Monday, April 2, 2012

Angels and the Word of the Cross: Theological Considerations from the Gospel of Mark

[A version of an article published in the Lutheran Forum, vol. 41/1 (2007) 36-39.  
It was published without footnotes]

Angels either play a new or no role in modern theology.  This situation owes to many factors.  But in the attempt to find their place, no matter if angels disappear into the fields of force that govern matter or if they dwell in hermetic glory, it would appear that the theology of the cross excludes angels.[1]  At first sight, it seems that cross and glory do not belong together and so angels, since they manifest God’s eternal glory, distract from the glory hidden in the cross.  However, this is not so since angels have their being in speaking the word of the cross.  Angelic being marks creaturely entrance to the new world of God’s reign; angelic speech translates into human speech.  This requires some reconsideration of angelology in light of the word of the cross.
             Mark’s Gospel provides the star to anchor angelic speculation since a young man, whom we might infer to be an angel, speaks the crucial message at Jesus’ tomb.  Jesus, who promised to gather in Galilee, had his promise thwarted by crucifixion.  On Easter morning at the tomb, a young man gives the message of Easter to the women gathered there (Mark 16:1-8).  According to the narrator, this young man clothed in white marked the boundary between the secrets of the Reign of God and the public declaration of Easter morning (16:6-7).  Against expectations to the contrary from readers and the characters themselves, this young man's message left the women bewildered and silent.  This is an angelology that attends the word of the cross since angels mark the union of contradiction, glory, and an open future.
            Angels ordinarily receive their place within theological speculation from Jacob’s dream where he saw a ladder that connected earth and heaven (Genesis 28:10-17).  The ladder of Jacob stands in for the relationship of angels to the drama of the world:  they descend from their principal home, the divine cult, to work abroad.  They have a task in their mission.  Thus, in the cosmology of heaven and earth, the ladder denotes a way station for transients.  Angels have a momentary business but then recede to their place within the chorus.  Angels do far more than this, of course, but their place in the divine cosmos depends upon the structure of the cosmos itself.  As heavenly beings, they keep their beds there even when abroad.
            The baptism of Jesus shatters this arrangement of heaven and earth (Mark 1:9-11).  This event displays the cosmology of Mark’s gospel.   Its terse narration of the events without comment seems to depend, as many note, on the imagination and cosmological commitments of the readers.[2]  Crucial is the displacement of the heavens:  they tear apart when John baptizes Jesus and the Spirit descends.  No longer does heaven denote a location removed from the earth.  Whatever angelic worship occurred in the heavens remote to the earth now continues in earth.  Thus, Mark’s gospel makes an implicit claim that Jesus’ advent upends the cosmology of heaven apart from earth.
            Angelic distance from earth requires things like Jacob’s ladder. Some bridge between the two spheres ought to exist in order for angelic ingress.  But if heaven and earth now intertwine, it may seem that pockets of eschatological glory now appear here or there.  If earth and heaven permeate one another, one can no longer credit a heaven that lies without the world.  If heaven now interacts with earth in a more complex way than Jacob’s ladder, angels are not simply peregrinating beings, displaced from their true home.  Rather, earth and heaven now belong together.
            This cosmology displaces angels from heaven as their primary home since heaven and earth belong together.  Eternity and time coincide.  Nature and supernature embrace.  Though Mark intends none of this as subsequently developed in theology, the tearing of the heavens points to an upheaval in imagination that seems to echo in those throughout the ages who have resisted separation between heaven and earth.  It goes without saying that modern cosmology simply eliminated the possibility of heaven as a place that lies without the spheres.  The Copernican revolution made it impossible to locate heaven on a map, even if it was never construed spatially.[3]
            Rather than displacing angels, Mark's altered cosmos where eternity and time, heaven and earth, all stand in deep communion with one another makes them ordinary and spectacular at once.  They are not at a remove.  But if angels retain some aspect of their former glory, that glory now subsists in the speaking the word of the cross.  It is this word that will enable a discussion of angels and their being.
