“Amen, amen I say to you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
John 1: 51
Today is the feast of the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. They are among the prime scriptural intermediaries between God and the human race. They are emblems of transcendence in human life and experience. So to reflect on and celebrate them is an invitation to ponder how we are to live our connectedness to God, to that which is more than the isolating smallness of our own pre-transcendent consciousness.
From Abraham, to Mary, to Jesus, to Peter and Paul, the designs of God are made known through the message of an angel. Scripturally, it is often through the visitation of an angel that we human beings access Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth. In today’s gospel, however, Jesus tells Nathanael and all those around him that he is now the Way, the gate of heaven. The “angels of God” no longer ascend and descend a ladder but rather ascend and descend on Jesus himself. He, as God incarnate, is the ladder, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
What does this mean for us who know in our hearts and so suffer the insufficiency of life without God? We long for a mysterious destiny, for ourselves and all the world, and yet it seems that for us there are no consistent angelic apparitions to show us the way. If Jesus is the Way, then somehow the Divine must be inherent in the human experience; God’s will and way is hidden in the common and the ordinary of human existence.
So, how does a loving God communicate to us through the common and the ordinary, and what is asked of us if we are to be disposed to receive that communication? Paradoxically enough, what is required of us is to live contemplatively by acting. As the Kingdom is within us as well as beyond us, we must live from our true place, from our own littleness. We shall come to experience and know the way of God for us and our unique contribution to God’s way in our world by a willingness to do what we can and give what we have, regardless of our sense of its significance and impact. St. Therese of Lisieux points out that “God only asks for your good intentions.” When we do at each moment the little we are able, we experience that we are, along with everything that is created, transparent and porous. There is a life that flows through us. To do God’s will, to allow God’s life and its way in the world is to allow that life to flow through our humble actions. It takes a very small, common, and ordinary person to act in such a way.
Since his death on Wednesday, Shimon Peres has been remembered and lauded as an indefatigable champion of peace in the Middle East. The last of modern Israel’s founding generation, Peres’ life journey passed from founding the Israeli defense establishment to becoming, in time, an indefatigable believer and worker in the cause of a two-state solution that could give Jews and Arabs the possibility of a secure and flourishing co-existence. At this time of his death, that hope seems more distant and impossible than ever. And yet, at the cost of so many personal values, including his reputation among some in Israel and elsewhere as well as his own marriage, he never ceased doing what he could for the cause of peace.
It may seem strange to speak of Peres as exemplifying the common and the ordinary. He was often seen by some in his country as hopelessly ambitious. And yet, it seems quite unlikely that mere ambition would allow for such constancy and dedication over an entire life span. Of course, there were moments, like his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, of personal recognition and victory for him. Yet, at the end of his long life of work, there were no real results to be seen. His only gratification could have been that he had spent his life and work in service of God’s desire for the good of Israel and for her neighbors, a work in which even the most distinguished servant with a very long life could play but a small part.
In the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke continues his description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven with which he concludes his gospel. After Jesus is taken up into heaven, the disciples are staring up into the sky when “two men in white” come and stand near them. These “angels” say to them: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.” (Acts 1: 11) The Incarnation is an omnipresent reality. We are not to spend our time “staring up into the sky” for an apparition but rather to “put our hand to the plow” in the here and now. The Way is among us, ironically enough, even in the limitations and failures of our human acts. More often than not, we know what we are asked to do. The issue for us is whether or not we have the will, and the humility, to do it. We don’t want to do what seems to us to be fruitless and without possibility of success. Yet, if transcendence means anything, it is that the life and the love “that moves the sun and the other stars” flows through our humble daily efforts to do what we can. To serve God means to act as we can and know we must, even though the meaning and outcome of those actions will most often remain mysterious to us
We have a terrible loneliness in common. Day after day a question arises desperately in our minds. Are we alone in the wilderness of the self, alone in this silent universe, of which we are a part, and in which we also feel like strangers?
it is such a situation that makes us ready to search for the voice of God in the world of humanity: the taste of utter loneliness; the discovery that unless the world is porous, the life of the spirit is a freak; that the world is a torso crying for its head; that the mind is insufficient to itself.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 188