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Angels in the Life of Christ
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The role of the angels in the life of Christ is more important than most of us recognize. We speak of the imitation of Christ and the following of Christ, without realizing that part of our following of the Savior is imitating His relationship to the angels.
The subject of this conference deserves a whole volume of commentary. But we shall limit ourselves to just these episodes:
The focus of our reflections will be in the nature of meditations on the close relationship between the humanity of Christ and the mission of the angels in the redemption of the world.
It was the angel Gabriel who opened the history of our redemption by announcing to Zachary that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a son in her old age. It was the same Gabriel who appeared to our Lady at Nazareth to tell her that she was to become the mother of the Most High.
It is not too much to say that an angel opened the New Testament. When he greeted Mary as "full of grace", he was predicting the dawn of a new era in the history of the human race. The Mother of the Redeemer had to be full of grace since she was chosen from all eternity to be the mother of the Author of grace.
The moment Our Lady told the angel, "be it done to me according to your word," the incarnation took place. It is not too much to say that this was the most important moment in human history.
But notice what happened. An angel is sent from God to invite a young virgin to become the mother of the Messiah. She accepts the angel's invitation, and the incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity takes place.
I know of no event in the Scriptures which more clearly shows how important the angels are in our lives. An angelic messenger speaks to a young girl in Nazareth of Galilee. She believes that he is indeed a messenger from God. She accepts his message and the whole course of history is changed.
If we need any proof of the importance of the angels in our lives, we have it in what happened when Mary believed that God was speaking to her through His angelic emissary. This is part of our Catholic faith; in His ordinary providence God communicates His mind to us through the angels who speak to us.
The Angels of Bethlehem
Surely the most dramatic appearance of the angels in Sacred Scripture occurred on Christmas morning. St. Luke is at once evangelist of Mary, the evangelist of the Holy Spirit and the evangelist of the angels. He had just finished describing the birth of the Savior. Christ was born in silence, but Christ's birth must be known by the whole world.
At this point, the providence of God intervened. It is not only that the most important event in human history took place, but the event for which history exists. Yet nobody knew, except Mary and Joseph. God had to intervene. He did so. He sent in sequence, first one angel and then a multitude of the heavenly host to announce to the world the birth of the Savior.
We cannot exaggerate the significance of this divine intervention. What is important in the eyes of God is usually insignificant, even meaningless in the eyes of men. Unless something is seen with bodily eyes, or heard with bodily ears, or touched with bodily hands, it is not perceptible by the senses. Our dictionaries define what is not sensibly apparent as nonsense.
Like Mary, the shepherds believed the angelic message and, the evangelist tells us, "so they went with haste and they found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger. And when they had seen, they understood what had been told them concerning this child."
This is another lesson to us. The angels are God's ordinary carriers of His grace of illumination to us. But we must be ready believers, otherwise, dare we say, God will not waste His communication to unbelieving minds.
The shepherds spontaneously accepted what the angels told them. They literally ran to Bethlehem to see what the Lord had accomplished after centuries of prophetic anticipation of the Messiah. Once they saw the infant Jesus, lying in a trough, they understood what they saw.
Here is another profound lesson for all of us. The believing mind which is ready to accept an angelic communication from God is rewarded by understanding what it believes. I know of nothing that is more needed in the world today than for those who have the true faith, indeed, to understand the meaning of what they believe. How we need the humble faith of the simple shepherds to grasp something of the depth of God's revealed mysteries!
The Temptation of Christ
There is a closer relationship between the devils and the good angels than we suspect. This is dramatically brought out in Christ's temptation in the desert as He began His public ministry. Our Lord allowed Himself to be tempted by the devil in order to teach us what we are to expect in our own lives. As the all holy God in human form, Christ could not be tempted from within. He did not have a fallen human nature. He did not have inordinate sinful desires. He could only be tempted from the outside. Even as we use the word "temptation" in speaking of Christ, we do not mean that He was capable of yielding to the temptation and thereby committing sin. But He could be tested by the devil who was not sure whether Jesus was what he suspected Him to be, the incarnate God. Jesus could also suffer, shall we call it the annoyance of being tempted by the devil. All of this teaches us that we are not exempt from demonic molestation. In fact, the Church's history shows that the saints were especially subject to temptations by the devil.
After three unsuccessful attempts to seduce Jesus, "The devil left; and behold, angels came and ministered to Him."
