What is the difference between an angel and an archangel?
Angels are all around us, though we may never see them with our physical eyes. God created them in the beginning and appointed them to be his messengers to humanity.
The Bible has many stories of these angelic messengers, such as St. Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.
However, archangels and the angelic hierarchy can be a bit confusing to some people.
Here is a brief rundown of the most common questions about archangels and the ranks of angels in the heavenly court.
First of all, the English word “angel” comes from the Latin angelus, meaning “messenger of God.” The Latin stems from Greek ἄγγελος ángelos, which is a translation of the Hebrew mal’ākh, meaning “messenger,” or “delegate,” or “ambassador.”
When it comes to the term, “archangel,” the word includes the prefix “arch-,” used to denote something as “chief” or “principal.” An “arch-angel” then is a “chief messenger” of God.
These angels are higher in rank than guardian angels, but are still part of the second lowest rank. It is believed that these two lowest ranks of angels are the only ranks who interact with humans.
Archangels are also given the most important messages that must be delivered to humans. Such was the task of St. Gabriel, when he delivered the news to Mary that she was to bear the Messiah.
The Bible only gives names to three spirits who belong to the “archangel” class of angels. These are Michael (Rev. 12:7), Gabriel (Luke 1:19), and Raphael (Tob. 12:15).
The Bible is our definitive list of archangels. As Catholics we only know for certain three names of God’s angels. Any other name is suspect because it is not part of divine revelation. We do not know if the name Uriel is inspired by God, a human invention, or the name of a malevolent spirit.
It is believed that each of these choirs was given a specific task by God. Theologian and philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft gives a nice summary of these different choirs and their roles in his book Angels and Demons:
The first three levels see and adore God directly:
The seraphim, the highest choir, comprehend God with maximum clarity, and therefore their love flames the hottest. (“Seraphim” means “the burning ones.”) Lucifer (“Light-bearer”) was once one of them. That’s why he’s still very powerful and dangerous.
The cherubim contemplate God too, but less in himself than in his providence …(“Cherubim” means “fullness of wisdom.”)
The thrones contemplate God’s power and judgments. (Thrones symbolize judicial, juridical power.)
The next three choirs fulfill God’s providential plans for the universe, like middle management personnel:
The dominations or “dominions” (“authority”), command the lesser angels below them.
The virtues receive their orders from the dominations and “run” the universe, so to speak, especially the heavenly bodies. (“Virtue” used to mean power, might, or energy.)
The powers serve the virtues by fighting against evil influences that oppose the virtues’ providential plan.
The last three choirs directly order human affairs:
The principalities care for earthly principalities, that is, cities and nations and kingdoms.
The archangels (such as Gabriel) carry God’s important messages to man.
Ordinary angels are the “guardian angels,” one for each individual.
The angelic hierarchy in images