Friday, September 29, 2006

How to Earn Your Wings

Communion Reflection

First Reading: Revelation 12:7-12AB
Responsorial Psalm: 138
Gospel: John 1:47-51:

Today, on this feast day of the Archangels – Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael – we are surrounded by angels.

Here in this mission chapel, an icon of St. Michael the Archangel looks over our heads at the work to be done. The other day I asked someone about that statue and was told it might be St. Catherine, although not the Catherine from Siena. Perhaps it was the long hair. But while researching the archangels this past week, I learned that Michael is usually depicted with a sword in one hand for driving the Devil out of heaven and the scales of justice in the other for weighing the souls of the dead on Judgment Day.

You heard of that war in heaven this morning from the book of Revelation. St. Michael, “captain of the heavenly host,” battles the dragon, who is also known as the Devil or Satan, and throws him and his army of dark angels down to earth. Today the readings are remarkably consistent on the topic of angels. For our responsorial Psalm, we declared: “In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.” And in the reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus chooses Nathanael to be his disciple and tells him that he will see “the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” What are we to make of all this?

Here is another angel. This one is a glass Christmas ornament like the one you might put on your tree. We instantly recognize this figure as an angel because of its wings and the halo, although our icon of St. Michael has neither. In the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we hear that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” and Clarence, the bumbling guardian angel, earns his wings by helping Jimmy Stewart to discover how precious his life is.

Hollywood and Hallmark have constructed many of our modern images of angels. According to one book I read, one out of every ten pop songs has the word “angel” in its lyric. Millions of TV watchers were “Touched by an Angel” during its long run and, years before, by “Charlie’s Angels.” Before he published The Da Vince Code, Dan Brown wrote another best seller called Angeles & Demons, and Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” featured an angel who ministered to a dying AIDS patient. A Time magazine cover story on angels a few years ago said that over
70 per cent of Americans believe in their existence. But New Age authors and artists have largely trivialized the messengers of God. According to Time, “The terrifying cherubim have become Kewpie-doll cherubs. For those who choke too easily on God and his rules, angels are the handy compromise, all fluff and meringue, kind, nonjudgmental. And they are available to everyone, like aspirin.”

But the angels in our Scripture are not always so cuddly. For the German poet Rilke, every angel “is terrifying.” They punish and execute judgment in Ezekiel and Revelation. These angels call us to obedience and worship, and to sacrifice and service. The angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary forever transformed her life. When Jacob in a dream saw a ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth, he was afraid, crying out: “How awesome is this shrine! This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!” Jesus uses this image in the reading today, but he himself is the ladder on which the angels travel, linking heaven and earth.

Our Catechism tells us that existence of angels is a “truth of faith” based on the “witness of Scripture” and the “unanimity of Tradition.” The angels do, indeed, surround us. According to St. Augustine, “angel” is the name of their office, what they do, and not of their nature, which is pure spirit, incorporeal, and probably without gender. Rather than have a theological debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I would prefer to listen to what these divine messengers have to tell us. And the Gospel message is always the same: love God and your neighbor, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and comfort the sick.

Notre Dame theologian Laurence Cunningham has little use for literal representations of angels. If people want to get in touch with their angels, he said, “they should help the poor…They’d be a lot better off working at a soup kitchen.”

What are the angels telling you?

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