Association of priests meditation.
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Vol. XV, May 2009

St. Paul: “…a plan…to unite all things in Him” (Eph 1:10)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We have seen in our preceding meditations on Saint Paul how he clearly witnesses to the existence of the angels, both the good and fallen spirits. St. Paul is evidently familiar with the hierarchies of the angels and their mission. He is also conversant with the help they offer man, especially in the spiritual battle against the reprobate spirits.

Recall too that St. Paul was lifted up to the third heaven; there he was initiated into the mysteries of God and His providence. We may safely deduce that among the lights received from God was a deeper vision regarding the ministry of the holy angels. Although it is difficult to draw a line of demarcation between his angelic knowledge prior to his conversion and the lights he received through Christ, it remains that his entire doctrine falls under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And accordingly it is fitting and necessary to incorporate the whole of his angelology into or understanding of the economy of salvation, lest our vision lack the complete integrity desired by the Holy Spirit.

1. An “imperfection” in the definitive state of the angels

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of a certain longing among “the whole creation”: “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:19, 22). First, he really seems to refer just to the material world, which through man’s sin participates in the punishment or consequences of sin, and which is now said to be longing for redemption. But then he mentions a similar attitude on the part of mankind as well: “Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23 ff.). The question therefore arises: Are we allowed to extend a similar such expectation also to the angels? Are they already totally perfect or are they too, in some way, caught up in this longing of creation?

a) Indications of a “history” of the angels. The common doctrine regarding the angels as pure spirits does not suffice to adequately answer this question. From the fact that they are pure spirits and invisible to us, it does not follow that they have nothing to do with the rest of creatures. In truth, there is only one creation, and the ministries of the angels are also directed to the stewardship over every kind of physical being, mankind included. Hence, when we consider them more closely, we can observe some changes in their life, even some participation in man’s history. There is an increase in their knowledge about the physical universe, about mankind and the economy of salvation. St. Thomas Aquinas even speaking of the increase in their personal happiness over the salvation of human beings and the glorification of God through Christ’s victory which is brought to completion in the Church, which mysteries they themselves ministerially serve (cf. Summa Theol. I, 62,9,2m et 3m).

In a broad sense, we know the history of our Guardian Angel: his creation and trial, then his mission into our life. And this tends toward our particular Judgment, and hopefully will end with a happy eternal life together in heaven. St. Thomas speaks repeatedly of the angel’s trial: God first showed them His plan to become man just in general terms; He deigned to reveal to them the details only when the historical moments come (cf. ST I, 57, 5 ad 3um ; 64, 1 ad 4um; etc.; cf. also Catechism of the Catholic Church 392, 760). Today, we may also think of the third secret of Fatima, and a similar vision of Saint Faustina (cf. Diary, 474-476). According these sources, the angels’ understanding and love for mankind undergoes a development in the course of the history of salvation.

b) A longing of the angels. Before we look into St. Paul, let us take a first glance again at the holy Gospel. There, Our Lord Himself tells us of a change in the angels although they are already in the beatific vision: “I tell you,” He says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk 15:7, 10).

Similarly we find in St. Peter’s first epistle a surprising reference to the angels namely, that things “announced to you” are “things into which angels long to look” (Pet 1:12). He is clearly referring to the work of salvation accomplished by Christ.

Now we may not be too surprised when St. Paul designates himself as one of those who preached the good news even to the angels.

2. St. Paul’s teaching on the angels

We find in the letters of St. Paul three statements about the angels which seem to indicate some steps of development in the angels’ history. One refers to new revelations to them. Another speaks of “reconciliation”, and finally a third on union. Although St. Paul placed them not in a certain order, we may see in them a sequence or reference to their history.

a) The annunciation of the word. First in the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul wrote:

...Of this gospel I was made a minister … to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph 3:7-11)

