There has been a long tradition of speculations about angels—what is their precise nature? How are we to picture these pure spirits? Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the most robust speculators of them all, positing that each angel was a unique species on his (her, its) own. But, at the end of the day, all the references to angels in Scripture point beyond the angels to God.
The very word angel (angelos, Greek for “messenger”) points to the Sender, God. And the Hebrew names of the angels celebrated in today’s feast, each of those names is a sentence about God. Most people know that El is one of the Hebrew words for God. So Mi cha el is actually a question—“Who is like God?” Rapha el, means “God heals” (as indeed God does through Raphael in the book of Tobit). And Gabri el means “God is my strength.” So each of the names of today’s three archangels shouts “What I do is not about me; what I do is actually what God is doing through my agency.
This business of angels pointing beyond themselves is wonderfully illustrated in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael (another Hebrew name that points to God—Nathan = “gift” + el “[of] God”). Overwhelmed by Jesus’ knowledge about him (“I saw you under the fig tree”), Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Nathanael speak truly, but incompletely; “Son of God” and “King of Israel” were indeed Jewish names for the expected human Messiah, but not yet confession of his divinity (“Son of God” in the full sense of that title as revealed in the Prolog and in the words of Thomas at 20:28). Thus Jesus proclaims a subtle corrective: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you [the you’s plural here] will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
This answer is a brilliant allusion to a particular passage in the Old Testament, Gen 28:12, where Jacob, somewhere on the road to Haran, has a dream of a stairway, or ladder, between earth and the heavens, with the messengers (angels) of God going up and down on it. When Jacob awakens he has an experience of the Lord repeating to him the promise originally made to his grandfather Abraham, about his descendants become a blessing to all nations. Jacob then observes that “this place is the house of God, the gate of heaven.”
Once one becomes familiar with the whole of the Gospel of John, one realizes that John 1:51 (“You will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”) alludes to the dream of Jacob and applies it to Jesus as the Son of Man, i.e. the one who fulfills Daniel 7’s vision of the “one like a son of man” inheriting the kingdom of God. For in the Fourth Gospel we learn to understand Jesus, as the Word made flesh, now risen Lord, as the temple of God, the ultimate point of connection between heaven and earth. So the dream of Jacob’s ladder points to the incarnation, God made man in Jesus crucified and risen from the dead.
Let’s allow this very Jewish feast point us to a new appreciation of Jesus Christ our Lord as the “place” of full connection between the divine and the human, the new embodiment of everything that the desert tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple stood for. This feast helps us join the angels praising God for our redemption in the joining of heaven and earth in Jesus Christ.