Circular Letter: Advent 1993
The Angels of the Christmas Cycle
What we Ought to Learn from Them
Advent celebrates the twofold coming of CHRIST, His Birth at Bethlehem and His second coming in glory together with His angels. Nowhere do we find the ministries of the holy angels so intense and manifest as on these two occasions. The new Catechism declares: “From the Incarnation to the Ascension the life of the Word Incarnate is surrounded by the adoration and service of the angels. When GOD introduced His only Begotten into the world, He said: “Let all the angels of GOD adore Him” (Heb. 1,6). Their canticle of praise, intoned at the moment of CHRIST’s birth, “Glory to GOD”, has never faded from the Church’s song of praise (Lk. 2, 14).” They protect the infancy of JESUS (Mt 1, 20; 2, 13, 19); they serve Him in the desert and comfort Him in His agony, at the moment when He could have been freed by them from the bands of His enemies, as in former times Israel was. Again it is the angels who proclaim the ‘evangelium,’ the good news of the Incarnation and the Resurrection of CHRIST. They will be present at the second coming of CHRIST, which they shall announce, in the service of His Day of Judgment.” ( #333).
In this meditation let us ponder the angelic presence in the gospel narratives surrounding the birth of Christ. and cull from them lessons for our spiritual life. How frequently the angels intervene: St. Gabriel announces a birth to Zachary and to the Virgin MARY; an angel instructs Joseph on three occasions; an angel announces the Saviour’s birth to the shepherds, and the angles on high jubilantly exclaim, “Glory to GOD in the highest” an peace to mankind; an angel informs Simeon and Anna concerning the CHRIST Child; and an angel leads the three Magi to CHRIST. Our treatment must needs be summary, like the points for an Ignatian meditation. However, this very brevity will highlight the importance of the angelic mission in the economy of salvation and our great indebtedness to them.
Zachary and St. Gabriel
Zachary the priest enters into the holies to offer incense before God. There, St. Gabriel appears to him and announces the fulfillment of his prayers, the birth of a son, the precursor, who should prepare the way for the “Lamb of GOD.” It is the Divine message that Gabriel proclaims. Throughout Scripture the theophanies of GOD were always accompanied by angels, and indeed were through angelic mediation. (see Isaias, Moses, Daniel, Ezechiel, Elias, Gideon, Abraham, etc.) As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, all angelic apparitions were ordered to and a preparation for the ultimate apparition in which GOD Himself appeared in the Flesh!
Zachary had prayed and prayed — now his prayer is heard — and yet he doubted the word of Gabriel. How feeble is man’s prayer, how tremulous our faith! Thanks be to God that man alone has not prayed and longed for the coming of the Redeemer. It was the angel who prayed: “O Lord of Hosts, how long wilt Thou have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah against whom Thou hast had indignation these 70 years?” (Zech. 1, 12) It was the Cherubim who prayed and adored day and night at the propitiatory plate waiting, imploring and hoping for the coming of the Lamb. It was an angel who said: It was I who “brought a reminder of your prayers before the Holy One,… who present the prayers of the saints and entered into the presence of the Holy One” (Tob. 12, 12.15). In heaven an angel offers up the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne of God (Apoc 8,3).
The angels are the first adorers and intercessors before the throne of GOD. This is why the Church desires to have our voices united with theirs in their unending hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord GOD of Hosts,…. Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin MARY
“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee… Thou shalt conceive and bear a Son… The HOLY SPIRIT shall come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the Child to be born will be called “Holy,” the Son of GOD.” And MARY said, ‘Be it done unto me, according to thy word.” “And the Word was made Flesh’.”
What books cannot sufficiently expound and praise we merely note:
1) Mary owed the knowledge of her personal vocation to the angel;
2) Through the angel God revealed the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation (in which two mysteries all others are contained);
3) The angel revealed the plenitude of Mary’s grace, and consequently the mystery of the Immaculate Conception;
4) By her humble obedience to the word of the angel Mary virginally conceived and became the Mother of God.
St. Joseph and the Angels
Among all men, St. Joseph had profound reason to be grateful to the Holy Angels. When, after prudent consideration, he had resolved to put Mary aside quietly, it was God’s angels who intervened, declaring to him in his sleep: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 1,20).
And again, had it not been for the angel who roused him from sleep, Joseph might have slept till the arrival of Herod’s murderous troops. But the vigilant angel appeared to him and said, “Rise, take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt and remain their till I tell you.” (Mt 2,13).
Later, God’s messenger called the holy Family back to Israel (Mt 2,20), and, when Joseph hesitated, uncertain as to whether he should settle in Bethlehem so dangerously near to Herod’s son’s throne, the angel again divinely counseled him to settle in Nazareth, thus fulfilling the prophecy that Christ should be called a Nazarene.
