Irish Dominican Church, Tralee, Co Kerry
Reflection for 5th Sunday of Lent (21st March 2021)
In the gospel today we see the following words, 'People standing by who heard this, said it was a clap of thunder; others said, it was an angel speaking to him.' What struck me is the phrase, 'it was an angel speaking to him.' Why would the Jewish people at this time of Jesus even think of angels, and what's more, even think of angels speaking to people. In this homily today I will look at this topic of angels speaking to people. This will be both from the bible, and from more modern times.
Throughout salvation history we see many examples of how God prepares his people for graces and blessings that he wants to bestow upon them. By preaching and by miracles, the prophets of the Old Testament prepared the hearts of the people to accept God's messages of reform. We see figures like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, calling on the people to change their ways in order to make a more just society. They warn the people that if they do not change their ways, then God will let their enemies overpower them and take over their nation. In the New Testament we see John the Baptist doing preparatory for Jesus, through calling for repentance and by baptising the people. And we see Jesus sending out seventy two of his disciples, as a preparation mission to the towns that he intended to visit.
But in the Bible we see that God not only sends people, but he also sends angels to prepare people for a big task ahead. In the Old Testament we see how Abraham was visited by three angels, who told him that his wife would bear a son. We see how Jacob wrestled with an angel who renamed him Israel. This was before he became the father of twelve sons, whose children would become the twelve tribes of Israel. And we see an angel guiding Tobias, and then another angel instructing Elijah. In the New Testament we see an angel speaking to Joseph in a dream. We also see an angel telling the Roman Centurion Cornelius, to send for Simon Peter, who would baptise him and his family as the first gentile Christians. And from the Annunciation story in Luke's gospel, we see the greatest message ever delivered by an angel. This message given by the angel Gabriel, was not only for preparing Mary to be the Mother of the Son of God, but also being the very time that Jesus was to be conceived in her womb.
In order to see more clearly what it's like for an angel to speak to a human being, it's good to take one of these visitations by an angel from the bible, and then look at it in more detail. And so let us look at this visitation by the angel Gabriel to Mary. In Luke's gospel, we see the virgin Mary being visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of the year. Mary was betrothed to Joseph of the house of David, but at this time they had not come to live together, as the custom was that there was to be one year between the betrothal and the coming to live together. The angel Gabriel gives her a very unusual greeting. He says to Mary, 'Hail, favoured one! The Lord is with you.' Mary was totally perplexed as to what this greeting could mean, and knowing this, the angel consoles her by telling her 'not to be afraid as she has found favour with God.' He then goes on to tell her that she's been chosen to be the mother of the saviour, or what Mary would have understood as being 'the messiah.' All Jews would've been very familiar with the story of the coming messiah, as they would've been taught about this from a very young age. The angel said to Mary that 'He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.' From the words of this message, Mary knew exactly what the angel was asking of her. She knew that she was been asked to be the mother of the Son of God.
Naturally her response would been to ask how this would be possible since she was a virgin. The angel says to her, 'the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; and he will be called Son of God.' This must have been terrifying and overwhelming news for Mary to hear. Such a task been given to such an ordinary young girl, from a small unknown village in Galilee. In order to reassure Mary, the angel gives her a sign that what he's saying is definitely from God, and so she cannot be hallucinating or dreaming in any way. The angel says, 'and now your relative Elizabeth in her old age, has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God.' And then we have the most important part of the annunciation; Mary's consent. She says, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word.' This is so important because we believe that without Mary's consent, the incarnation may never have taken place. There is often much scholarly debate on whether Mary could have said 'no' at this stage. Some scholars say that she could not have said 'no,' since she was so full of grace and consequently so close to God. For this reason, saying 'no' to the angel would just have been impossible for her to do. Other's however say that she could have said 'no' at this stage, as being able to say 'no' makes her 'yes' even more remarkable. But whichever school of thought you wish to go with, we all know that Mary said 'yes' right before the angel departed from her.
As we have seen there has been countless visits by angels all throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, and the most important of these visitations was when the angel Gabriel visited Mary. But it's not only in Scriptures that we encounter visits from angels. We see it happening in the lives of many of the saints all over the centuries, since the very beginnings of the Church right up until recently. The most notable visitation by an angel in modern times, is the visit of an angel to three children in Fatima. The names of these three children were Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta. The first of these three visits by the angel to the children of Fatima took place in the spring of 1916. Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta were all together tending their families flocks of sheep, at one of their favourite grazing spots called the 'Cabeco.' They took a break to eat their lunches, and then they prayed the rosary, (although they had a quicker version of the rosary where they would just say the words 'Hail Mary' for the full hail Mary prayer, and the words 'Our Father' for the full 'Our Father' prayer.) After their prayers they stopped to play a game, but as they were starting to play, a strong wind shook the tree tops beside them. Then they suddenly saw an angel who tells them that he's the Guardian Angel of Portugal. Lucia described the angel as being like: 'a young man, about fourteen or fifteen years old, whiter than snow, transparent as crystal when the sun shines through it, and of great beauty.' What’s very similar to the annunciation event, is that the angel also said some of the exact same words that he said to Mary. These were: 'Do not be afraid.' No doubt an angel would say such words, as the people who witness a visitation by an angel would have been absolutely terrified. But I think that these words are also important for us here today as well. We should not be afraid of God, and should not be afraid of what he asks of us to do in prayer, (that is of course once we've discerned what He's asking of us is actually from God.) In fact the words 'Do not be afraid' appear 365 times in the whole bible, one time for everyday of the year. And I think that this is way more than a coincidence.
As I mentioned earlier, apparitions of angels usually happened in order to prepare people for some big task that's ahead of them. In Fatima in the early 20th century, the visits of the angel of Portugal to the three shepherd children were a preparation for six more visits of Our Lady to these same children, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta. Through these six visits from Our Lady (given during six separate monthly apparitions in the following year 1917), the children will be given the momentous task of bringing very tough messages from God to the world, especially to the Church authorities, the bishops.
Written by fr Matthew