In commenting on his parables, Jesus uses an arresting image, and he uses it twice: angels and heaven rejoice at the word of another redeemed person. Linger on that thought for only a few moments and something becomes clear: angels must spend a great deal of time rejoicing.
Why is this? Scripture does not give us a deep account of angels. In both testaments, they make cameo appearances. They warn of impending danger. They bring news of boundless joy, as at the Annunciation. They tell Jesus’ distressed followers about his resurrection. They free the early Christians from prisons. Even today, we may still hear news of angelic interventions in cultures not hobbled by anti-supernatural assumptions.
The psalmist writes: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 51, RSV).
St. Paul writes at 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 of our eventually judging angels: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?”
We know, again from Jesus, that a portion of angels sided with Lucifer when he rebelled against God. In Christian theology, they have become demons. Their power is greater than that of humans but far lesser than God’s. When demons encounter Jesus, there is the paradox that they identify him for who he is but try to distract or terrify other observers with their malicious theatrics.
In one of the most delightfully mysterious Scripture passages about angels, we learn at Hebrews 13:1-3 that by showing simple hospitality and mercy we may entertain an angel. How fitting that, like the Lord Jesus, angels may come to us in what Mother Teresa once called the distressing disguise of the poor.
So we are left with this: like us, angels are created beings. They have abilities and gifts that we do not. Those who did not rebel against God continue to serve the kingdom as messengers, mysterious visitors, unbidden guardians, and beings who cheer us along the path of redemption.
We may safely assume that angels do not rejoice at the existence of Angels on Earth magazine, or kitschy angel art, or folk customs that treat them as the ultimate source of miracles, whether involving real estate sales or safe travel. Their greetings to humans usually are brief: Be not afraid. Do not worship me. Be quiet. Listen.
Many of us are likely better off not knowing on this side of eternity whether we have met an angel. We might turn the memory into a totem of power or esoteric knowledge, or a substitute for the rather more demanding person of Christ. For now we can rest in the glad tidings that our conversion — even in a dank room or a moment of desperation — brought joy to these beings who serve the same God as we do. In eternity, perhaps we will more fully understand their rejoicing.