ANGELS: Heaven’s Welcome by Martin Shannon
Loving & Learning From Angelic Messengers
From: All God’s Angel
After his suffering he presented himself alive to [the apostles] by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward Heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into Heaven.” (Acts 1:3-5, 9-11)
In our opening chapter, we explored the first appearance in the Bible of an angel. The cherubim served God by barring the way to the Garden of Eden, preventing Adam and Eve from returning to Paradise. There we noted that by acting as God’s own hand blocking humanity’s way, they point us toward our only hope of return: “the mercy of God who will make the way himself.”
Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth-century bishop and theologian who is honored by both the East and the West, said that the fall of Adam and Eve broke God’s intended communion between Heaven and Earth by snatching men and women away from the company of the angels. Since then, the angels have watched and waited, longing for humanity’s restoration. With the ascension of Christ comes the accomplishment of all that the gospel promises and thereby the fulfillment of all their hopes. “When grace has reunited men and angels,” wrote Gregory, “[the angels] will break forth into a great hymn of praise.” With Gregory we can wonder: if a countless host of angels sang at the quiet birth of the Savior, what must have been the sound in Heaven at his glorious return?
The great fourteenth-century Florentine master Giotto di Bondone made a series of twenty-four fresco panels for the now-famous Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. They portray the life of Christ, and the second to the last panel, just before the image of Pentecost, depicts the Ascension. Faithful to the Biblical account, the artist depicts the apostles and Mary (see Acts 1:14) gathered on the hilltop from which Jesus has just ascended. While two angels instruct them to stop gazing into the sky and instead to go about their God-given duties, Giotto imagines more angels welcoming Jesus back from his Earthly sojourn. The angels and archangels and all the host of Heaven have obtained what they were always waiting for: the reunion of Heaven and Earth, the return of man and woman to the dignified condition in which and for which they were created.
The angels, who once blocked our way from the presence of God, now do everything in their power to help us ascend to paradise. In Jesus’s ascension to the Father is our ascension, just as in his crucifixion we also were crucified, dead, buried, and raised again. The curse of exile is reversed. God’s promise is kept. The gate is reopened, and Jesus is the first to enter. But he is not the last. The angels stand ready to usher us in too, when our time comes.
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