All those at the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
I’ve never really paid attention to that little snippet of scripture before, always rolled over it as a bridge on the way to the dramatic story of Stephen’s stoning. Earlier in the week, as a reading for the Mass, it caught me. The face of an angel.
I’m afraid that I, like most modern people, have a tendency to remake angels in my own image. Angles are beautiful, gracious, comforting, even cuddly, and much to be desired. Even in my prayers I tend to approach my guardian angel with a familiarity that probably isn’t warranted. I tend to think of angels as there for me alone—there for my comfort and care. But that’s not the case—or at least, not the whole case. I am approaching a being far above me in spirit and intellect, my better, not my minion. A little healthy trepidation seems to be in order.
I need to remind myself that angels are God’s servant’s not mine. They are entrusted with messages from God, from the King and Creator of the Universe. When I was a kid, I dreaded being called into the teacher’s office, or—God forbid (one of my more fervent prayers at the time)—into the Principal’s office. To this day, I dislike conferences with my boss, and the words most guaranteed to strike fear into my heart are “We need to talk.” My assumption is that this call for a conference—whatever it is-- cannot be good. I’d really rather just keep on my merry and unmolested way. Fortunately for me, neither my boss nor my God is content to let me do that.
It would seem that folks in the Old Testament had something of the same sentiments. The first response to an angel—at least one recognized—isn’t genial welcome of a guest bringing gifts, it’s awe mixed with just a little bit of fear. Ultimately, angels often bring good news, but even when it’s the best news in the world—like Gabriel’s message to Mary—it brings with it a certain measure of trial and testing. Re-making ourselves into the image of Christ is not easy. Any message God sends is ultimately directed to that end, toward being what it is He has in mind for us to be. Any message He sends is going to take us by way of the cross, sooner or later. Good that ultimately is, but comfortable, it is not.
The Sanhedrin had to know this instinctively, and for the Jews of the first century, approaching an angel wasn’t something you did lightly, and it was something that left you changed somehow. Jacob, after all, wrestled with an angel and was left with a limp. The terms of engagement with God and his messengers are not under human control. If the Sanhedrin saw Stephen’s face as that of an angel, what did they think?
Perhaps it was not his great beauty they saw, but his great authority, the Divine Presence shining from within, challenging them to be what they had refused to become. Did they realize, then, that events were out of their hands, and that they, too would be changed whether they liked it or not? Angels bring messages. What message did they see, hear?
What about the angel I know is with me daily? What message does he bring? Sometimes, I imagine that he stands beside me, yelling in my ear, and I, like the Sanhedrin, appreciate his presence without hearing and responding to the message he brings—all the while asking, as the Sanhedrin probably did, too—please God, enlighten me, What am I to do? What is your will?
I approach him so casually, with great familiarity, asking of him guidance, direction, protection, intercession. Most of the time, I admit, I’m asking for comfort and assistance, not to be changed. I talk, I rarely listen, and I am not sure I even know how to hear the messages he brings. Certainly, I do not even recognize his face, but I know that when I catch a glimpse of it, my angel will be just a little scary. Scary because he’ll have a message, a clear, simple message from my Creator and my Father, that will demand my alternation and that may be neither simple or painless, though it ultimately will bring me joy I cannot now even imagine.
But isn’t that his job, as God’s messenger? Please God, may I not cast stones when I recognize the work of the angel in my midst.