Sunday, December 11, 2011

Of Men, Angels, and the Incarnation

Several years ago, while studying in Rome, I had the opportunity to attend several events with Bl. Pope John Paul II.  On one occasion several large choirs were in attendance, and filled the first quarter or so of the audience hall.  Each of these choirs was just a tad smaller than the block allotted to it.  Somehow the organization Regnum Christi ended up with the tickets to these few extra seats, and one of my classmates, a Regnum Christi member, acquired half a dozen shortly before the audience began.  They were spread out all over the hall, one here, a couple there.  And so I ended up seated, along with another classmate, in the midst of an Italian men's choir singing for the pope.  I am sure that, as a blond American, I stuck out, but at least my black coat more or less blended with the choir's uniforms; my female classmate, with Irish-American red hair, no doubt seemed even more out of place.  Our neighbors, who did not speak more than a word or two of English, were good-natured about our presence and shared their music.  We had a grand time.

I was reminded of that experience when reading the sermon of St. Bernard which I posted a couple weeks ago.  In it he contends:
The angels, we know, sinned through malice, not through ignorance and frailty; wherefore, as they were unwilling to repent, they must of necessity perish, for the love of the Father and the honour of the King demand judgment. For this cause He created men from the beginning, that they might fill those lost places, and repair the ruins of the heavenly Jerusalem.
I find this an arresting notion. If Bernard is correct, we will stand alongside the heavenly hosts as we share the beatific vision.  In the justice of God, we will merit this, of course; He will make sure that we are worthy of our new places, by His grace.  But I cannot help but chuckle, and then tremble, at the idea that I might be placed alongside archangels and cherubim, dropped there as randomly as I arrived in the midst of my Italian choir.  If this is the future that awaits us, by virtue of Christ' incarnation, we indeed have cause to celebrate Christmas!

But is Bernard correct?  This idea of mankind replacing the fallen angels is not one we often hear, in Scripture or in preaching.  I am no theologian, but I know a few, and they confirm that Bernard's suggestion, if not doctrine of the Church, is at least well-attested.

In Book 22 of The City of God, Augustine argues that God willed that
...from this mortal race, deservedly and justly condemned, He would by His grace collect, as now He does, a people so numerous, that He thus fills up and repairs the blank made by the fallen angels, and that thus that beloved and heavenly city is not defrauded of the full number of its citizens.
Is mankind merely a place-holder?  This sounds rather unlike our loving and personal God. Augustine further notes, however, that the heavenly Jerusalem "perhaps may even rejoice in a still more overflowing population."  Thus, humanity both fills the places left by fallen angels, as well as adding to the numbers of the heavenly choirs.

Writing nearly 700 years later, Anselm follows Augustine's thinking.  In Cur Deus Homo, he  contends,
Intelligent nature... was foreseen by [God] in a certain reasonable and complete number....  It was proper that God should design to make up for the number of angels that fell, from human nature which He created without sin.
Like Augustine, Anselm suggests that redeemed humanity may exceed the numbers of the fallen angels, according to the perfect design of God:
If that [perfect] number [of heavenly beings] were not found in all the angels together, then both the loss and the original deficiency must be made up from men, and more men will be chosen than there were fallen angels. And so we shall say that men were made not only to restore the diminished number, but also to complete the imperfect number.
He goes on to explain:
Human nature was either made to consummate this perfection [of the original creation], or... it was superfluous, which we should not dare affirm of the nature of the smallest reptile. Wherefore, then, it was made for itself, and not merely to restore the number of beings possessing another nature. From which it is plain that, even had no angel fallen, men would yet have had their place in the celestial kingdom.
In other words, the choir of heavenly angels, like the Italian choir I encountered so many years ago, is not quite as big as its allotted space, leaving open seats whether the full choir is present or not.

More than a century after Bernard, this idea was again raised by Thomas Aquinas, although he demurs of any concrete knowledge:
Concerning the number of all the predestined, some say that so many men will be saved as angels fell; some, so many as there were angels left; others, as many as the number of angels created by God. It is, however, better to say that, "to God alone is known the number for whom is reserved eternal happiness."
 In any event, the Church clearly teaches that, whatever our precise relationship with them, we shall spend eternity in the company of the angels and saints around the throne of God.  Thus does God become a little Child, that we might share in the everlasting life of God.

Today's image by Gustave Doré of Dante, Beatrice and the Heavenly Host of Angels, from Canto 31 of Paradiso, is brought to you via Artsy Craftsy.
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