Salvation history from Genesis to the Apocalypse is full of the angels. For the patriarchs of old, for the kings and prophets of Israel, the providence of God was personalized in angels sent to guide and watch over them.
An angel announced the advent of the Word and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary, and in humble reverence waited for her “Yes” to carry it back to heaven (cf. Lk 1:26-38). An angel revealed to Saint Joseph his mysterious and fearful role in the plan of God, enlightened him in his dark night, guided him to safety in Egypt and then back again to Galilee (cf. Mt 1: 20-24, 2:13-22). Angels attended Jesus in the mysteries of his birth, life, suffering, and resurrection. Jesus defended the innocence of the little ones by saying to those tempted to despise them that “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18: 10).
When Peter was imprisoned by Herod, an angel appeared to him in the night and guided him out of the prison into freedom. “When Peter came to himself, he said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting’” (Ac 12:11). We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Heb 12:22). Finally, one cannot read the book of Revelation without hearing in the turning of every page the rush of angels’ wings.
An Angel Sent Before Us
The lesson read today from the book of Exodus is a veritable rule of life. God announces that he is sending an angel before us, to guard us on the way and to bring us to the place which he has prepared (cf. Ex 23:20). In the historical context of the Exodus, the place prepared by God was the Promised Land. For us the place prepared by God is, in the end, heaven, and more immediately, every place along the way where we encounter his will and enter into the mysterious designs of his love. God himself charted the course of the Exodus; from a pragmatic, geographical point of view the route taken was not the most direct, nor the most efficient, nor the easiest. The Exodus was marked by halts along the way; every halt was an occasion of grace, an opportunity to turn away from sins of murmuring, idolatry, greed, and disobedience, an invitation to begin again in hope, in humility, and in trust.
Speaking of the angel of his presence and providence, God himself says, “Give heed to him and hearken to his voice” (Ex 23:20). “Give heed, hearken, listen.” What have we here if not the opening imperative of the Holy Rule? “Hearken, my son, ausculta, listen” (RB Pro:1). Why are we incapable of hearing the voice of God’s angel? Because we are not sufficiently silent. We are incapable of silence because in our pride we prefer to listen to the noise of our own thoughts and the din of our own voices. We are incapable of silence because we fear the voice of God and want to delay “the labour of obedience,” having grown accustomed to “the sloth of disobedience” (RB Pro 2). We are incapable of silence because the buzz and drone of many things has distracted us from “the one thing necessary” (Lk 10:42) and we have forgotten how to “sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching” (Lk 10:39).
“Give heed to the angel I send before you,” says the Lord. “Hearken to his voice and do not rebel against him. . . . If you hearken attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Ex 23:21). God asks obedience of us, the obedience that Saint John Paul II called “the listening that changes life,” but to listen one must be silent, and to be silent, one must be humble.
I cannot help but think of Saint Pio of Pieltrecina whose feast we celebrated on September 23rd. Saint Pio enjoyed an astonishing familiarity with his Guardian Angel; he also entered deeply into the obedience, humility, and silence of Jesus Crucified. Mysteriously, these are two facets of the same holiness. One who associates with the angels becomes like them: humble because ever in adoration, silent because humble, and quick to obey because silent. One who associates with the angels becomes like Christ the Lord of the Angels: humble, silent, and “obedient unto death, death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
In the Obscurity of Earthly Life
The feast of the Holy Guardian Angels is as disturbing as it is comforting. It is the salutary disturbance of obedience, unsettling our delusions of security and summoning us to movement and to change. It is the comforting assurance of a Providence that in “the obscurity of earthly life” (Ambrosian Preface) surrounds us with angels to light our way.
The Gifts of the Guardian Angels
If all of this seems to you as daunting as it does to me, go to today’s Gospel and among the “little ones” (Mt 18:10) defended by Christ, see yourself. The way of humility, silence, and obedience, is not an Olympic course for the strong and powerful. Paradoxically, it is the little way, the way uncovered for us yesterday by Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face. I am comforted by the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel because he tells me that in my weakness I am represented before the Face of the Father by one who is strong, my Guardian Angel. In my inconstancy I am represented before the Face of the Father by one who is unswerving and steadfast, my Guardian Angel. In my inability to listen and to adore, I am represented before the Face of the Father by one whose gaze never, even for an instant, leaves that Face, one whose adoration is ceaseless, my Guardian Angel.
The strength, constancy, and adoration of the Guardian Angels is ours. Their contemplation of the Face of God is ours. Claim these gifts of the Guardian Angels — their joy is to share them with us — and go forward without fear. If we let them guide us, our holy Guardian Angels will bring us safely to the place — and to all the places along the way — prepared for us by God.