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The Angel of the Resurrection

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We might expect the angels as messengers of the Lord to be present and active at all the significant periods of Christ’s visible history on earth. Nothing is more significant about the angel’s role in our lives than the role that they played in our Savior’s life.

It was the angel Gabriel who announced to our Lady that she would conceive the Son of the Most High. We might say this was the angel of the Incarnation.

When Christ was born in Bethlehem first one angel and then a host of the heavenly army announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus Christ. These were the angels of the Nativity.

During His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Father sent an angel to strengthen the Savior, in His human nature, as He was anticipating His passion, death and rejection by His own people. This was the angel of Consolation.

As He had foretold, Christ rose from the dead on the third day after His Crucifixion. When the women came to the tomb to visit what they thought would be the lifeless body of Jesus, they were met by an angel who told them that the Savior had risen from the dead and they were to go into Galilee and tell the good news to His disciples. This was the angel of the Resurrection.

Among the evangelists, St. Matthew is the most detailed in describing the role of the angel on Easter Sunday. As we have been doing, we will first quote the account as described by the first evangelist; then something of its profound meaning as the historic foundation of our faith; and finally apply the angel’s message to ourselves.

To appreciate the significance of St. Matthew’s narrative, we should remember that he wrote his gospel specifically for the Christian converts from Judaism. He tells us what exactly happened on that first Easter morning. There was not a word in any of the gospels about what all the evangelists have taken for granted. Christ, as the living God in human form, raised Himself from the dead or, if we focus on His humanity, He was raised by the Father who had first sent His son into the world at Mary’s Annunciation.

Every precaution was taken by Christ’s enemies to make sure that, as they expected, the body of Christ would not be stolen by His disciples. Why? To prevent the claim which Christ has stated more than once. Who would then claim that He rose from the grave? None of Christ’s enemies believed this and they believed it was one big hoax. And they worked to prevent that hoax from being believable. So, the enemies of Christ did everything possible to prevent this hoax from being believed. Christ was buried in a tomb. So, they had some men place a huge immovable stone before the tomb. Then to make doubly sure, the Pharisees paid some men to prevent Christ’s body from being stolen. All this was in great detail to describe how the stone was actually removed, what the instruction the angels gave the women, and what those responsible then gave more money to bribe the guards to claim it never happened. And, they were to say that Christ’s disciples stole the corpse Jesus raised.

Now the narrative:

Late in the night of the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalen and the other Mary came to see the sepulcher. Behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, and drawing near rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment like snow. For fear of him, the guards were terrified and became like dead men. But the angel spoke and said to the women: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen even as He said. Come, see the place that the Lord was laid. Go quickly, tell the disciples that He has risen; He goes before you into Galilee. There you shall see Him. Behold, I have foretold this to you.”

Unquote Matthew, telling of the angelic message to the holy women.

Once the guards awoke from their terror at the sight of the angel, some of them, there were many guards there, some of them went to Jerusalem to report to the Chief priests all that had happened. The report of the guards was followed by an emergency meeting of the elders. Something had to be done to cover up the frightening fact that Christ’s prediction of His resurrection actually took place. As a result, the evangelist tells us, there was a consultation with the expected result. The guards were bribed, says Matthew, with “much money” they were instructed to say that, “His disciples came by night and stole Him while we were sleeping. If the procurator hears of this, we will persuade him and keep you out of trouble.” So said the leaders of the Jews, the same ones who had crucified Jesus Christ. This was the third bribery by Christ’s enemies. Judas was bribed to betray his Master. The guards were paid good money to prevent Christ’s body, as they expected, from being stolen. Now they were paid again to broadcast a huge lie which Matthew says was spread abroad “even to the present day.” Of how deceptive is evil. Sinners are all liars. Having been mislead by the father of lies to sin against God and lose His friendship, they are then further instructed by the same father of lies.

Every detail of Matthew’s description of what happened on Easter Sunday is crucial for an understanding of this. And as Christ stated, unless we understand what we believe, the evil spirit will come and take the faith from our hearts.

First of all, 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 town at the very break of dawn at the end of the Sabbath.

Then, Christ did not need any assistance in rising from the grave. As He had foretold, He by His own power, 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 whom he was divinely instructed to expect to come to the tomb. We may also say that the great earthquake which occurred on that occasion was occasioned by the angel’s 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 that 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 evangelist 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 occasions. Earthquakes are natural symbols of supernatural mysteries. The coming of an 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 the 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 promptly disappeared once we realized that the same God who is telling us what to do will provide us with His 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.

The angel did not waste a moment. No sooner has he shown the women the empty tomb than he gave them instructions. “Go quickly,” he said, “Tell the disciples that He has risen.” The chosen disciples of Christ, the men whom He had chosen as the foundations for His Church fled and hid in fear of Christ’s enemies. The holy women were told to go quickly and report to the disciples what they had seen. We return to the same theme. How the modern world needs saintly women whose faith and love is to inspire the men. When God created the first woman, He told Adam that she was to be his ‘helpmate.’ Centuries of human history and especially the experience of Christianity tell us that God wants women to be so devoted to the Divine will that their selfless love of God will be the lifelong inspiration of the fathers and husbands and sons whom the Lord will put into their lives.

On closing spiritual implication. The angel of the Resurrection, we may say, is a forerunner of the angels of the final resurrection on the last day. On Easter Sunday the angel announced that the crucified Christ had risen from the grave. On the last day of human history the angels will announce the resurrection of all the dead of all the ages. But then the message will be different. Some will be told to join the Risen Christ in their own risen bodies and be with Him in celestial glory. Others will be told to depart from Christ and be separated from Him through all eternity. This is all there really is to the meaning of our life here on earth. To be sure, the angels of the Last Day of humankind, which is the first day of our destiny will escort us to join them and their Risen Savior in the endless Easter Sunday for which we were made.

Mother of the Risen Christ, help us to follow your example to say what you told the angel at the Annunciation, “Be it done to me according to your word.” If we do this, dear mother, we are assured we shall join you and the angels in that heavenly glory which you already enjoy in body and soul with your glorified Son. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #15, Thursday 2/29/96, 9:30 AM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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