Truly, even the most just of men cannot perfectly accomplish the will of God without the guiding light of the Holy Angels. In passing, note how the Angels always anchored and corroborated their message in the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah. That is to say, every angelic mission is dependent upon, ordered to and is subject to the Incarnate Word and His Mystical Body, the Church. The New Catechism teaches this, saying: “Christ is the center of the angelic world. They belong to Him: “When the Son of Man shall come in His glory accompanied by all [His] Angels” (Mt 25,31). They belong to Him because they were created by Him and for Him, in view of Him all things were created, which are in the heavens and on earth, things visible and invisible, the Angels, the Throne, Virtues Principalities and Dominations. “Everything was created by means of Him and for Him” (Col 1,16). And once again they are His because He made them messengers of His plan of salvation: “Are they not all spirits in the service of God, sent to exercise a ministry in favor of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb.1,14: RC.#331).
The Angels and the Shepherds
Behold, an angel appears to the lowly shepherds, announcing the birth of God at the humble stable: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2,11). Just as God humbles the proud and exalts the lowly, so too is the salvific mission of the angels addressed to the poor in spirit.
In the Christmas cycle we verify two mutually related facts: 1) Only those who were led by the angels found their way to the Christ-Child, and 2) God only sent His angels to the humble in spirit.
“Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom His is pleased” (Lk 2,13). Traditionally it is held that the trial of the angels focused on the Incarnation: whether they would adore and serve the Word made Flesh. Understanding that the birth of Christ was also the cause of the salvation and beatitude of the angels, we comprehend more profoundly the unrestrained jubilation of the angels hosts over Bethlehem’s plane: “When He brings the first-born into the world, He says: ‘Let all GOD’s angels worship Him” (Heb 1,6; Dt 32,43 LXX; Ps 97,7). God willed, moreover, that this angelic jubilation be made manifest to the shepherds (and to us), so that we might understand that not just one or other angelic ministry is related to Christ, but that all angelic missions are rooted in Christ and His grace: “Bless the Lord, all you His angels, you mighty ones who do His word, hearkening to the voice of His Word (Christ, the Word of the Father)” (Ps 103,20).
The Three Magi and the Angels
Let us learn from the Magi’s prompt response to the Divine Light and their humble prudent docility to the Deposit of Faith. Epiphany is the feast of the faith of the nations:
“Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to adore Him” (Mt,2,1-2).
The evangelist implicitly calls them wise, not for their knowing all things, but for their eagerness to search out the highest truth, the King of Wisdom (“Here is greater than Solomon”). They seek, moreover, not only to know, but in order to adore Him who is the Truth. The desire for a more perfect knowledge of God and the mysteries of the Faith is a sign of spiritual health. The end of faith is adoration and union with God, and these are sacramentally realized in sacred liturgy. The Kings men searched the skies for the sign of God: “The heavens proclaim the glory of GOD, the firmament announces the work of His hand (the Incarnation)” (Ps. 18, 1). Indeed the pagan prophet Balaam had foreseen: “A star will rise from Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24, 27).
Their greater wisdom, though, is shown in their docile request for instruction in Jerusalem, for the Law and the prophets were given to Israel. On the angelic side, St. Augustine and St. Leo maintained that it was an angel of the Lord who had instructed them concerning the meaning of the new star which had appeared in the heavens.
With respect to our own pilgrimage of faith, we do well to admire and imitate their prompt readiness, rising so quickly to follow the star and their perseverance in enduring all the hardships of their long journey. Note, by contrast, that the Jerusalemites were not even up to the short excursion to Bethlehem to verify the reported birth of Emmanuel. They were filled with dread for their hearts were set on the things of this world. Worldliness and sensuality are the great enemies of faith.
Humbly accepting the instruction of the priests and scribes of Jerusalem, the Magi set out for Bethlehem. Consider their unwavering fidelity of purpose throughout the period in which the light of the star of Christ was withdrawn from their sight, while they were exposed to the scoffing, the smirks and incredulity of the Jerusalemites. They clung tenaciously to the magisterium of Divine Faith notwithstanding its scandalous neglect on the part of those around them.
And then as they approach Bethlehem, their fidelity is rewarded, for behold the star, under angelic motion, appears to them anew, guiding them to their destination. This elicits the greatest expression of joy to be found in Scripture: it is the joy of the nations over the light of Christ, made known by the angel: “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy!” (Mt 2,10). That an angel worked guiding this stellar light is evinced by the fact that it not only stopped and changed direction, but that it was so sub-celestial that it could stop over a single house, thus indicating the place of the Child and its Mother.
Arrived in Bethlehem, the nobility of the Magi’s faith again shines forth: they enter the house and find themselves in the presence of a poor mother and poor child. They are not taken aback in the least, no doubting thoughts rise to their minds (e.g., “how could this poor infant be the King of the Jews” and the nations?”), but their faith immediately pierces through appearances to the Divinity of Christ, and immediately falling down to the ground they prostrate themselves in loving, grateful adoration. We — who are the converts to the Faith from the Nations — must rejoice exceedingly at having such great and illustrious forebears in the faith as the three kings! In their faith and adoration we made our first acts of faith and adoration; in them, we, the wild olive, were grafted into the stock of Jessi! In their gifts of gold and frankincense we proclaim and acknowledge our king and God. By offering their best to God, all their possessions were blessed by God. The myrrh foresees the future passion of Christ. Could they have failed to perceive the engendered fear and hatred for the messianic King in Jerusalem which later bore its wicked fruit in condemning Christ to death on the Cross.