We ask ourselves, why were angels sent to Christ after He was tempted by the evil spirit? To teach us two lessons that we all have to learn. We are being constantly solicited by two angelic agents, the spirit of evil and the spirit of good. In His permissive providence, God allows us to be solicited by the evil spirit in order to test our loyalty to His divine will. At the same time, God provides us with the assistance of the good angel to protect us from giving in to the spirit of evil.
We believe that Christ was truly God and truly man. He allowed Himself, therefore, to be tried by the devil to teach us that we are not exempt from the experience which He underwent.
At the same time, Christ as man was assisted by the good angels who are surely the best armor that God can provide against the incursions of the powers of hell.
What happened at the dawn of angelic history is still going on. Lucifer led his unfaithful minions to rebel against the Almighty. Michael led the faithful angels against the battalions of Lucifer. This angelic war has been going on ever since. It was illustrated in Christ's temptation by the devil in the desert and being ministered to by the good spirits. It is being verified in the world today, including the personal world of each one of us in our conflict with the powers of darkness. We need the good angels in more ways than we shall ever know until eternity. Let us be sure we know how desperately we need angelic support in today's world which is so widely dominated by the forces of evil.
The Agony in the Garden
There is a remarkable consistency in the life of Christ. He began His public ministry by being tempted by the devil, and then ministered to by the angels. He closed His ministry at the Last Supper, when He instituted the sacraments of the Eucharist and the Priesthood.
During this most holy evening in human history, the night before His passion, the evangelist St. John tells us that, "The devil entered the heart of Judas who then went out to betray his Master."
Just as Christ began His ministry of preaching by allowing Himself to be tempted by the evil spirit, so He began His passion by allowing Himself to be betrayed by one of His own apostles who was possessed by the devil. Less obvious and sadly ignored was the role of Satan in seducing Peter. In both cases the devil succeeded remarkably. The devil knew what plans Christ had for Peter. Peter was to be Christ's first visible vicar on earth and the foundation of the papacy. There is no one on earth the devil wants more to break down than the vicar of Jesus Christ. That is also why Christ told him that Satan was plotting to control the wide-mouthed and weak-willed Simon. That is also why Christ especially prayed that Satan might not fully succeed as he did with Judas. Let us be sure that we know this. Satan hates the Catholic Church. The devil does everything in his power to try to destroy the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Roman Catholic Church. Over the centuries of her history, he has done this through the treachery of some of the Church's leaders and the cowardice of other successors of the Apostles.
The Church's saintly commentators on the Passion tell us that Christ's agony in the Garden of Olives was not only or mainly His dread of the scourging, crowning with thorns and the crucifixion. It was His anticipation of the treachery and betrayal that He foresaw of Judas and Simon, and their imitators until the end of time.
This was the heart of Christ's agony in the Garden. He sweated blood because He foresaw the havoc which the devil would do on His own physical person and the ravage he would cause in His mystical person, which is the Church He would found on the cross.
That is why the evangelist tells us that Christ prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me, yet not my will but thine be done." Immediately, "There appeared to Him an angel from heaven to strengthen Him."
Once more a profound lesson for all of us. There is nothing more painful in human experience than to be betrayed by those that we love. Christ's betrayal was instigated by Satan. In His agony, He needed to be strengthed. And who strengthened Him? It was an angel. How we need angels in our lives to strengthen us in the trials that the Lord sends us, especially in the deepest trials of being abandoned or rejected by those whom we love.
The Angels of the Resurrection
St. Matthew is our principal source of information about the angels on Easter Sunday.
The frightened disciples of Christ stayed behind locked doors in Jerusalem for fear of suffering the same fate as their Master. It was the dedicated love of women who braved the opposition and came to the tomb at the very break of dawn at the end of the Sabbath.
Christ did not need any assistance in rising from the grave. As He had foretold, by His own power He would both lay down His life and take it up again. But, as Lord of the angels, He made sure that the huge stone in front of the sepulcher was removed by angelic power. All that we know about the angels tells us they have phenomenal power over the material world. They cannot only move with the speed of thought, they can move material objects at angelic will. To dramatize this power, the angel who moved the boulder quietly sat upon it. We might say he was waiting for the women to come to the tomb. We may also say that the great earthquake which occurred on that occasion was caused by the angels descent from heaven.
The evangelist describes the features of the angel of the Resurrection. Appearing, as is customary, in the form of a man, his countenance was like lightening and his garments like radiant snow. Once again, consistent with God's angelic providence, the guards at the tomb were so terrified they became like dead men.
