The impact of certain life encounters will stay with you for years. This summer will mark the twenty-year anniversary of one such encounter.
August of 2001 saw me visiting my sister in La Crosse, WI and taking a brief tour of the chapel in the motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, on the campus of Viterbo University, where my (now retired) sister taught.
There are many angels to be seen there, and so the chapel is named Maria Angelorum. Among the angels are a number of the heavenly host who bear the instruments of the passion and death of Jesus: the nails, the hammer, the thorns, the dice rolled for his garment, Pilate’s washbasin, the reed that struck him, the cock that signaled Peter’s betrayal, and so on. That these objects were angel-borne at first shocked me, as it was my first encounter with this particular angelic symbolism. (The shock would likely be even greater for those who have grown accustomed to soft, easy, fluffy angels, made safe for mainstream media consumption on the airwaves, social media, and in greeting card racks.)
Yet angels are—first and foremost, above all else—messengers of the working out of the will of God. In the scriptures, when angels appear, they first reassured humans with the words “Fear not!” Their appearance must have been shocking. The angels in the chapel windows, bearing the means by which God’s own Son would meet his death, bear a message as troubling as the one Gabriel brought to Mary. With her, we can easily look at these angels and ask, “How can this be?” How can one of God’s lovely, beautiful, glorious, light-filled angels come bearing these bleak implements of death?
My visit to the chapel was still much in my mind a month later, in September of 2001. Following the events of September 11, the question “How can this be?” was asked a lot. Some answered, “It cannot be,” and surrendered all hope or belief in a just or merciful God.
The feelings that I had when first viewing those angel windows came back again time and again throughout this past year, as I and many others asked, “How can this be?” This time I’ve had a whole year to reflect and pray about the matter. I rediscovered the existence of the angel of death (also known as the avenging or destroying angel) in the Hebrew scriptures—though I also learned there was no angel in the Passover account of Exodus. It was the very hand of God that brought death to Egypt.
I continued this past year to look at the global maps of the pandemic, to see the mounting death tolls, wondering how many of those deaths were avoidable if human arrogance, greed, selfishness, and pride—definitely not our better angels—had not gotten in the way.
As in years past, as we begin our turn from the Sundays of Lent to the days of Holy Week, I know I will be transported back twenty years at least several times, coming face to face with those angels once again. As I did back then, and have ever since, I’ll find the expressions on the faces of those angels to be largely inscrutable, with a certain air of resignation about them as they bear symbols of suffering, devices of death. Once again, I’ll hope that they know the angel who, Luke alone reports, came to comfort Jesus in the garden. I think, I hope—I need to believe that heaven granted these angels the ability to look beyond that awful moment for which they were messengers. These angels bore these implements in their hands not because God ordains or desires suffering or death, but because they know, as God’s messengers, that God’s will must be worked out, and shall be worked out beyond moments obfuscated by our mortal vision.
Maybe, just maybe, it was one of these same angels who was allowed a seat in the empty tomb to tell the Good News of life triumphant. Perhaps a few of them were chosen to chasten the disciples not to look skyward, but to go into the world on a mission to wreak God’s will for love, truth, life, peace, justice, and mercy.
May God grant us their vision, and their mission.
More about the Maria Angelorum chapel and its angels here.