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Vol. II, Feb. 1996

 

The Gate Keeper

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

1. It would go beyond the spiritual purpose of our biblical meditations on the Angels to examine the many traditional interpretations of Gen. 1,4: "God separated the light from the darkness." As we know it is not infrequently interpreted in terms of the trial of the Angels and their subsequent separation into blessed and reprobate spirits, into those who became ‘Light in the Lord’ and those who fell into the eternal darkness of separation from God.

The first explicit reverence to the holy Angels in Scripture comes in Genesis 3 at the end of the first decisive chapter in human history in which Adam and Eve failed to pass the test in Paradise:

And God cast Adam out of Paradise and placed before the paradise of pleasure a Cherubim and a flaming sword turning every way, to keep [guard] the way to the tree of life.

Man had lived in familiar relationship with God, but the ‘equality’ of divine friendship demands simultaneously that absolute sacredness of the divine sovereignty, that the creatures recognize and acknowledge its creaturely dependence and total adherence to the divine will, for the sole reason that it be God’s will: "It is good for me to cling to the Lord." So it is that God reserved a realm to Himself and demanded that man does not touch the tree of knowledge. That was the trial for man -- for the first man -- in the name of all mankind. In the same way the "Paradise" represents throughout the history of salvation the place of perfect happiness in communion with God (cf. Cant. 4; Is 58,11) as well as the place of trial through temptation (cf. Dan 13; Jn 18, 1. 26). That which God demanded of the parents of mankind, He also demands from each and every one of their children: a personal responsible decision of loving submission to God for the sake of their eternal destiny. Here is the important significance of the presence of the Angels today!

How mysterious it is that the presence of the good Angels is not mentioned while they are yet in Paradise, whereas that of the tempter is! The fallen Angel is presented in his direct opposition to God Himself. The good angel appears on the scene only at the conclusion of the trial, after the sentence has fallen: the good angels is presented as an agent of the Will of God, as its interpreter and defender in the position of a trustworthy servant. That is to say, man’s moral decisions are directly between God, His Divine Will and evil (the evil one) ["Thy will be done" / "deliver us from the evil one"] This is why the good angel’s presence is not mentioned prior to the decision, because he does not act in His own name, but in God’s: "My Name is in him."

The Cherubim and the fiery sword watch at the gate of Paradise till God grants forgiveness of sin from the Cross and opens the true access to the tree of life through His Eucharistic presence, to which today the Church invites us with the words of the Angel:

Blessed are they who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb! (Apoc 19,9)

It is the priest who invites today to Christ, the Tree of Life, with the words of the Angel. The priest seems to join the watching Cherubim in the New Covenant, Angel and priests seem to be near one another in their mission.

2. Scanning the biblical description we see:

a) The Angel is set in a context, not just by himself or in his own dignity or authority: The angel, as any other creature, is always linked with God his Creator and with the rest of creation, with man and history. His life as a person with intellect and will consists in knowing (receiving) and loving (giving); for the angel too ‘life’ means movement, exchange communion.

b) A Cherubim entrusted with a mandate by God, or: honored by God’s confidence in him: The Angel stands in the service of God as a pure spirit with an "undivided heart", to express the matter very humanly, that is, with his free will he accepts totally all that God wants from him, so that he is one will with God. Thus filled with God and His will he is truly a faithful and trustworthy expression (manifestation) of the Will of God. Inasmuch as a Cherubim, he is a bearer of the wisdom of God, capable of being a mediator between God and man, a messenger.

c) A fiery living sword with the Angel: Fire ultimately stands for God, the "Consuming fire" (Heb 12,29). At the same time, it stands in relationship to judgment and the fires of hell (cf. Mt 25,41). Fire as light points to knowledge and the truth, while its warmth promises love and security. The dynamism of the flaming sword’s movements suggests the watchful vigilance of the angel in the defense of the divine honor. There is judgement in the flaming sword: all things shall be tried by fire: that which is valuable will be purified, that which is useless shall be reduced to ashes and cut off (cf. 1 Cor 3,13-15).

The Angel is presented in his uncompromising zeal for the glory of God; he is simply the servant of Divine truth and justice, there is nothing to bargain or parley. The demand is for unconditional conformity with the Divine Will. Implicit in this is that from the side of sinful mankind there can be no remedy to this state of affairs as not one just man could be found (cf. Rom 3,10). The remedy is given in the promise of the Redeemer.

