Can Angels Appear in Human Form?

Most of us have heard the idea that angels can take human form. I remember hearing this from time to time when I was younger, related to the verse from Hebrews (ch. 13:1-2) that says, "Let the charity of the brotherhood abide in you. And hospitality do not forget; for by this some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels."
Old Testament Manifestations
This verse is a reference to the moment in Genesis when three visitors appeared to Abraham, in Genesis 18 verse 2.  The Lord appeared to him and Abraham saw three men.  As we learn clearly later, in Genesis 19, two of the men were angels and the third was indeed the Lord.  Abraham seemed to understand this, but also took these individuals to be men, or at least capable of eating, as he prepared food for them.

Regarding the food, in the Genesis account, they did eat what was prepared, though the Fathers point out that this was in the same manner as in other accounts of angels who are offered meals, which are then consumed by fire.

When St. Raphael likewise took human form, and traveled with Tobias as a companion, he revealed that, when it appeared that he was eating with them, it was not truly so.  He said, "I seemed indeed to eat and to drink with you: but I use an invisible meat and drink, which cannot be seen by men" (Tobit 12:9 DR).  In the RSVCE, the translation states that they were seeing a vision when it seemed that he ate with them.
Twice in the Book of Judges, an angel of the Lord appears in human form.  Here, it is when food is offered that it becomes clear that this individual was actually an angel.
 In Judges 6:20-22, the angel commands Gideon to place meat and unleavened cakes on a rock.  When he does so, "the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and there sprang up fire from the rock and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes."  After that, the angel vanished and Gideon finally realized that the individual was actually an angel.
In Judges 13:19-21, Manoah offers a sacrifice to the Lord with the angel present.  As it states, "When the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Mano′ah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground."  Again, the angel vanished and it was only at that moment that they realized it was an angel.  
Angels, as we know, do not have bodies.  However, they, by their angelic nature, are capable of moving our bodies if they need to.  Many people have experienced this personally.  Even when they are not assuming a body, they are still capable of influencing physical things.
St. Thomas Aquinas

The theology of angelic appearances is quite fascinating.  From the apparitions of the angel at Fatima, we have a very recent and well-described vision of an angel in human form.  The three children stated that the angel appeared as a "young man, quite transparent, and as brilliant as crystal in the rays of the sun."  The children saw his physical features quite well and reported the many things he was able to do through this "body."

In St. Thomas' Summa, the First Part, Question 51, articles 2 and 3, he teaches about the composition of these angelic "bodies."  After first stating the objections to the idea that angels can assume bodies, he references St. Augustine who stated clearly that, yes, when the angels appeared to Abraham, they did so with assumed bodies.
St. Thomas dismissed the idea that the manifestation of the angels was merely in the imagination of the one seeing them, since, as in the manifestation to Abraham, they were seen by his whole family, and to Lot, they were seen by the citizens of Sodom.  The same is also said about St. Raphael's appearance to Tobias.  Since it is clearly the case that Abraham and the others were seeing something that existed outside of themselves, then the angels must be assuming (taking to themselves) some sort of body.

Why Assume a Body?
To this question, St. Thomas says that the familiar conversation that an angel, having thus assumed a body, is then capable of having with men gives evidence to us of the future intellectual companionship that men hope to have with the angels in the life to come.
Further, St. Thomas says that these Old Testament appearances of the angels prefigure the Incarnation of the Son of God, who would one day literally take a human body and appear to men in the flesh. 
Angels assume bodies in order to manifest, to men and in the manner of men, their own spiritual properties and works.  It is a common manner of communicating intelligible things to man, that sensible and relatable things from our life here on earth are utilized to communicate those things that are above this world.  Our Lord does this often, most notably in the Sacraments, in which He utilizes the sensible things of earth to communicate supernatural realities.

What Kind of Body?
St. Thomas states that angels assume bodies of air, "condensing it by the Divine power in so far as is needful for forming the assumed body."  He explains this by stating that air, when it is not condensed, has no shape or color, but when it is condensed, "it can both be shaped and colored as appears in the clouds."
These bodies, fittingly, have no life nor life functions.  The angels also do not rely on the organs, in an assumed body, in order to perceive things.  The angels do move with the assumed bodies and are temporarily located there with the assumed body.  When they speak, it is not through the organs of the assumed body, though there is a semblance of speech, in which they "fashion sounds in the air like to human voices."
The assumed body cannot truly eat, as the body is not one that can absorb the food into itself, as human bodies do, taking the food into its substance. 

Yes, angels truly can assume human forms, though they do not incarnate, as Our Lord did.  They can fashion for themselves the semblance of a body, but not a true body.  Through this body, they are able to communicate more fittingly with us and provide a foretaste of the fellowship that we will one day have with them in Heaven.  This body, through which we can interact with them, highlights for us that they are true persons, with an intellect and a free will.  Further, it demonstrates their closeness with us, their love for God, and their power to aid us.

May God be praised for the gift of the Holy Angels!


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