THE resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event. It is also a process being renewed daily in the lives of Christians; and a prophecy of what their eternal end will be. All these elements of the Easter mystery are present in the readings for “this day, the first of days”.
Messengers from God are familiar characters in the books of the Bible; so we are not surprised that they play a part in explaining the resurrection to mortals. Some of those messengers are human beings — such as Peter, in Acts, preaching his great Easter sermon; or his brother-apostle Paul, who reveals the resurrection as an event with consequences, demanding a response from everyone who learns of it.
Other messengers, though human in appearance, are not of human origin. That is the case when the group of women (Luke 24.4) have a strange meeting as they arrive at the tomb: “Suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.” The dazzling clothes and the sudden appearance give the clue to the true nature of these messengers. The Greek word that defines them, andres, simply means “men” or “males”, but their bright and sudden appearing points to their being supernatural messengers — in other words, “angels”.
But then “suddenly” turns out not to be sudden at all. That translation is found in respectable version, such as the NJB and NIV, as well as the NRSV. The Authorised Version sticks closer to the Greek, with an archaic word, “Behold!” The difference may seem petty, but “suddenly” refers to time, whereas “behold” or “look” emphasises vision. Unlike a mere adverb (“suddenly”), “look!” is a command from the storyteller (Luke) to his listeners — us. Like all the Evangelists, he speaks to audiences before he turns the Good News into text. Here, he orders us to turn our gaze on these two figures in white. Their message to the women is a message for us.
The term “angels” comes from the Greek word for “messengers”. When Luke refers to them, he mingles divine and human detail. Although they are described as two “men”, they know, without being told, what the women plan to do. They even know some of what Jesus has taught the women.
We learn about the resurrection, then, from God’s messengers, both human and heavenly. But we cannot always be certain which are which. The idea of encountering angels in daily life is exhilarating, but also intimidating. Scripture tells us that meeting angels unawares is a risky business (Hebrews 13.2). The writer of Hebrews warns his readers how important it is to offer hospitality to strangers — not only because it is a time-honoured custom, but also because any stranger may turn out to be of divine origin, and require respect and care as such. Perhaps this was what lay behind Peter’s blurted-out offer of hospitality at the transfiguration.
Peter and Paul’s voices speak to us from the distant past, but with present, urgent, clarity. The voice of the risen Christ had made Mary Magdalene realise who was the stranger she was talking to (John 20.16). It helped the disciples to recognise him after his resurrection; and, soon after that, brought a cry of recognition from Thomas which went a step further, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20.20, 28). It was the same voice as had cried to Paul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 22.7). Many of us will identify with the shame and self-reproach that Paul felt at how slow he had been to accept Christ.
Peter’s sermon ties the human Jesus to the risen Christ, showing us, as we listen to it, that we, too, can have an encounter with the Lord’s Anointed. We, too, can let go of fear, and trust in Paul’s assurance that death — the last enemy — will in time be emptied of power. Angelic encounters are unlikely ever to be a routine part of our faith-experience. So it is just as well that we need not depend on them as a way to develop our relationship with God. We receive Christ through our indwelling faith, through what we hear and read, and through the sacraments of baptism and communion.
All these ways of meeting him are straightforward, tested, reliable, and open to all. If we reach out our hands for his broken but life-giving body, we do not just hope that we shall receive it: we know that we shall.