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Christmas 2000

 

The Angel’s Third Instruction: "Thank God"

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We come to the end of the story of Tobias and his angelic companion Raphael. Tobias arrived home safely and well, and the celebration of his wedding came to an end. St. Raphael’s mission concludes with a long instruction, in which he also identifies himself as "one of the seven who stand before the Lord" (12:15). It is one of the grandest statements articulated by an angel to be found in Sacred Scripture.

This discourse is our current main interest: We want to learn more about the angel’s way of thinking and judging and about the emphasis the angels, as creatures who live already in the beatific vision of God, give to things. This is of interest because they embody absolute faithfulness to the will of God. And consequently, they help man to discern of the will of God. The only difficulty is how we are to properly understand their communications. In these straits, the statement we find in this chapter is a very welcome treasure and help. Accordingly, we have to pay close attention to this lengthy lesson of the angel. Perforce we will have to linger and tarry several times to fittingly reflect upon the content within this "angel-book" of the Old Testament. Today, we want to refer to two indirect and to two direct instructions. The two indirect lessons are these: Wherever the angels work, we find harmony and joy. The two direct lessons we take come from the very first words of St. Raphael who asks for thanksgiving and praise of God.

1. The book of Tobit contains not only a rich message about the role of the angels in the life of man. It also offers a concrete testimony of the effect of the angel’s work upon man and his work. Wherever the Holy Spirit and his servants, the holy angels, act, order and peace, reconciliation and union, harmony and perfection develop and grow even in the external expressions or manifestations. Surprising in this regard is the astonishingly harmonious structure of both the book of Tobias and the common characteristic of the people under the influence of the angel, who are rejoicing in their unity and harmony.

a) The structure of the book of Tobias is built up, even artistically speaking, in a most harmonious form: Like a frame, the story is surrounded by prayer–by prayer of lamentation at the beginning (ch. 3) and by prayer of praise at the end (ch. 13). The opening prayer characterizes man’s starting point, the earth as a "valley of tears," and the concluding praise anticipates man’s final goal, heaven, where "every tear will be wiped out" (Rev 7:17)!

Upon this follow two long instructions: on one side is the significant lesson of Tobit, the father, to his son (ch. 4), and on the other side is the long instruction of St. Raphael to Tobit and Tobias, whom we may understand being the representatives of all men of good will (ch. 12b).

Another parallel can be seen in Tobit’s the reflections upon the qualities of Raphael (ch. 5) and then upon the reward they wanted to give him (ch. 12a). Within this framework the proper drama of the story develops and St. Raphael’s manifold helps are recounted: he assisted Tobias in the danger posed by the fish on the banks of the Tigris (ch. 6); he banished the devil in the desert (ch. 8); he helped to cure father Tobit from his blindness (ch. 11b); in between of these ‘rescues’, he arranged the meeting with the families, Tobias with the family of Sara (ch.7 and 10) and Tobias and Sarah with his family (ch.11a). And at the very center, with the original reason for the entire enterprise, Raphael secures the money left with the kinsman. And in this act Raphael completely took the place of Tobias, as he went all by himself to fetch the money (ch. 9).

b) The other indirect effect of the work of the angels, as shown here, is the deep spiritual joy. St. Paul numbers it under the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And commonly speaking, it is to be counted among the characteristics of spiritually healthy people. It has been called the "barometer of spiritual life" (cf. Lk 2:8; Rom 12:12; Phil 1:4). Tobias acknowledged that Raphael "led me back safe and sound; he cured my wife; he brought the money back with me;" and he cured his father. They were well aware how successful the trip was and what an auxiliary, indeed, decisive role this companion had played. Such humble recognition of the help received from others is the foundation for any sincere and healthy life. It is humility, which sees the gifts received, and it brings the freedom to recognize this fact without any fear of losing one’s own glory. When the Sacred Liturgy says of the angels: "The angels and all the choirs of heaven worship in awe before your presence," (Preface of ‘Weekdays II’) or when we read in the letters of St. Paul: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12), this does not contradict the spiritual joy, but rather prepares and disposes man for it. For humility, the splendor of the truth together with the freedom of soul, open man so much that God can fill him with the light of interior spiritual joy.

