Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels
Matthew 18:1-5, 10
Today’s liturgical commemoration is "The Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels." It was deliberately placed so soon after the celebration of St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael in order to complement the celebration of the Archangel Michael (September 29), who is often portrayed as a warrior archangel.
In fact, the idea of a warrior angel is quite contrary to what is probably the most popular angel story in U.S. popular culture, the angel, 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody, in the Christmas classic, "It’s a Wonderful Life", known to most as the Frank Capra film which is broadcast traditionally during the Christmas season.
Although not a "guardian angel" in the traditional Catholic sense (Clarence is assigned to George Bailey, the film’s leading character, when a crisis looms over George Bailey’s life, unlike the traditional Catholic understanding that a guardian angel is one’s lifelong spiritual companion), the story does include the traditional elements of the angel’s being before God in heaven, having an awareness of the unfolding of the charge’s life, and intervening in favor of the charge at a time of critical decisions (whether to commit suicide or not), so that he will make the right decision, the one pleasing to God, and one which will enrich his own life.
If Clarence Odbody (Guardian Angel, 2nd Class) is one guardian angel that most of us in the United States will recognize, and perhaps even believe in, what does the day’s Gospel tell us of the Guardian Angels of our Catholic spirituality?
Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 18, is rich with descriptions and parables of the life to be achieved in the kingdom of heaven. It also is a strongly worded, adult admonition of the challenges which will be faced in aspiring to that kingdom.
Our reading today begins Chapter 18. In the first five verses, the focus is on the child that Jesus has brought into their midst in order to answer the disciples’ question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Three statements pivot on the child: 1) you must be converted, becoming like children; 2) you must humble yourself to be great in the kingdom of heaven; 3) if you receive a child "in my name", you receive Jesus himself.
In the sixth verse (not included in the lectionary passage), the focus changes from the child, and perhaps at this moment, the child was set aside, away from the sound of their voices, because suddenly Jesus begins to talk of some very mature subject matter: 1) the scandal of sin and the guilt of those who lead others into sin; 2) physical mutilation is better than spiritual mutilation (hands and feet cut off, eyes plucked out!).
Finally, in the 10th verse, the concluding passage of today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of "their angels in heaven," who always gaze on the face of the Father.
So, when Jesus says "do not despise one of these little ones," he is not using the expression of "little ones" in reference to the children of verses 1-5. Matthew uses the expression in verse 6, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin," which apply to all believers in Jesus and his Church, not just to children. In verse 10, it is our angels in heaven who always gaze on the face of the father.
The picture of guardian angels which most of us carry in us is like the imagery in our childhood catechisms, the angel standing guard as a child crossed a road or a bridge; the angel who whispered "do not eat those donuts" into the child’s ear when mom was out of the kitchen; or the angel who led the soul of the deceased small child into the welcoming arms of the Father.
But Jesus is saying that it is our angels, whether we are 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 years of age, who gaze on the face of the Father. They reflect the love of the Father for us into our hearts and minds. They speak to us of the greatest work of love known to human history, the Incarnation of Jesus and his laying down his life for us on the Cross. Our angels inspire us to remain humble, to be childlike in our complete dependence on God’s provident love for us. Our angels guard us from the only power that can wrench us away from God, our self-love, our self-aggrandizement, our pride.
Let us celebrate with our Guardian Angels the great love which God has generously bestowed on each one of us through the person of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Missions for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.