06. Angelic Apparitions – How the Angels Appeared – New Testament
Only the messages of the angels who foretold the birth of the Redeemer, and of his blessed Precursor, are reported to us by the evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew. We are not informed as to what they looked like, although we are told that the Angel Gabriel, who appeared to Zachary, stood at the right side of the altar of incense, and that the aged priest was startled and seized with fear on seeing him. Some have thought that the apparition of the same glorious spirit to our blessed Lady was purely intellectual, but the word of the evangelist – “being come in” – would be understood more naturally as implying a visible corporeal presence.
When Our Lord was at length actually born in Bethlehem in Judea, His birth was announced to the shepherds by an angel who suddenly stood by them amid wondrous brightness, and who spoke to them with heavenly condescension, while presently a whole host of angelic spirits mingled their voices with his in the strains of the sweetest hymn that was ever heard by mortal ears.
An angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph in his sleep to warn him to take the Child and His mother and feel into Egypt when Herod sought the life of the Child, and again in Egypt after the death of Herod to bid him return to the land of Israel. Nothing, however, is said as to the form in which the angel showed himself. Nor are we supplied with any details regarding the apparition of the angels who came to minister to Our Lord after the series of temptations to which He was pleased to submit at the beginning of His public life, or of the privileged spirit whose role it was to comfort Our Lord in His agony in the Garden.
On the other hands, the evangelist, Saint Matthew, present us a striking picture of the angel who first announced to the holy women Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead.
And behold, there was a great earthquate. For an angel of the Lord descended from heave, and coming, rolled back the stone [from the entrance to the tomb], and sat upon it. And his countenance was a lightning, and his rainment as snow. And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men. (Matthew 28:2-4)
But to the women who sought Jesus crucified, he was all condescension and sweetness, and bade them have no fear, but go and bear the good tidings to the disciples.
Saint Mark speaks of a young man clad in a white garments and sitting to the right as the women entered the sepulchre; and he addressed them graciously, bearing the joyous message of the resurrection of our divine Saviour. Saint Luke tells of two men who stood by them in shining apparel, and reminded them of Our Lord’s own prediction that He was to rise again. And finally, Saint John in narrating the first apparition fo Our Lord himself after His resurrection, records how Mary Magdalen, as she stood weeping at the tomb, stooped down and looking in, “saw two against in white, sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid.” (John 20:12)
In all these instances the angels appear in human form, but with a glory of vesture and of aspect which was quite in keeping with the splendid miracle of the resurrection, and which clearly revealed them as something more than mere human beings.
The Acts of the Apostles
In the Acts of the Apostles, mention is several times made of apparitions of angels. First, there are the two, clad in white robes, who reproved the disciples when the latter, after our Lord’s ascension from the Mount of Olives, stood gazing up to heaven, instead of setting at once about the work which He had appointed for them to do. (Acts 1:10)
Later, an angel appears to Cornelius, the centurion, and bids him summon Peter to preach the gospel to his household. (Acts 10) So an angel bids Philip hasten to instruct the eunuch of Candance, Queen of the Ethiopians, as he is on his way homeward from Jerusalem. (Acts 8:26) Again an angel appeared to Paul on his voyage to Rome, and in the midst of a prolonged and violent storm, promised him the safety of all who had sailed with him on the ship, though the ship itself was doomed to perish. (Acts 27)
Lastly, there is the still more wonderful apparition of the angel who awakened Peter as he lay asleep in prison between two guards, and, shedding about him a heavenly radiance, struck the shackles from Peter’s hands, bade him arise and dress, and to follow him forth into the city, leaving him only when he was, at length, safe from all danger of pursuit. (Acts 12)
It would take long to enumerate the many visions of angels recounted by Saint John in his Apocalypse. At one time he sees thousands upon thousands standing round about the throne or falling on their faces before it, adoring God and singing the praises of the Lamb. At another, he beholds
four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth…and another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the sign of the living God. (Apocalypse 7:1-2)
Again, Saint John sees
seven angels standing in the presence of God; and there were given to them seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer up the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. (Apocalypse 8:2-4)
More glorious still, and at the same time aw-inspiring, is the picture the apostle gives us of a “mighty angel” whom he saw
come down from heaven, clothes with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head, and his face was a the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire. And he had in his hand a little book open; and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left upon the earth…. And the angel…lifted up his hand to heaven. And he swore by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things which are therein; and the earth, and the things which are in it; and the sea, and the things which are therein: That time shall be no more. (Apocalypse 10:1-6)
It is in the Apocalypse that we find the account of the primeval conflict between the Prince of Darkness and the Angel of Light.
And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels; and they prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. (Apocalypse 12:7-8)
The splendour and the majesty of the blessed spirits may be inferred from the impression produced by the sight of one of them upon the mind of the Beloved Disciple, favored though he had been by so many wondrous visions. “And I, John,” he tells us in the last chapter of his great prophecy, “who have heard and seen these things. And after I had heard and seen, I fell down to adore before the feet of the angel, who shewed me these things. And he said to me: See thou do it not, for I am thy fellow servant….Adore God.” (Apocalypse 22:8-9)