ANGELS: Entertaining Angels by Martin Shannon
Loving & Learning From Angelic Messengers
From: All God’s Angels
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)
God had already spoken to Abraham four times: calling him out of Ur, making a covenant with him for the land of Canaan, promising him a son, foretelling that generations of descendants would call him “Father.” In each case, the Bible simply says that the Lord spoke to Abraham, or came to him in a vision. On this occasion, the message is brought to Abraham by three “men.” The triune image evokes the Trinity, and though the Judaic mind would not have interpreted the text in this way, the writer himself identifies the appearance as “the Lord.”
When the Bible speaks of “the angel of the Lord,” the specific meaning is not always clear. Is it an angel from the Lord? Is it the person of the Lord God appearing in human form? Is it something else, altogether different and unique? For the purposes of these reflections, we are not trying to parse out this phrase too finely. What is clear is that, when either “an angel” or “the angel of the Lord” visits one of God’s people, a direct connection is made between Heaven and Earth. Angels bring the message and the presence of God into the lives of human beings, correcting human error, strengthening human weaknesses, answering human need. Whoever these beings are, they appear on behalf of God and for the benefit of people. In this case, it took three of them to get the message across.
On the mosaic walls of San Vitale, a fourth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, this scene is depicted as three men sitting at a table, upon which are three loaves of bread, each marked with a cross. The Eucharistic meaning is unmistakable. This is the “bread of the angels” (penis angelicus; see Psalm 78:25), and even as they are hosting the event, Abraham and Sarah are also the guests. Abraham may have invited the men to supper, but the real invitation was extended by God, who was asking Abraham and Sarah to be part of his divine plan. The sacred meal they share, like every celebration of the Lord’s Supper, is a foretaste of that plan’s fulfillment. It is a meal of true communion between Heaven and Earth.
In one of his sermons, John Chrysostom said that, because Abraham himself was a citizen of Heaven and thereby a stranger on Earth (see Hebrews 11:12-16), he was ready to entertain strangers with cheerfulness and generosity. The “strangers” Abraham welcomes – as is the case with all angels – are themselves ready, cheerful, and generous. They dutifully sit and eat what is set before them, then fulfill their angelic function by bringing a message from Heaven to Earth: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:14) As with Hagar before, and centuries later in a tiny village called Nazareth, an angel announces that a child will be born.
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