I was traveling in the Holy Land when I met an Englishwoman named Rose who could see angels. She was an ordinary housewife from Liverpool, and I met her when she scurried up to join a Mass I was celebrating at Tabgha on the shore of Lake Galilee. It was while we were having a cup of coffee afterward that Rose’s friend said in a confidential whisper, “She can see angels you know…”
Always fascinated by the borderlands of both reality and sanity, I remarked that this was very interesting indeed and proceeded to quiz Rose about her angelic encounters. She cheerfully admitted that the angels were always present, and that from time to time in the most unexpected ways she was able to see them.
“What are they like?” I asked.
Her eyes glistened with emotion and excitement, “Oh, Father, they are so beautiful! I can’t describe them to you. They are like beings made of light.”
Rose’s angelic experience matches up with St Thomas Aquinas’ theory that angels are creatures of light, and some speculate that St Thomas discerned that light (or energy) was a constituent stuff of reality—making us admire modern physics for at last catching up with medieval metaphysics.
I realize that there are those who are inclined to doubt the visionaries like Rose. “Seeing angels!” we might scoff, “What next? Glimpses of the tooth fairy?” The cynic might say Rose’s visions were all in her imagination. If so, I would remind them of the retort of St Joan or Arc at her trial. When the judges protested that her visions were all in her imagination she said, “Of course they are. How else would God communicate with me?”
From the Garden of Eden to the Gardens of Paradise in Revelation, the holy angels are players in the drama of salvation. They wrestle with patriarchs, appear to prophets and walk with the children of Israel to the Promised Land and through the fiery furnace. Then in the fullness of time it is the angels of Advent who herald the coming of the Son of God, born of a woman.
Messengers of the Spirit to the spirit, the Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah to announce the birth of his son John the Baptist. Gabriel knocks on Mary’s door and awaits her magnificent magnificat. The angel comes to Joseph in a dream reassuring him in marriage then warning him of the threats to the child in his charge. At the Nativity of the Lord the angels cannot restrain their glorious joy and the humble shepherds witness the night sky bursting open with their songs. The angels are also active warning the magi in a dream to return to their country by a different route and thus avoid the dangers of a murderous monarch.
The angels of Advent therefore reveal to us their role in the divine comedy. They are messengers from heaven, but they also lead the humble faithful to adore the child of God who is the child of man. In the Old Testament the angels are given the mysterious name, “The Watchers” and so their gentle help and direction to St Joseph, the shepherds and the magi reveal that they lead and watch over us as guardians and guides.
So I am intrigued and enchanted by the angels of Advent, but I am also encouraged by their presence for another reason. I think we need the angels more than ever because they remind us that our religion is not simply a matter of being nice people and making the world a better place. The problem in our utilitarian and economically efficient age is that we have no vision of the unseen world. We have no time for that which is beyond time. We have no space for that which is extra spatial and therefore extra special. So caught up in the material world we have become embarrassed by the supernatural claims of our religion. We have downplayed the power of the sacraments, pooh-poohed the power of answered prayer, neglected the numinous and trashed the transcendent.
In a sincere attempt to make the Catholic faith relevant we have pulled the plug on the power of our religion and turned it into a new religion called MTD: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. In other words, we have come to believe that God (if he exists at all) is out there minding his own business and doesn’t interfere with our world. In the meantime Catholicism is all about trying hard to be nicer people and make the world a better place. In our efforts to do good we have forgotten that we are supposed to become Good. In our efforts to make the world a better place we have forgotten that the point of religion is to prepare us for the Best Place.
The angels of Advent pop that balloon. They remind us that there is more in heaven and earth than our philosophies have dreamt of. The angels of Advent come with a message from heaven to earth that the Son of Heaven is coming to earth, and that this very ordinary world in which we live trembles a greater reality and blazes with an unseen light.
The angels of Advent therefore help us to see with eternity eyes. They open our imagination, our mind and our heart and if we are blessed they might also open our physical eyes so that we might even get a glimpse of their reality….like my friend Rose from Liverpoool.