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What angels can teach us about faith. Dec. 18 issue column.
BY FATHER DWIGHT LONGENECKER
I was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was just about to celebrate Mass with a few friends in the little chapel overlooking the Sea of Galilee, when two middle-aged English women came hurrying up to join me. “This is Edith,” said one with a heavy Liverpool accent. “She can see angels.”After Mass they took me out to lunch and told me a whole collection of delightful angel stories. Edith had seen a healing angel in the hospital. She’d seen the guardian angels of children. She dialogued with her guardian angel regularly and often looked out her kitchen window to see representatives of the heavenly host going about their business.A rationalist skeptic would have written off Edith as a harmless eccentric at best and a poor, insane, religious kook at worst. I’m happen to believe that what we consider “reality” (the day-to-day physical world) to be somewhat spongy. That is to say, it is far more flexible and porous than we would like to believe. I believe the spiritual, invisible realm interacts with this physical, visible realm all the time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some folks — like Edith — who can see what’s going on.The Scriptures speak of angelic appearances in a matter-of-fact way. Like Edith, the authors of the Bible assume that angels exist and don’t mind telling stories of their interactions with people on earth. Angels are God’s messengers, and there are four particular angel encounters that can inspire and enlighten our Advent.St. Michael the Archangel is the first angel of Advent. We meet Michael in the Book of Daniel. He is the princely patron and advocate angel of the people of Israel, and in the Book of Revelation, we’re told that there was “war in heaven” and Michael and his angels fought the great dragon. Because of his role as protector of God’s people, he is seen as a great warrior against Satan, and at the point of death, ancient Church teaching says, Michael meets the departing soul and is his advocate before Christ, the great Judge. So we see Michael pictures in armor trampling down Satan or with scales, indicating his role as an advocate for justice and peace.Advent is a time when we’re reminded of the four last things — death, judgment, hell and heaven. So, as an angel of Advent, Michael reminds of these four last things. He reminds us that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. There are ranks of angels and demons called principalities and powers, and as St. Paul writes in Ephesians, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” In this battle Michael fights by our side so that, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of Christ.”The second angel of Advent is the angel that comes to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah was taking his turn to minister as a priest in the Temple when the angel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, despite their advanced years. Zechariah doubted the truth of the message and asked for a sign. The sign he was given was that he was struck dumb until John the Baptist was born. St. Michael reminds us that we are caught up in a spiritual battle, while the second angel of Advent encourages us to have faith. Zechariah may have doubted the angel’s word, but the experience strengthened his faith. He went on to believe fully and uttered the magnificent words of the Benedictus which look forward to Christ’s coming: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness.” Because of his renewed faith, Zechariah entered the spiritual battle with renewed zeal, and an ancient Church tradition suggests that he may have been the Zechariah who met a martyr’s death (Matthew 25:23) because he refused to tell Herod’s murderous soldiers the whereabouts of the Christ Child.The third Advent angel is the heavenly messenger to St. Joseph. Joseph was betrothed to Mary when it was discovered that she was pregnant. St. Joseph was going to divorce her quietly, but the angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. This third Advent angel who came to Joseph gives us a third word of encouragement for the spiritual battle: “Be not afraid.” Jewish law dictated that a girl who became pregnant outside of marriage could be stoned to death. St. Joseph was a just and honorable man. He had every reason to fear — not only for Mary, but also for his own fate. If the girl was pregnant, as her betrothed, he was the obvious culprit. To marry her would be an admission of guilt. This honorable man would have to live the rest of his life under the cloud of a bad reputation. But he heard the angel’s word — “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” — and responded immediately with courage and fortitude.The fourth Advent angel is Gabriel, who appears to the Blessed Virgin. Mary’s simple response to God’s invitation is the climax of the angel messages. At the Annunciation, the three previous messages come together as one. The Blessed Virgin realizes she is part of a spiritual battle. She hears the words of the angel — “Do not be afraid” and “With God all things are possible” — and her response is one of instant obedience, which requires faith and courage.If we are to be caught up in the drama of Advent, then we too will hear these four angelic messages. First, with St. Michael, we will realize again that as children of God we are engaged in a spiritual combat. Second, with Zecharias, we will respond with faith. Third, with St. Joseph, we add courage to our faith. Fourth, knowing that “with God all things are possible,” we will respond with the Blessed Virgin in a life of loving and joyful obedience to God’s will. Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Ladyof the Rosary Parish in Greenville, South Carolina.Read more of his writing at DwightLongenecker.com.