The common idea about the angels, which is certainly true, is that they know much more than we, and notwithstanding, St. Paul refers to a growth in their knowledge as well. Is it possible that he wants to tell them something new? The fundamental truth is that God became man and not angel. Man is the center of God’s plan in the threefold creation. The Church is started on earth, and in her all creatures will find their Lord and God. A common theological teaching has it that this fundamental plan was made known to the angels in their test, but the details, like the time and place and circumstances and persons, remained hidden to them. Further more, they did not know what the Son of God made man would actually do while on earth. They certainly did not know anything particular about His miracles, His humility, the foundation of the Church, the mystery of the priesthood and the sacraments. We might suggest various reasons for this disposition of divine providence. One of the most decisive would be this: that God requires complete confidence from all His rational creatures, for supernatural beatitude is not within the scope of any creature’s natural powers, and so can only be merited through the exercise of the theological virtues. And therefore He calls upon each one to radically accept His will, without further explanations or comprehensible options etc. We understand: if grace were completely intelligible to natural reasoning, it would not be supernatural!

b) The Mystery of the Cross. That leads to the second phrase with which St. Paul surprises us in the letter to the Colossians: “He (Christ) is the head of the body, the church; … In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross” (Col 1:18-20).

What we translate generally with “reconcile” in the original Greek means “reduce to the original peace and friendship” (M. Zerwick. Analysis philological Novi Testamenti Graeci). The need for such “reconciliation” arose due to Original sin. Alienated from God, He sent Adam and Eve out of paradise and placed angels before it to prevent man’s access into the Garden in the hardened state of sin (cf. Gen 3:24) such that man might commit an even graver, unpardonable sin. Since then, the holy angels are defenders of the sanctity and rights of God. It certainly belongs to that primitive statement of doctrine, that the angels could not themselves redeem and reconcile man to God or to themselves. Even when God sent angels to help man, man often rejected them, even as they rejected the prophets. Nevertheless, God still demanded Israel’s acceptance and obedience to the angels, “Do not rebel against him” (cf. Ex 23:21 ff.; Num 22:34; etc.). It was ultimately in Christ, through the expiatory offering of His Life, His Body and Blood on the Cross, that the reconciliation of men not only with God, but also with all the faithful angels, should come, thus restoring the “original peace and friendship”.

c) The final unification. To this refers finally the third surprising phrase in St. Paul:

In Him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished upon us. For He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of His will, according to His purpose which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:7-12).

In this declaration St. Paul repeats again the initial points: first, the redemption through the bloody sacrifice and its communication. Then he adds the purpose, which is the unification of all things in Him. Behind the verb “unite” stands the Greek verb anakefalaiosasthai, which means “to bring together under one head”, that is, “to recapitulate”. Christ became man, because man constitutes by his natural composition out of spirit and matter, the ‘geographical’ center of all creation. He, man (‘Adam’, though not the first but the second Adam) was predestined to be the instrument of the unification of all creatures. From him it is possible to reach out to spiritual and material creatures.

Christ, then, as the God-man is the head of the new family of God which is the Church: “The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels’ fall and man’s sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world: Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church’” (CCC 760).

3. The communion among the Saints

Let us recall St. Paul’s exclamation, like a triumphant conclusion to his understanding of God’s plan and Will: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, … and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant...” (Heb 12:22-24). With this final accord ends also a history of the angels, according St. Paul. In this history we distinguish clearly three moments:

The expectation of the Son of God made man was a long advent for the holy angels who remained faithful in their trial. On the other side, it lead the fallen angels to tempt the first woman as she might have been already the one through whom the Son of God wanted to become man. Secondly we place the fall of the parents in paradise from which arose the need of reconciliation, announced and promised directly after the fall, which was then worked on (prepared) during the Old Testament. Finally came the possibility of unification on the basis of the Hypostatic Union of the Son of God made man. This possibility became actual through Christ’s victory over death; but it is contingent also on man’s openness and consent to transformation in Christ. The more slowly a man wakens to and cooperates with this plan of salvation, the longer this history lasts. These three steps are so fundamental that we may even recognize them looming behind the three parts of Holy Mass, marked by the word, cross and love.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Our reflection on St. Paul’s angelological affirmations helps us understand Garrigou-Lagrange’s exuberant statement: “After Christ, Paul is the Great!” His is a great vision, a vision, though which is always centered in Christ. Paul’s angelology magnifies Christ cosmologically or – literally – in a universal way. St. Paul has shown us, that they are especially with us at the celebration of the holy sacrifice, and that by their ministry they too extend the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice over the whole of history. Should we, with their help, not also find a way to relate our entire life to the Holy Mass. May their assistance this Easter season help us grow towards this ideal.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC