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Vol. VII, November 2001

 

The 3rd Instruction, XII: "I Did Not Eat and Drink"
(cf. Tob 12:19)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

What a great surprise and immense joy it was to stand so near to the angel Raphael. If we really believe in this mystery of faith, we should live with more peace and calm in this hectic world. The presence of the angels in man’s life has to be understood as a sincere invitation to trust in this heavenly help. Heaven and earth are not so distant as a glance up to the sky or the thought about the vastness of the universe might suggest. The story of Tobit and St. Raphael make us conscious of God's goodness, inviting and helping us towards a never ending friendship. And are we not so little in every regard that such spiritual help is more than welcome!

Notwithstanding his great familiarity St. Raphael explained to the two: "Even though you watched me eat and drink I did not really do so; what you were seeing was a vision" (Tob 12:19). This affirmation does not issue forth from some medieval schoolroom. Rather it is the angel himself who explains his relationship towards our material world. His statement surprised Tobit and Tobias.

1. It is not the first time, that angels appeared and were offered something to eat or drink. Various were the results.

a) Abraham hosted three heavenly guests. "Abraham saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowed to the ground. ‘My Lord’, he said, ... ‘Let me have a little water brought, and you can wash your feet’ ... ‘Let me fetch a little bread and you can refresh yourselves before going further.’ ... They replied, ‘Do as you say.’ ... Then taking curds, milk and the calf ... he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them. ... From there the men set out and arrived within sight of Sodom ... When the two angels reached Sodom in the evening, Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. He pressed them so much that they went home with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking unleavened bread, and they had supper" (cf. Gen 18:1-8.16; 19:1-3; Heb 13:2).

b) An angel appeared to Gideon. He asked a sign from the angel, namely, to wait till he brought him an offering. Then, Gideon brought a young goat and unleavened cakes and brought it to the angel "under the terebinth". As he approached, the angel of Yahweh said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, put them on this rock and pour the broth over them." Gideon did so. The angel of Yahweh then stretched out the tip of the staff which he was carrying, and touched the meat and unleavened cakes. Fire sprang from the rock and consumed the meat and unleavened cakes, and the angel of Yahweh vanished before his eyes. Gideon then knew that this was the angel of Yahweh, and he said, "Alas, my Lord Yahweh! Now I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face!" (Judg 6:18-23).

c) A similar scene we assist, when an angel of Yahweh foretold the birth of Samson. Manoah said to the angel: "Allow us to detain you while we prepare a kid for you" — for Manoah did not know that this was the angel of Yahweh. The angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, "Even if you did detain me, I should not eat your food; but if you wish to prepare a burnt offering, offer it to Yahweh." ... Manoah then took the kid and the oblation and offered it on the rock as a burnt offering to Yahweh ... Now, as the flame rose heavenwards from the altar, the angel of Yahweh ascended in this flame before the eyes of Manoah and his wife, and they fell face downwards on the ground" (Judg 13:15-20). These texts show the angels both eating and refusing to eat.

2. Do then the angels eat and drink? To answer this question we must first ask: Do the angels have a body with which they could eat and drink?

a) St. Augustine addresses the question and states the argument on both sides: Should we affirm a true body for the angels, then we recall the Psalm which affirms to the contrary: "He made his angels to spirits" (Ps 103:4). Should we accept that they have no body, then we encounter greater difficulties in trying to explain how they showed themselves to the bodily senses of man, how they could be hosted, have their feet washed and be served a meal at which they eat and drink (cf. Letter 95,8). In fact, how can one explain that "an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it" (Mt 28:2), without thinking of an 'vigorous physique'? "Radiant with power, he unnerved the guards and sent them sprawling on their faces" (V. Long, The Angels in Religion and Art, Chicago 1971, 33; or cf. e.g. Dan 14:36.39). This angel evidently has power, but is it physical power?

b) St. Thomas Aquinas raises this question explicitly. First he states, that the angels can influence man, acting upon either the interior or exterior senses. However, not all manifestations are reasonably explained by interior influences, because the angels were seen by many people as in Sodom or here in Tobit (cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologica , I,51,2). The angels "have sometimes assumed bodies" (ibid., 2c and ad 1); this was done for our sake, and — in the Old Testament — it was also done in view of the Incarnation of the Son of God, says St. Thomas.