Matthew goes on, ignoring the guards, the angel told the women not to be afraid. Unlike the hostile guards, the women came to the sepulcher out of deep affection and sympathy for Jesus Christ who had just been crucified. The difference between the terror of the guards and the simple directive of the angel to the women is a startling contrast between the internal dread of those estranged from God and those who are in His divine friendship.
We continue. The angel told the women that the crucified body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. His human soul had left the body and, in the interim, Christ visited the souls of those in the "Limbo of the Fathers" who were awaiting admittance into heaven. Christ's Resurrection, therefore, was the reunion of His human body with His human soul. It was the same Jesus who had been crucified and now rose from the dead glorified.
The angel reminded the women that Christ's resurrection from the dead was a simple fulfillment of what He had personally foretold several times, publicly, during His three year ministry in Palestine. We may say this was the most important prophecy in human history. The incarnate God predicted that He would be killed by His enemies because He chose to suffer a humiliating death. But He also foretold that He would choose to raise Himself by His divine power back to human life again.
The implications of the angels of the resurrection are enormous. It is not our intention to reflect on the different Gospel versions of the four evangelists of what happened on that first Easter Sunday. Our concentration is on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
There was an earthquake, and, according to the evangelist, the earthquake was occasioned by the angel of the Lord coming down from heaven. Angelic visitations, as recorded in the Bible, are always momentous. Earthquakes are natural symbols of supernatural mysteries. The coming of the angel down from heaven at Christ's resurrection tells us of God's historic intervention, not unlike what will happen at the end of the world when the angels will announce the coming of Christ to judge the human race.
We are so accustomed to taking God's interventions for granted that, shall we say, He has to use physical phenomena to shake our minds to the realization of what is going on.
The coming of the women to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, at the break of dawn, was profoundly significant. An angel of the Lord was waiting for them. How today's feminized world needs loving women to teach the world the meaning of selfless love. It was an angel who came to announce to the greatest woman of all ages, that she was to become the Mother of the Creator. It was women who were met by an angel at the tomb where Christ was buried to give us the second great annunciation, that our redemption was accomplished.
We are told by the evangelist that the angel's countenance was like lightning and his garments were like radiant snow. We might almost say that this is the basic difference between the role of the good angels and the purpose of the evil spirits. Lightning comes all of a sudden and, by definition, it is a brilliant light. This, in fact, is the principal message of the angels as heavenly messengers to the world. They are to enlighten us by sharing with us what God wants us to learn with our minds. These illuminations may come as strokes of lightning. They are meant to enlighten our minds to know God's will in our lives.
What a difference between the reaction of the guards on duty at the sepulcher and the response of the holy women. The guards were so terrified they became like dead men. The women were indeed frightened but were immediately reassured by the angel that they had nothing to fear. The more sincerely we seek to know the will of God, the less fearful we shall be of what He wants us to do. Our fear may be perfectly natural, because we know ourselves too well not to distrust ourselves. But as the angel reassured the holy women, our fears will promptly disappear once we realize that the same God who is telling us what to do will provide us with the grace to enable us to put His will into practice.
The angel told the women to come and see the empty tomb where the body of Christ had been laid. How we need to strengthen our faith in Christ's resurrection and the promise of our own on the last day. Like Him, our bodies will die. Like Him, we will be laid in a grave. But our faith tells us that like Him we too shall rise on our Easter Sunday. What we need to keep in mind, however, is that all those who had died over the millennia of human history will rise on the day of judgment. But not all will rise in bodies that are glorified. We are to serve God on earth in soul and in body. Our bodies will rise, like the body of Christ in radiant glory, provided like Him, we have followed His example in using our bodies here on earth according to the will of God.
Our focus in this conference was on the angels in the visible life of Christ in Palestine. But we know that angels are equally, if not more, prominent during His invisible life on earth. They were the ones who told the disciples, staring into the sky at Christ's ascension, that the Lord would return from heaven as He had just ascended into heaven.
But that was only the beginning of the role of the angels in the present life of Christ. They had served His human needs during His visible stay on earth. But they are now His chosen emissaries to the human race redeemed by His precious blood. Only in heaven shall we know how much we depend on the angels in our following of Christ. I dare say they are indispensable to anyone who wants to follow in the bloody footsteps of the Master, and hopes to join the Savior in His heavenly glory.
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