Finally, warned in a dream by an angel (like St. Joseph), they returned to their homes by a different route. The hour had come when neither in Jerusalem nor on a mountain top was God to be adored, but in truth (in Christ) and in spirit (in the Holy Spirit). But each new spiritual encounter with Christ demands a new spiritual course of life.
In resumé this passage of Scripture reveals to us the constituent elements or the virtues that are necessary to the life of faith: the light of grace perfecting the light of reason, a sincere love for the truth (wherever it is found), readiness for God, fidelity in trial and great reverence and esteem for tradition and the Deposit of Faith (as expressed in their gifts), humility in their desire to adore and serve the GOD-Man, and their general discipline, mortification of life, which is the root of discipleship in faith. In all these the holy angel aid, enlighten, strengthen and exhort us.
Simeon, Anna and the Angels
Finally, returning to the children of Israel, we find Simeon and Anna, two aged servants of the Divine Covenant, serving day and night in the temple, awaiting the expectation and consolation of Israel. God had promised Simeon (the type of Israel and all believers) that he should not die before his eyes had rested upon the Redeemer. “Inspired by the Spirit he came to the temple” (Lk 2,27). Anna, too, by a divine light recognized the Child as the Redeemer of the world (cf. Lk 2,38). This grace and light is attributed directly to the Holy Spirit; still we are perfectly justified in discerning herein the hidden ministry of the holy angels. That is to say, the Holy Spirits communicated this light through his angelic ministers. This conclusion imposes itself, otherwise we should find ourselves in the curious disproportion of holding that while God speaks to Mary, Joseph and Zachary through the angel, He speaks directly to Simeon, Anna and Elizabeth. Later, Peter himself will explain “how the Lord had brought him out of prison” (Acts 12,17), where in fact, God had actually accomplished this through the angel: “Now I know that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from the power of Herod” (Acts 12,11). More thematically, we may note that Luke especially juxtaposes the ministry of the holy angels alongside the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit so that we might understand that HE works through them (cf. Lk 1,26.35; Acts 6,10 & 15; 8,26 &29; 10,4 & 13. 19, etc.). The Spirit Himself teaches this, vesting, as it were, the Holy Angels in the signs of His own Descent at Pentecost: He “makes His angels winds, and His servants flames of fire” (Heb 1,7). St. John of the Cross explains: “All these works, therefore, which are done by the angels and all their inspirations, are seen in Scripture to be the work of God and of themselves, for ordinarily these inspirations come through the angels” (Dark Night, II,12).
The angel, though, not only communicated joy and consolation to Simeon, but also the revelation of suffering and the Cross that awaited the Child and its mother. And in this way, Simeon became a prophetic collaborator with the angel, communicating this knowledge to the Blessed Mother. No doubt, Simeon’s words were but an ecclesial confirmation for the premonitions already piercing Mary’s heart, for she already knew so well the prophecies concerning suffering servant.
In this, the angel is the poignant messenger of the Cross. No joy in this world, however great, is permanent and definitive until it has been lifted up from the earth in sacrifice and has been glorified. This, of course, was the very nature of the Presentation: the offering of the First born of creation back to the Father. Here the offertory,… later, the consecration and consummation on the altar of the Cross. And Mary guarded all these words in her heart pondering them (cf. Lk 2,51). The mysteries of faith, the inspirations and admonitions of the angel can only bear fruit if we act upon them, if we offer a good soil in which they can take root and bear an abundant harvest, in which again the angels shall have their part (cf. Mt 13,30. 49).
Cumulative Help of the Angels
What may we conclude for the mission of the Holy Angels in the Christmas Cycle? Universally, that their mission is an integral part of the economy of salvation, and that they therefore play an important role in the spiritual life of the faithful. In particular, we may note:
1. they lead us to the knowledge, adoration and service of Christ.
2. they themselves rejoice at the Incarnation, at the prospect of praising and serving Christ in the depths (“ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”; “Gloria in excelsis Deo”).
3. they enlighten us in the mysteries of the faith and point out the time and manner of their historical fulfillment (Wise Men and Shepherds).
4. by their light and counsel they guide us in the fulfillment of the Divine Will, especially in matter of faith beyond the capacity of human prudence (Joseph and Mary).
5. they protect us in times of danger (Flight into Egypt).
6. if need be, they administer medicinal chastisements (Zachary).
7. they spur on our hope and fill us with joy and love (Elizabeth, Shepherds, Magi).
8. they present themselves as servants of God (St. Gabriel) and anchor their messages as much as possible in the Deposit of Faith (ancient prophecies).
9. they exercise us in faith, hope, charity, humility and prompt obedience to GOD so that we might be found among His worthy servants. That is, the holy angels exhort and command, but never physically compel our collaboration with the Divine will (St. Joseph).
Meditating further, you may surely find other lights and helps from the angels in the Christmas Cycle. How fortunate we are that God has sent us His angels as our faithful companions, intercessors and fellow-servants!
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