Everyone should know that angels exist. But how would you react to meeting an angel who descended to earth like lightning before your very eyes?
If you were superhuman or supremely holy you might sit down and have a conversation with him about his “dazzling robes” as the Gospel of Luke describes them (Luke 24:4), but you would be the only person in history ever to react that casually to the presence of an angel.
From the evidence of scripture, most human beings who meet angels fall down in abject terror, or run away, or try to worship them because they are so magnificent. Angels are filled with so much glory that encountering them is always an overwhelming experience for sinful human beings.
To add to that point: even the sinless Virgin Mary was “greatly troubled” when she was greeted by an archangel (Luke 1:29).
Now imagine meeting an angel on the very day of the Resurrection itself. Talk about glory.
Witnesses to the witnesses
It is quite astounding that no human being actually witnessed the central event of human history: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But the angels did. Because of their unique mystical vantage point, I believe they actually saw Him rising from the dead – wow.
That was because the angels were sent to be the witnesses to the witnesses of the Resurrection. They confirmed the mystery to the men and women who were to later declare the Good News of eternal life to the entire world.
Without seeing the event with their own eyes, the human witnesses had to put faith in some visible proof of that event: the empty tomb. Once they saw it, they were able to believe the fact of the Resurrection and proclaim it.
The angels made sure they got the message. That is, after all, what angels do. They are messengers and ambassadors of truth.
The gospel accounts
All four gospels recount the moment that angels and humans met at the empty tomb, but each of these accounts describes a different angel appearance. Let’s consider a few of their key details:
- Matthew (28:2-4) mentions only one angel who descended from heaven “like lightning,” rolled back the stone, and sat on it! The ultimate in cool. The evangelist adds: “The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.” No doubt.
- In Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:4-5), the stone is already rolled away when the women arrive at the tomb and find “a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe” inside the tomb. He told them to bring the message of this great event to the disciples.
- “Two men in dazzling garments” appeared to the women in Luke’s account (Luke 24:2-5). The women were terrified at the sight of the celestial beings. Luke’s angels greet them with my favorite line in scripture: “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead?” This is sheer angelic poetry.
- John’s description of the encounter (John 20:11-13) is short, but he adds a few details not found in any other gospel. The two angels inside the tomb positioned themselves at each end of the stone slab, as if to shine a spotlight on the two cloths that had covered His Body, the facecloth and the shroud. This is also the only gospel that shows Mary mistaking her risen Lord for the gardener!
What to make of the varying details
One angel, two angels, inside the tomb, outside the tomb, fear, amazement, words, questions, Jesus, the gardener. Which of the four accounts is the true description of the actual event?
Well, if we recognize that they are all partial accounts of a single experience, like the four gospels themselves, we can see that, taken together, they form a complete picture.
Eyewitnesses to accidents and other occurrences often give different descriptions of the same event, so we may be asking too much of the women who reported these encounters to converge on all the details. The same holds true for the evangelists who wrote down the stories of the Resurrection many years later.
The overall truth of the Resurrection event rests in the harmonization of the accounts to form a single dynamic picture.
But there is another way to make sense of these divergent accounts: an angelic encounter can never be adequately described in human words. Experiencing a pure spiritual being is like being drawn into a mystical tableau or heavenly drama.
Words fail. The drama can only be “painted” like a picture according to the artist’s perception. After all, how do you describe supernatural glory?
The magnificence of the angels
What image do we get of angels through these four mystical paintings, then? Very simply, an image of unearthly magnificence.
The angels are bright shards of Christ’s glory: their words communicate the Word; their garments radiate His Light; their very beings express His Authority.
The angels are faithful messengers. They communicated the one thing that God wanted to make sure the humans got absolutely clear from the start: that His Son rose from the dead – as He said He would. The event that shook the world was not left to the vagaries of human interpretation or speculation.
Behold the empty tomb!
In all four encounters, the women see with their own eyes a tomb that only minutes or hours before had held a dead body.
The angels are also very effective evangelizers. They firmly launch the Christian evangelization of the world from the location of the tomb by sending the women to report the matter faithfully to the disciples. They even give them the precise words to speak.
From there, the angels assist the Church in the proclamation of the Good News of salvation, as the rest of the New Testament makes abundantly clear.
Angels along the way
All this talk of angels brings to mind an old and beautiful memory. One of my schools had a religious brother, Brother Francis, as its librarian. He was the nicest man you might ever meet, and he lived with a permanent angelic smile on his face. This was all the more remarkable since I learned that he had grown up in hardship during the Depression and had known his share of tombs.
Each time I would see him, his face would light up, and, of course, I couldn’t help but smile in return. Then, after I had fallen into his radiant smile trap, Brother would say, “Now there’s a man who looks like he believes in the Resurrection!” I’m sure at least a dozen other of my schoolmates fell into the same trap.
I suspect the good brother was really an angel of the Resurrection in disguise (minus the dazzling robes). If not, he was as close as a human can get to being one. He was one of those humble but brilliant witnesses to the indomitable power of Christ’s love. How blessed I was to have been in his orbit for a time.
But, you know, I have an actual angel witness to the Resurrection at my side at all times. Was my guardian angel at the Resurrection too? He must have been. They all were there. Which of the angels would have had something better to do that day?
Although I cannot see my angel’s glory right now, I know he’s here with me. I can call on him for assistance in my efforts to be a witness to the Resurrection.
My personal witness may not have the impact of Mary Magdalene’s or of the Apostles, but I can witness to others in the way Brother Francis communicated that grace to me: he radiated joy, holiness, prayerfulness, utter assurance of life in Christ, an indomitable spirit, graciousness in all things.
I must paint my own mystical Resurrection tableau, starting today. I’ll ask my angel’s help. I have seen the empty tomb.
[Peter Darcy’s latest book, Natures of Fire: God’s Magnificent Angels, debuts today. Please be sure to visit his author’s website for free sample chapters and further meditations on God’s holy angels.]