But what type of body is it? St. Thomas excludes a body "formed of earth or water for such bodies would not suddenly vanish, nor fire-bodies for these would scorch the place around them" (ibid., obj. 3). He says, "It is true that air does not normally retain shape or color; but when condensed it can have shape and color, as in the clouds. The angels, then, assume bodies made of air, but condensed by divine power in an appropriate manner" (ibid., ad 3).

St. Thomas adds some practical conclusions like this: "An angel does not really speak through his assumed body; he only imitates speech, forming sounds in the air corresponding to human words" (I,51,3 ad 4). Similarly, he says: "Properly speaking, angels cannot eat, for eating implies that food is changed into the eater’s substance. ... The food they took was not changed into their assumed bodies, nor were these bodies such as could assimilate food; hence in their case there was no real eating, but only an image of spiritual nutrition, as indeed the angel said to Tobias, ‘Even though you watched me eat and drink. I did not really do so; what you were seeing was a vision’ (Tob 12:19)" (a. 3 ad 5). In general, it can be said: "Where [physical] life is lacking, which is the ability to act in certain ways, then the acts or functions of [physical] life must be lacking too" (a. 3c).

3. Today, we find among the theologians different positions regarding to this question. Some do not even consider this question; others accept the biblical facts, consider them as material phenomena, and state: "The power of the pure spirits can find many ways to form such a body. Further speculations about the mode, in which the angels form a body with which they appear, do not lead to secure conclusions, and run the danger of becoming arbitrary" (Flick & Alszeghy, Il Creatore, Florenz, 1964, 699). Then there are others like Johannes Brinktrine who start with the traditional position and confront it with the testimony of history. He explains: Three things are needed in order that an angel can take on the form of a human body: First, he needs to be present with his substance, otherwise he would not have really appeared. Secondly, he must be united with the body, not like a form is substantially united to matter, but as a motor to the object moved: and Thirdly, the body must be able to symbolize and manifest the properties and perfections of the angel or the person, who is represented. Brinktrine presents St. Thomas' opinion, that even "those visible creatures" through which the Holy Spirit appeared, were "formed through the ministry of the angels" (S.th., I,43,7 ad 5; cf. S.Augustine, De Trinitate III,1.4.5.9). Supposedly, the same is the case in the apparitions of God in the Old Testament, of Our Lady and the other saints today (cf. J. Brinktrine, Die Lehre von der Schöpfung, Paderborn 1956, 110-112).

Valentine Long writes: "If electricity does not have to be seen in action to produce results, neither does a spirit. The angel who did off with Habakkuk could have remained bodiless, invisible as the wind, and still have carried out the errand. When an angel appears in human form, his body is no more himself than are the clothes he also wears. It merely becomes for him the instrument to materialize his presence. It is an accommodation to his visionary. Disguising himself as a companionable youth, Raphael did not lose but was only adapting his ethereal superiority to the circumstances. ... Raphael did not become the handsome young man he only appeared to be, neither did the human disguise become for that reason a deceitful untruth. On the contrary, it served the truth to complete advantage; got it across to young Tobias in the way he could best realize it; made it come alive to his senses" (Long, 34 and 36).

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood,

it is charity to bow down to the level and capacity of those to whom we are sent (cf. Hb 2:17); and in order to be able to communicate what God wants us to transmit we must properly adapt the message to the recipient. As we talk to those who are blind, and show letters to those who are deaf, so do we have to communicate in a way that the recipient of the message can understand.

But there is a limit, as we see in St. Raphael: Although he was very near to man for quite some time, he still had just a "borrowed" body! Let us apply this to our own situation: As urgently as we need to be near to souls, still, we must remain first of all — with and like our holy angels — "servants of the Lord". To be of the Lord and live near the people for the sake of the Lord is no lie nor fiction. St. Thomas points out with regard to the holy angels: "The whole point of these ‘bodies’ is to signify, through human actions and attributes, the spiritual actions and attributes of the angels" (S.th., I,51,3 ad 1). May we too, in our humanity and priesthood be instruments of our Lord, of His grace and light. In all our activities may we seek His glory and manifest the richness of his merciful love.

Fr. Titus Kieninger ORC