That is what is shown here and ought not be overseen. Those who initially were near to despair, the Sacred Text describes now as "full of joy and praising God!" (11:16): "Tobit praised God full of joy with loud voice" (11:15). To Sarah he said: "Be welcome in your house, in joy and praise! Come in, daughter!" (11:17). Finally, Tobit’s kinsmen "rejoiced all with great joy" (11:21). We may also state that the holy angels, as servants of the Holy Spirit, drive away sadness and lead to spiritual joy (cf. Gal 5:22; Ps 40:9; 100:2; James 1:2; etc.). This should not cause any suspicion. St. Ignatius shows clearly that the offerings and temptations of the enemy or of the "world" manifest themselves first in brilliance, but soon afterwards, they prove themselves to be a false light and foul. The activity of the Holy Spirit and the holy angels, contrarily, seem at first bitter, but afterwards proves to be most helpful and a cause of delight.

2. The two direct lessons are the call to praise of God and thanksgiving. "So Tobias called Raphael and said, ‘Take as your wages half of all that you have brought back, and go in peace.’" However, "Raphael called the two men aside privately and said to them: ‘Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory’" (12:5-6). St. Raphael chooses his words with clear decision as always, and is well aware of what he is doing or saying, not just obeying mechanically, as we might expect from an ordinary servant. Before responding directly to their offer, he refers first to the most fundamental attitude man needs to take before God.

a) "Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory!" It sounds almost like the salutation of the angels, like their very first thought or breath, quite independent of where an angel is, whom he meets, or what his mission might be. The angels’ knowledge of God is so lucid that they are committed with all their being and activity to God: They know God as the Most High, the Perfect, the Holy, the One to whom every creature owes adoration and total surrender. "Who is like God!" is, in the final analysis, the rhetorical question they pose to each one of us. In their being as well as in their doing, they want only to mirror God’s perfection. And this is precisely the essence of praise and thanksgiving, in the exercise of which the angels want to educate man: God’s richness are reflected and echoed by the creatures in such a way that they themselves become more and more like God. To praise and glorify God, that has to characterize man and angel forever. To praise God is to turn to the source of light; to open the faculties of the soul towards God; to overcome any cramping of the soul and the temptation to turn to the "Ego;" to remove any attachment to sin! Praising God lifts up the soul–lifts it on high–and fixes it in God, reflecting Him in all things. The Jews considered the duty of praising God their most esteemed privilege. Without praise of God, life was meaningless (cf. Is 38:16-20).

b) Thanksgiving. The angels know God also as love, as the One who is good and gives with plenitude as the Lord and "God with us." The angels know that we owe God our very being and the strength for all our doings; they know that all we have we have received from Him (cf. 1 Cor 3:8), and that we live by the grace of God. We find this knowledge in Tobit and Tobias: Tobit called his son Tobias and said to him, "Son, see to it that you give what is due to the man... give him a bonus too" (12:1). Tobias said, "Father, how much shall I pay him? It would not hurt me at all to give him half of all the wealth he brought back with me." Father Tobit answered, "This is only fair, son". To the generosity of God, man should answer with generosity too. The sincerity of our joy and gratitude is lastly rooted in the grace that we belong to God; it lives and thrives on our own continuous praise of the Lord.

3. What is affirmed by the angels, should be true of the priests of the Lord: Praise and thanksgiving is the content of all their life (cf. Rev 7:9-12). What message more marvelous can be announced than this, that we belong to God the Almighty? What greater gift can be offered than the grace to share in the union with the Lord? Like the angels, the priests have the invitation to live in the presence of God–the angel in the manifest bliss, the priests in loving faith. Like the angels, the priests have the most beautiful mission to call and lead people into the presence of God. Like the angels, the priests, by their own joy, should convince the people of the trustworthiness of their word.

4. Dear Brothers in the priesthood. It is amazing, what light falls from the example of the angels upon our priestly vocation. Let us look upwards and seek daily to contemplate and imitate their example more. The prayer of praise and humble thanksgiving will awaken in us the joy that opens the souls of man and attract new vocations. No other means is more effective in our pastoral work than these three effects of the work of the holy angels: praise, thanksgiving, and joy. "An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with joy. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy...to you is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.’"

Have a very Blessed Christmas,
Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC