Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!
Zacariah describes a vivid dialogue between man, angels and God. The four “horses” returned from their mission with the beautiful report to their angelic boss: “We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.” With this is shown us the following panorama: There are
– the converted people, who were at peace through their submission to God and their renewed obedience to His will;
– the angels who had patrolled the entire earth;
– “the angel of the Lord” to whom they gave report like subordinated servants; – and the Lord of Hosts who at the beginning manifested His anger with the fathers of the Chosen but unfaithful people.
Now, the angel of the Lord took the word and said: “O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which Thou hast had indignation these seventy years?” (Zac 1:12). Is this initiative of the angel just a simple question, or did he oppose himself to God? Is it just a pure petition (intercession), or is it, what theologians call “impetration”? Let us look closer to what he said.
1. Intercession of the Angels. The Church confirms that the angels do intercede for men; this truth finds expression in the Litanies of the Church: “All holy Angels, … St. Michael, pray for us”. This goes beyond St. Raphael’s confession about the simple mediation of man’s prayer towards God by the angels (cf. Tb 12:12; cf. Rev 8:3-4). In our case here, God was angry at the people. But, He gave them a chance for conversion, and they took advantage of it. Now, because of their change – seventy years it was! (cf. 1:12) –, the angel turns to God and asks for mercy.
a) The angelic intercession – a mystery. This is surprising, for prior to this we have not encountered such an angelic intervention. On the contrary, God Himself warned the people of Israel, saying of the angel: “He [the angel] will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him” (Ex 23:21). The angel always seems to stand on the side of God, and to defend His Will and Rights (cf. Gen 3:24; 32:25-33). He is the most obedient servant of God: When “God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it,” but then repented. He “said to the destroying angel, ‘It is enough; now stay your hand.’ … he put his sword back into its sheath” (1Cron 21:15.27). That is to say, the angel is ready to execute the command of God without regard or compassion for man, for he is wholly one with and surrendered to Divine Wisdom. And if some one wants to oppose to God, the angel readily enters with vigor and defends God’s will and honor, as St. Gabriel did towards the priest Zacarias (cf. Lk 1:19-20).
It appears that the angel has little care for man such that he would implore God man’s behalf. Here, however, the angel takes the initiative before God in favor of man: “How long wilt Thou have no mercy on Jerusalem?” Here, the angel takes the side of man, as it were, and implores God for man’s sake.
b) The angelic intercession – a mystery of love. The reasons advanced against an angelic intervention in favor of man can also be adduced as the very reason for it! In what sense? The angels’ loving fidelity and their definitive decision for God may be a reason why God draws them into His confidence, to speak with them as He spoke with the man, Moses, namely as with a friend: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33:11). Similarly, we may recall what the Lord said to Abraham. When He visited Abraham, He said: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Gen 18:17). Do not such examples allow us to conclude that God shares with the angels His ideas before He “decides” definitively and put them into practice, so that there is a space given in which the angels can intervene, or intercede in favor of man without opposing to God’s decisions?
When we affirm: God deals the angels like His friends, then it should be true too that He reveals to them His heart, His hidden thoughts and plans, and may even expect their comments and invite them to take part in it. It appears like a mystery of love between God and the angels when they intercede for man before God.
In all of this, of course, we have been speaking anthropomorphically. God’s providence integrates both the freedom of men and angels into His plan, such that they are truly collaborators with God. Our freedom does not fall outside of God’s plan, and still it is a real and free collaboration. What we experience concerning the existential importance of our own decisions in response to God, hold also true for the angels, who in their order, are also His chosen ministers.
c) The angelic intercession – part of their mission? This reflection takes us a step further. As Abraham took the courage to intercede for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and as Moses spoke in favor of his “stiff-necked people” (Ex 33:5), do the angels also stand in for those whom God entrusted to their care? In the Apocalypse, an angel brings the prayers of all the saints before God, and surly not without his own (cf. Rev 8:2).
When God placed the angels in charge of an individual person or a certain group it is inconceivable that the Angel not speak freely to God about his task and his protégée(s). This justly pertains to his dignity as an intellectual creature brought to his highest perfection in the beatific vision. This is just like mediating the prayers of the people to God. In this sense, here, the angel of the Lord communicates to God the report he received from the riders of the horses. And then – and this is the unusual part, inasmuch as rarely recorded in Scripture – he makes a prayerful suggestion to God. Is it fitting for an angel to lead God’s plan in a certain direction? Can he offer God a suggestion as to how He might now deal with His people? Certainly, for God chose him for this hour and task to bring all his natural gifts and grace into the service of the people of God!
2. Intercession before God. We should still look to the true sense of intercession to verify if we have the right idea about God.
a) Intercession is not imposition. To have a right idea about intercession, we have to make ourselves aware of the following truths:
– Through intercession, no one will inform God about situations of people as if He would not know about them. God knows all things already before and better than we!
– Through intercession, we also do not want to oppose a decision which God has already made in His wisdom. We know God is just and will always do what is right.
– Through intercession, we do not even want to remind God of some facts which He, otherwise, would not take into consideration!
What sense, then, does an angelic intervention for man before God have? The intercession of the angel here seems to be in harmony with all the aspects mentioned, with the mystery of love and justice, with respect before the authority of God and the care for man which God gave them.
b) The respect before God and God’s answer. When the good report about the people who attended God’s petition and converted, had arrived and God did not yet react and answer, in this gap the angel saw the legitimate space for intercession. He took initiative and pointed out to justice which might have already been satisfied: “Thou hast had indignation these seventy years”; further, he pointed out to God’s mercy: “O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou have no mercy…?” (Zac 1:12)
What was God’s reaction? “The Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel…: ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am very angry with the nations that are at ease;… I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; My house shall be built in it…’.“ (Zac 1:13-17) We can say:
God showed Himself
– jealous in relation to Himself, His own dignity and His holy Will towards His people;
– merciful towards His chosen people who did penance and returned to Him,
– and just towards the enemies who, although serving as a whip to punish His people, surrendered to their lower passions and their own will. Therefore, God accepted the intervention of the angel’s intercession in favor of the people.
3. The prayer of intercession. The answer God gave shows the perfect correspondence between the interest of the angel and God’s will.
a) The multiple dimensions of intercession. Adding to this union the motive of true love, intercession becomes a part of the loving exchange between God and His rational creatures. Jesus invites us strongly to ask Him and His Father: “Ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7:7). He wants to hear petitions as they reveal confidence in God’s attention and love; they are an act of love for our neighbors which God expects, and the answers to them demonstrates His fatherly care towards us.
Therefore, also the Church teaches us that God wants us to offer up intercessions:
Our Father knows what we need before we ask him (cf. Mt 6:8), but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2737).
This principle, of course, applies with equal vigor to the Holy Angels in their ministry.
b) The limitations of intercession. Evidently, our vision is only partion and so we can make mistakes in the things we request in prayer as also far short in other dimensions of our life. We may not really know what for we should pray and how we should pray correctly (cf. Rom 8:26) or we may even “ask wrongly” as St. James pointed out (James 4:3), “with a divided heart” instead with “filial trust” (cf. CIC, # 2734). In all these foible, we should approach God trustingly, resigned and assured that He will grant us not exactly what we have request, but rather that which is most conducive to our good. Those who pray otherwise lack in respect before the infinitely greater wisdom and absolute goodness and love of God for us. The Church makes us aware of this danger and wants to correct ourselves in this regard when she asks us: “What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” (CIC, # 2735)
We saw in our text, that the holy angels do not make these mistakes thanks to their total submission and sincere humility in their intercessions. We do well, therefore, when we pray to God, to also call on them and ask for their light and guidance. It pleases God when we approach Him in union with them and through the help of their intercession, for they correct and educate us in the manner and the things we should pray for.
4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood! This example tells us, how good it is when we do go to God not directly, but through the holy angels, especially our personal Guardian Angel. Does not the Liturgy lead us every day in this way, when she unites us first with “all the angels and Saints” before we approach Christ’s Coming at the Consecration! Also the faithful sense this and act in this way when in their needs they approach God through the intercession of the Saints, or when they ask priests or consecrated Souls for prayers. The friendship of God with those close to Him is often a decisive factor in the efficacy of intercession.