—messengers of the working out of the will of God. In the scriptures, when angels appear, they first reassured humans with the words “Fear not!” Their appearance must have been shocking. The angels in the chapel windows, bearing the means by which God’s own Son would meet his death, bear a message as troubling as the one Gabriel brought to Mary. With her, we can easily look at these angels and ask, “How can this be?” How can one of God’s lovely, beautiful, glorious, light-filled angels come bearing these bleak implements of death?

My visit to the chapel was still much in my mind a month later, in September of 2001. Following the events of September 11, the question “How can this be?” was asked a lot. Some answered, “It cannot be,” and surrendered all hope or belief in a just or merciful God.
The feelings that I had when first viewing those angel windows came back again time and again throughout this past year, as I and many others asked, “How can this be?” This time I’ve had a whole year to reflect and pray about the matter. I rediscovered the existence of the angel of death (also known as the avenging or destroying angel) in the Hebrew scriptures—though I also learned there was no angel in the Passover account of Exodus. It was the very hand of God that brought death to Egypt.

I continued this past year to look at the global maps of the pandemic, to see the mounting death tolls, wondering how many of those deaths were avoidable if human arrogance, greed, selfishness, and pride—definitely not our better angels—had not gotten in the way.
As in years past, as we begin our turn from the Sundays of Lent to the days of Holy Week, I know I will be transported back twenty years at least several times, coming face to face with those angels once again. As I did back then, and have ever since, I’ll find the expressions on the faces of those angels to be largely inscrutable, with a certain air of resignation about them as they bear symbols of suffering, devices of death. Once again, I’ll hope that they know the angel who, Luke alone reports, came to comfort Jesus in the garden. I think, I hope—I need to believe that heaven granted these angels the ability to look beyond that awful moment for which they were messengers. These angels bore these implements in their hands not because God ordains or desires suffering or death, but because they know, as God’s messengers, that God’s will must be worked out, and shall be worked out beyond moments obfuscated by our mortal vision.

Maybe, just maybe, it was one of these same angels who was allowed a seat in the empty tomb to tell the Good News of life triumphant. Perhaps a few of them were chosen to chasten the disciples not to look skyward, but to go into the world on a mission to wreak God’s will for love, truth, life, peace, justice, and mercy.

May God grant us their vision, and their mission.

More about the Maria Angelorum chapel and its angels here.


  1. The difference in art between medieval (see link below) and post-medieval depictions of Cherubim (with the exception of artists like William Blake) is a helpful quick slap on the cheeks of cultural memory.

    Whatever one thinks of the 1990s horror movie, The Prophecy, the screenwriters’ purple pen was put to good effect in this line given to Thomas Daggett : “Did you ever notice how, in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God . . . but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really *want* to see an angel?”

    St Zechariah in the Temple wasn’t exactly thrilled by his encounter with St Gabriel, and the BVM was troubled at first by hers, though she was not struck mute for her questioning. There’s a reason for “Fear not” – it’s because angelic appearances triggered fear.

    1. I will gladly see the angelic crew who appeared to my grandpa at the foot of his bed, to accompany him Home (to whom he pointed). He told them he wasn’t going anywhere until he said goodbye.

  2. Perhaps one of the saddest things to occur in our modern age is the lack of enchantment. We no longer see the world as awe filled and magical but mechanical. There are many ranks of spiritual beings that serve God’s majesty. Angels (messengers) are just one. There are thrones, powers, principalities, etc that help govern and rule creation in God’s name. They actually “do stuff.” Saints have joined these spiritual beings in ministering and guiding God’s creation. One of my favorite miracles is that of St. John XXIII retold here.

    We think that everything is so predictable (more so than it actually is) that we now believe that there is no personal will behind any of the events. The Bible would often portray events happening in the angelic realm as having earthly counterparts. Empires would be influenced by angelic beings (usually fallen) and Israel would be protected by St. Michael. I wonder what spiritual realities are hidden behind the current pandemic.

    God has already granted to human kind the mission of angels. We were called to go out of Eden and subdue the rest of creation, continuing God’s work of bringing chaos to order. Even the fall did not change this, humans may have been “kicked out” of Eden prematurely, but we are still called to make everything a new Eden, by planting seeds of an enchanted garden of delight that will blossom when a new heavens and a new earth are made manifest.

  3. Concerning human’s “work of bringing chaos to order…”: that can be read two ways. And both ways are correct.

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