3. This mission of the Angels continues notwithstanding the developments of the history of salvation. One of the new elements introduced through the Incarnation of the Son of God is the sacramental priesthood whereby men are conformed with Christ the Mediator between God and man and man and God. The priestly mission has elements in common with that of the holy Angels at the gate of paradise. Thus, they are somehow peers, ‘fellow servants’, and the priest can find a saintly, powerful heavenly helper in the Angel.

Like the Angel, the priest is called by God, such that he does not speak nor does he act in his own name but in God’s whose mission he executes. Like the angel before Paradise, he literally receives as a parish priest the key to the Church: with the authority to administrate the sacraments he has receive the ‘key-power’ to heaven, opening the door to Christ or maintaining it closed. This he does in the name of Christ, who is the ‘door" (cf. Jn 10, 7. 9. & Lk 11,52); and this is why in the area the priestly power exceeds the power of the Cherubim at the gate, since the latter had no power to open the door.

Like the Angel with the fiery sword the priest has to judge in the light of the Will of God, in terms of His truth, holiness and rights. He must discern to whom he may grant access to the "Garden" of the Kingdom of God, of the Church and to the Tree of Life: to Christ in the Holy Eucharist (cf Jn 20,23).

Like the Cherubim before Paradise the priest should be an uncompromising, non-partisan witness to the divine truth: "He who has ears to hear let him hear." Now the Cherub’s flaming sword is not really something outside himself, but the fiery intensity of his will for God. Similarly, even while the priest’s profession of the truth be uncompromisingly sharp like the sword, still his fiery adherence to the divine truth and will should attract souls and be capable of enkindling in them a similar love for God.

The paradoxical nature of fire, which attracts and repels, which enkindles and destroys, which opens a path and which cut it off lies at the heart of the angelic and priestly mission. Sharing in Christ’s mediatorship the priest does not stand for himself. He should attract to Christ and to the Father. He should protect the Tree (Bread) of Life. To those who are unworthy he may not grant immediate access, but ought to hold out the promise of divine mercy.

4. This ‘illustration’ of the priestly mission by the flaming Cherub before the gates of paradise encourages us to renew our "Adsum" with new confidence in the plans of Divine Providence. We are freed of the inclination to a false sense of mercy which in the name of humanitarianism surrenders the truth and gives what is sacred to those who are unworthy. Just as the Angel held his post millennia, so may we, ever confident that Divine Love and Mercy will prevail, and all the sooner in the measure that we are found to be faithful servants, whom our Lord finds watching at our posts when he comes. Besides the grace of God and the model of Christ’s life, the constancy of the angel may be an inspiration for us in the trying moments of our priestly ministry. May he help us by raising these questions in our conscience:

  • Do the souls entrusted to me find me always at my place of duty? living the gospel, at the gate of heaven, near the tabernacle? Am I always alert and ready to give the right witness, orientation and preparation for access t the Tree of Life? Am I readily available for the hearing of confessions?
  • How much effort do I make to know the will of God so that I can indicate the way to the Heavenly Garden? How clearly do I preach and give lessons on the doctrine of the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, of sanctifying grace, of the real meaning of the malice of sin and its many forms, so that the faithful can judge if they are worthy to approach to the Tree of Life in holy Communion?
  • Am I vigilant as a responsible shepherd for the flock on watch for the wolves who would enter into the "Garden" of the Church, the parish and of individual souls? Do I point out these dangers to the faithful and try to hinder what is in my power?
  • What should I accentuate during the liturgical season of Lent? in my personal meditations? in my personal prayer life? in my sermons and pastoral ministry?
  • At the monthly meeting it might be profitable to discuss the pastoral care of the dying who literally stand at either the Gate of paradise (in the best scenario) or before the gates of hell (in the worst). We come to the dying with the sacraments of salvation,... but the angels are working with the dying day and night, indeed from the very beginning of their life, helping and interceding that they might collaborate with Divine grace and mercy in this moment decisive for all eternity. A greater knowledge of the angelic ministry at death would be a great consolation for the faithful in such a lonely hour.

 

May this reflection about the similarity between the angelic and priestly ministries help us renew our decision to live and carry out our priestly ministry in that holy collaboration so earnestly desired by the holy Angels. Not only will they help us greatly in our work with soul, but theirs is also the great mission to help us that we ourselves be perfectly assimilated to Christ the High Priest and Good Shepherd of souls.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC