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Vol. XIII, September 2007

 

“Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand
Stood Before Him” (Dan 7:10)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Sacred Scripture describes the History of Salvation, namely, the history of God’s supernatural interventions on behalf of mankind. When the holy angels are sent to participate in this economy of grace, it is usually a question of one or few of them in any particular event. Nevertheless, some times the view opens up and includes all the angels who are with God in “heaven,” “the ‘place’ of the spiritual creatures, the angels, who surround God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 326). Daniel describes such a dream vision of heaven in chapter seven.

“As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took His seat; His raiment was white as snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool; His throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before Him; a thousand thousands served Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Dan 7:9-10)

This observation invites us to look up to the throne of God in deep admiration, and to reflect about the number of the angels.

1. “Innumerable angels in festal gathering...” (Heb 12:22).

Daniel is not the only one who refers to the immense multitude of angels God created. A similar description can be found in St. John’s Apocalypse.  

I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:11-12)

Already Moses had referred to them in his blessing: He “came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us…He came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. Yea, He loved His people; all those consecrated to Him were in His hand“ (Dt 33:2-3). It reminds us also of the host of angels over Bethlehem’s plain, when the Son of God became man. After one “angel of the Lord appeared” (Lk 2:9), “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’” (Lk 2:13-14). St. Paul refers somehow to these experiences when he said to the Hebrews and through them also to us: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb 12:22).

Therefore, Jesus was right when He said to Peter, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once send Me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53). That would be 72,000 (cf. also Mk 5:9), if taken literally, but these numbers are perhaps best understood simply for great multitudes. For a rationalistic mind these expressions seem to be just “too much”, “too many.” To others stands the question   of the “friends” of Job, Bildad the Shuhite: “Is there any number to his armies?” (Job 25:3)

2. The Number of the Angels

Theologians take these texts of Divine Revelation into consideration when they approach the question of the number of the angels.

a) Numbering Angels. It is easy to say, that the angels are individuals and, therefore, we can number them; further, the angels are created and, therefore, not of an infinite, but limited and so of a countable number; the angels are “spiritual, non-corporeal beings” (CCC 328), and, therefore, the number does not indicate a material multiplication of individuals of the same species, but the specific difference of one from the other.

This needs a short explanation. The number of angels does not mean a difference on a horizontal level, referring to having different matter, or parts of the sensible world, as we can count a hundred men according to their physical presence. The number of angels indicates individual and distinguishable or numerable substances, but not of the same kind of beings. It means the different “kind of beings” or different species, in a vertical or hierarchical sense (cf. St Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, 50, 3-4). Each angel constitutes a single, unique species. In order to add them up, we have to pool them together in some common genus. This must refer to one aspect which is a common characteristic of them all: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb 1:14) This is, what the Church explains with St. Augustine in the Catechism: “If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.’ (St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 103:1,15: PL 37, 1348)” (CCC 329).

We do not need to discuss here the division of the angels in choirs, as these are “collective” names, which add nothing to our point (cf. John Paul II, Catechesis, Aug. 6, 1986). We just want to add the explanation for the immense number of angels given by St. Thomas: “The reason” for an incalculably great number of angels, which Daniel saw in his vision, “is this, because, since it is the perfection of the universe that God chiefly intends in the creation of things, the more perfect some things are, in so much greater an excess are they created by God” (STh I, 50, 3c), “surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness” (CCC 330).

b) A Determinate Number of Angels. Some Fathers of the Church tried to find a more concrete determination of the number of the angels. They thought they could base themselves on certain texts in Sacred Scripture. In this wise St. Cyril of Jerusalem, as later St. Gregory the Great, reflected about the Good Shepherd in Luke 15:4. It is easy to understand Christ as the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine faithful sheep, meaning the angels, behind and took off to find the one lost, symbolizing fallen mankind.   St. Cyril of Jerusalem concludes that God created ninety-nine times more angels than men (cf. Catechesis 15, n. 24). Others, like St. Augustine, bring up the idea that man was created just to fill up the places in heaven which the fallen angels left unoccupied. According to Revelation, the dragon had   “swept down a third of the stars of heaven” (Rev 12:4); that would mean twice as many angels exist in heaven as compared to the full number of mankind to be created.

However, none of these reflections help us resolve the question of the number of the angels, as we do not know the number of the fallen angels, as St. Cyril himself pointed out. Another attempt was based on Deuteronomy 32:8 where it is written: “When the Most High...separated the sons of men, He fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” (Dt 32:8).   According to this, there would be just as many men as angels. The net result of such thoughts has been the humble admission, that we cannot approach this multitude with our human ideas or calculations.  

3. For God’s Greater Glory

Even though we cannot count the exact number of the angels, still this immense heavenly host of God is real.

a) A Sign of God’s Greatness. Some thinkers may protest: “If God surrounds Himself with so many soldiers for His defense, that is for me a sign of His fear, of His weakness. He Himself betrays the fact with such a number of angels, how much He is in need of help!”   The thought, of course, is foolishness, since if he can create them, he hardly stands in need of their defense.

Those who enjoy a clearer knowledge of God and recognize Him as the infinite and absolute perfect Being, draw another conclusion from the vast throng of the angels: “In honoring them, we honor You, their Creator. Their splendor shows us your greatness, which surpasses in goodness the whole of creation” (Preface of the Holy Angels).Also, such a great number of servants who are all around His Throne (cf. 1 Kings 22:19; Mt 18:10) and benefit from His generous love, reveal the unlimited goodness and love of God who wants to share His happiness. God does not need a single one of them; rather He created them all just to be with Him and share in His Joy and the fullness of life.

b) In the Liturgy. We priests ought to be more aware of their vast number. First, when we approach the altar, while still in the sacristy, we should lift up our eyes in faith to see this immense host of heaven, which is about to come down to join us as we go out to the sacred altar to accompany their Lord and King, our God and friend. Did Jesus not say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51). To how many Saints did God already show their presence in the holy Mass, so that we can believe that this in fact happens: Heaven opens and the Son of God becomes Bread on the altar for our strength, and all the angels bow down to the earth in heavenly adoration (cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 11). There, “with all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord” (cf. CCC 1090; Vat. II, SC 8).

c) In Pastoral Service. Furthermore, concerning this incalculable host St. Paul affirms: “Are they not all ministering spirits” the ten thousand times ten thousand, “sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb 1:14) Again, we priests should open our eyes in faith and see this immense army of God, sent to our aid. And especially when the tasks seem to be too great, when difficulties increase, when we start to tire, when a hostile“army with horses and chariots” is found around us, then we should still not fear: “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16). The help which God sends through His heavenly army into our life and as companions of our priestly mission, is greater than our trials and difficulties. With their help we can overcome all hindrances in our mission.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

From many sides we may hear dour reports, but let us not be disheartened. Let us look up to the heavens with Daniel. From there comes hope, confidence and strength to succor us. Not by trusting in ourselves shall we succeed, but by trusting in GOD Who sends His angels to our assistance! Here’s the original “Cavalry to the rescue!”. In our every prayer, let us look up to the Blessed Trinity and to the surrounding angels. Silent moments should help us to become more and more familiar with the holy angels. Let us call them to our Liturgy of the Hours, Rosaries and Holy Hours. Ask them to go to the non-practicing Catholics and to all who still need to come to Christ. God wants His army to be our helpers, and the “ten thousand times ten thousand” wait for our call to serve us.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC