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Vol. VII July 2001

 

The 3rd Instruction, VIII: The Angel's Work
(cf. Tob 12:12-15)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

We reflected about the word of St. Raphael, "I will now tell you the whole truth" (Tob 12:11). The truth is that he not only accompanied Tobias on the trip which just ended in a happy way, but that he had already been active before, behind the visible scene, for he is "Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord" (v. 15). What a surprise for father and son! St Raphael, speaking so openly and directly about himself, had certainly not the least desire to reap some glory and honor for himself at the end of his mission. His intention was, "that the works of God be made known with due honor" (v. 11).

1. The angel looks back at his mission in the life of the family of Tobit, which already began years ago when Tobit was still able to bury the dead, and which also extended to the relatives at Ecbatana. "I can now tell you that when you, Tobit and Sarah, prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead, I was sent to put you to the test. At the same time, however, God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord" (vv.12-15).

We read in chapter three about the two desperate situations and persons: Tobit turned blind by an unhappy incident after having buried a dead man and Sarah was about to lose hope of finding a husband and of starting a family. Apart from that, she was exposed to her maids scorn. In their desperation, they fortunately turned to God: the angel brought the prayers of both before the "Glory of the Lord." Sarah found a husband while old Tobit, for some time, still had to suffer and endure the test imposed upon him by God through his angel. But after having confessed his trust in the help of God's angel and given proof of his surrender to God's providence, he was also granted the grace of heavenly help and was cured by the angel.

2. Especially in our days, we find man often on the verge of despair and afflicted with depression. Therefore the story of Tobit is very current. To its essential message belongs the testimony of the angels' activity. First the angel acts as a mediator in the relationship between man and God: he presents man's prayer to God and is sent by God to respond to it. Then, he leads man's way to the others: he encourages Tobit to works of mercy notwithstanding the obstacles and risks, and he accompanies Tobias on his trip to his uncle and organizes unexpected encounters. Finally, the angel helps man to recover his physical health.

These are the three fields in which God has placed man when He created him: "God created man in the image of Himself" which enables him to cultivate a familiar relationship with his Creator. Secondly, He said to him, "be fruitful and multiply," in other words: form a family; and finally, "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:27-28), that is: make use of creation, which shall be at your disposal. The angel will be sent to each man who is of good will and who wishes to do God's will, and he will help him in all the dimensions of his life.

This is not only so because God entrusted to the angels the care of all the lower creatures, of all men and of all the universe. The deeper reason is that man is working at his salvation at every moment and in all the circumstances of life. His justification or salvation is not only a question of prayer and of the time spent in church. He can practice the virtues or commit sins at any time and in any place. When, therefore, St. Paul said, "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" (Heb 1:14), this ministry certainly includes their mission to all the corners of the world, wherever a man lives, and can be decisive for his salvation.

Tobit and Sarah found help and were freed from their distress. They did not know what really happened in their lives or how the problems were resolved until the angel lifted the veil: "I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord" (v. 15). The angel is the servant to whom God entrusted the mission to resolve even the most desperate situations of life. St. Raphael said, "It was I who presented and read the record of your prayer… I was sent to put you to the test. At the same time, however, God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah" (vv. 13-14). The faith in the existence and presence of the angels in the human life helps man to become free from the dependence on or even enslavement of an irrational "fate."

That St. Raphael influenced the life of Tobit and Tobias in all its levels is a sign of the sincere and total care of God for man: "Do not say, 'what are we to eat? … to drink? … to wear?' Your heavenly Father knows you need them all" (Mt 6:31-32). "Every hair on your head has been counted" (Mt 10:31). It is through the holy angels that God cares for everything in man's life. It is also the faith in the angels' presence in our life and our familiar relationship with them that leads us to believe St. Paul's statement: "We are well aware that God works with those who have been called in accordance with His purpose, and turns everything to their good" (Rom 8:28).

Georges Huber wrote in his book, My Angel Will Go Before You, (Manila 1985, p29f.): "The Bible bears witness to this: they are indifferent to nothing which affects our lives; everything which in one way or another influences how we make our way to our eternal goal is of concern to the angels. In fact, they could make their own that saying of Terence, bringing it further: we are the friends of men and nothing which affects them is alien to us. The unleashing of the forces of nature, attacks by wild animals, human passions, intrigues, conspiracies, wars: everything can be the object of decisive intervention by angels, once the eternal destiny of God's friends is at stake." Or, quoting a prayer by St. Cyril of Alexandria, he confirms that the angels have "an unlimited role as protectors… 'Have mercy, O Lord, on your faithful here present; by the power of your Holy Cross and the protection of the angels, free us from all danger and necessity: fire, flood, cold, robbers, serpents, wild animals, the attacks and snares of the devil, illnesses" (Huber, ibid. 37).

3. Can a text be clearer about the presence of the angels in human life than the book of Tobit and St. Raphael's statement? What surprises us, though, is the angel's self-presentation: "It was I who … I did … I was sent to … I am Raphael…" (vv. 12-15). Are we not all convinced of what Blessed Dina said in her Diary (# 1): "To speak always of me, to have to repeat unceasingly the word 'I', this word, which I would like to know burned, … and inexpressible torture." How can a holy angel ever draw such attention to himself? Let us look at another occasion when this happened: there appeared and angel to Zechariah with a message from heaven. When Zechariah hesitated to believe it, "the angel replied, 'I am Gabriel, who stand in God's presence, and I have been sent to speak to you'" (Lk 1:11.19). And how impressive must have been the words of the angel, when St. John states: "I knelt at his feet to worship him." However, the angel did not accept such a reaction, "but he said to me, 'Never do that: I am your fellow-servant and the fellow-servant of all your brothers'" (Rev 19:10).

From this we learn: the angel does not want to claim for himself honor and adoration, which are due to God alone, nor does he look for some reward for his work. Each holy angel seeks to lead man to obedience and the fitting gratitude towards God. For that reason he insists on his heavenly mission before men. In addition, we might present a second motive, which is the formation of a community. On the one hand, a communion between angels and men is possible because of their common spiritual nature. On the other hand, divine grace strengthens man and makes him capable of enjoying the same happiness or beatitude which the angels enjoy. Before man reaches heaven, the love of God and of neighbor is the holiest mission common to angels and men, together with their reciprocal relationship. St. Thomas sums all this up in the phrase: "There is one society of angels and men" (St. Thomas, In Mt. 18:10, Mar. 1504).

On this basis, the real meaning of St. Raphael's manifestation becomes clearer: Man should honor and venerate the angels and strive to bring about the "Communion of Saints" with them. Man should respect the angels because of their dignity and holiness; he should ask for their protection, help and guidance, and he should trust in them and honor them with attention and love (cf. St. Bernard, serm. 12 about the Psalms). All that brings us back to one of the first words which God spoke to man with reference to the angels: "Look, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you as you go and bring you to the place that I have prepared. Revere him and obey what he says. Do not defy him!" (Ex 23:20-21). Therefore, it is God Himself who tells us: be devoted to the angels and strive to form a communion with them! And the book of Tobit is one of the most eloquent illustrations and invitations to do so.

4. Dear Brothers in the priesthood!

Listening to St. Raphael and looking back with him at the story of the family of Tobit, we might find some useful hints:

What a difference between fate or blind destiny and the belief in the personal, loving activity of the angels behind the scene of history!

But still, there are so many people close to desperation, and this is becoming more and more frequent in our time; we should show them, as the angel did, that in every circumstance, God stands behind their life and expects their openness towards Him; and that they should call for the help of the angels.

What a deep faith stands behind and how meaningful are such common wishes as: "Go with God!" or "May God reward you!" etc. We should not allow these pious expressions of our good wishes to be forgotten, but should rather explain their roots and meaning and revive their practice.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC