Twenty-fifth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Third Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
Most of us are familiar with some concept of an angel: a luminous and/or winged being that condescends to help humanity (or perhaps hinder it); the gentle, cherubic appearance of a guardian angel; the powerful, battle-ready presence of an archangel. The reality of an angel, however, far exceeds our too-cute and too-clean depictions of them in art or imagination. Angels are pure spiritual beings, much like God Himself, who dwell within an entirely spiritual realm distinct from our physical one. The Bible and its related apocryphal literature tell us that these “sons of God,” these legions of the heavenly host, take a variety of forms when entering our realm – be it a traveling stranger, a burning bush, an armed warrior, a whirlwind – and that our attempts to perceive their spiritual form result in unsightly apocalyptic images, such as wheels of fire or creatures with six wings covered in eyes. No wonder that when they do intrude onto our sight, one of the first things they tend to say is: “Do not be afraid!”
But at the core, the purpose of an angel, its reason for being, is to deliver a message – God’s message. In fact, that’s why we call these beings “angels” (Latin angelus, Greek angelos, Hebrew malakh, “messenger”). God has something that He wants to tell us, something so important it cannot be left to prophetic riddles or challenging oracles. He wants us to know now. In today’s Second Reading, again taken from the Book of Revelation, the author is granted a vision of the heavenly liturgy that takes place in the court of God, “the one who sits on the throne.” The author says that he heard “the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne…countless in number,” all singing the praises of Jesus, “the Lamb that was slain” (and who is also, as He declared last week, “the one who lives”). In this moment they sing not for God’s benefit, but for the author’s, and for those numberless on earth who will respond with their acclamation. And the praise they sing is of One Who also came to earth to bear a message from God, the Gospel of the Redemption. In a way, it can be said that Jesus, as One Who bridges the spiritual and physical realms by His Incarnation and His Resurrection, is the ultimate angel, the God-Man revealing God to Man and reconciling Man to God. He is the One Who communicates a message of such unfathomable mercy, of such severe intimacy as can only be delivered by the obedient Son of the almighty Father.
This message, of course, was not to remain static with the people who received it. No – it was meant to be shared. Those who received the message were to become messengers themselves. That is what we see in the First Reading, where the Apostles are summoned before the Sanhedrin, who order them (not for the first time!) to stop spreading the message. The Apostles protest: they must share this Gospel they have received, and they rejoice “that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor because of the name.” The message is too important to them to keep silent; they will share it even at the cost of their own dishonor – and their eventual dishonorable deaths, sharing in the Passion of “the Lamb that was slain.” That is what “evangelization” is all about, passing on the joy of the Gospel (Latin evangelium, Greek euangelion, “message of glad tidings,” “good news”) that we ourselves have received just as God shared it – with no partiality and with the aim of reconciliation.
The spokesperson for the Apostles, once again, is Peter, and his description of the message is so important: Jesus has been raised from the dead “to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. We are witnesses of these things.” The Gospel reading today, taken from the conclusion of John’s Gospel, shows us just how intimate of a witness Peter was. After Jesus once again appears to His Apostles, his “children,” in the days following His Resurrection, He asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” Each time Peter, more and more distraught, responds, “You know that I love you.” And after each response, Jesus gives Peter a command: “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” The Church has ever recognized, in these three simple yet complicated questions, Jesus balancing out Peter’s threefold denial on the night before Jesus died and installing Peter formally as shepherd of the earthly flock, the spokesman for his brothers and sisters, the Apostles who are the Lord’s “children.” No wonder that Peter, after Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, spoke so adamantly about the need to share this message, to keep expanding this impartial ministry of reconciliation that he had benefited from so lovingly. And no wonder he was so unafraid of doing so. Why wouldn’t he and the other Apostles long to see a world filled with “the voices of many angels…countless in number,” an earth that mirrors the pattern of heaven? Indeed, why wouldn’t we?
It is sometimes said when someone dies that heaven has gained another angel. While Man is destined for a greater glory than the purely spiritual reality of the heavenly host, we can nevertheless be in a great position to be God’s messengers by becoming His Saints, sharing in the glory of the risen Jesus and His Blessed Mother. But the greater goal, I think, is to strive to be angels while we’re still alive. So let’s strive for that. Let’s be angels first and Saints next, not the other way around.
Let us be not afraid to be a Church of angels.