            Mark’s gospel presents an extraordinary service to the word of the cross, particularly because of the absence of any resurrection appearance in the narrative.  When taking the earliest available ending that ends with the scene we are considering, 16:1-8, all the women have, all the reader has is a young man in white or bright clothing and the women’s reaction of terror.  This form of the ending has attracted enormous analysis; for reconstructing an angelology, we focus on the young man and his role in the word of the cross.
            Recognizing the difficulties involved with arguing from silence, some scholars postulate that Mark did know a tradition of resurrection appearances and intentionally omitted one in the earliest available ending.[4]  Leaving out an appearance enables two of many possible interpretations:  that Jesus is in Galilee as he promised or that Jesus’ failure is total.  The first, the word as promise, means that the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection takes the place of an appearance by the resurrected Jesus.  The last, failure, holds the most important possibilities since it implies that the message given, the word of the cross, could ring hallow and hold no truth.  As many have pointed out, an empty tomb does not entail a resurrected Jesus.  Nevertheless, if this young man is taken to be an angel in the cosmology of Mark, his office is to speak the word of the cross, true or false.
            This lends sense to the terror and amazement that seize the women (16:8).  Ordinarily, angels inspire this because of their glory in an otherworldly sense.  If angels exist to mark the speaking of this word, then the wonder owes to the message.  Since they no longer solely posses the glory of heaven alone but wear the dust of the earth as the cosmology of Mark might imply, the office of angels to speak the word inspires this reaction, not their being as heavenly creatures.
            Thus, in order to get at angelic being, we must attend to the word spoken.  The word of the cross does not simply refer to a past act.  It does not solely point outside of itself to another reality, leaving an empty syllable; it does not simply refer to Jesus' death, to direct attention away from the present word to the past event.  The speaking of the word does something.  It creates terror.  And, it creates the possibility of faith.  The angel says:  “he is not here.”  This utterance points both to the absence of Jesus and the possibility of failure or of promise.
The terror the women demonstrate means more than just failure.  The second part of the young man’s announcement, “He has gone on before to Galilee” means the extension of Jesus’ promise.  This extension means that the word of the cross speaks the crucified Jesus to another.  By speaking the crucified Jesus it refers as much as it creates; it is the recollection of the past death of Jesus in light of his resurrection from the dead.  The death of Jesus marks the end of Jesus' life and his proclamation of the Reign of God.  This death could mean end or it could mean a new kind of Reign that is shaped by Jesus’ crucified body.  Hence: terror.
            All this rests, though, on the crucial point for any contemporary angelology:  why there ought to be angels at all.  Part of their employment in the obscure and intimate piety and fancy of modern folk or their reconfiguration as fields of force owes to the difficulty that modern commitments have to find a place for angels.  Since God indeed does all things, then angels seem to violate God's activity.  The more angels do, the less God does, it seems.
            In order to answer this question, we must consider why angels exist.  They seem superfluous.  The supports they received in the pre-modern cosmological imagination now have foundered.  Their being and existence owes to the speaking of the word of the cross.  If angelic being owes its existence to the office of the word of the cross, then angels, albeit in ordinary guise, mark the boundary of absence and promise whenever this word is spoken.  If the word of the cross is true then the young man has a dramatic necessity—his role matters in the warp and woof of the drama of Mark’s gospel.  A promise requires absence.  If Jesus met the women at the tomb, no promise would be possible, no breathing room for faith.  But this is not enough to establish angelic being.  If it is true that Mark’s ending is open rather than closed then something opens the future, shatters the ladder of Jacob, and presses this young man to speak angelic speech.[5]  A closed ending would entail that no further future is possible.  But something is necessary to make this word sound:  “he is not here.”  If this word is true, angelic being dwells in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, in the openness of his promise, and in the translation of this event into human speech.
            The resurrected Jesus needs to be translated into human speech on the grounds provided by Mark's gospel because of the contradictory nature of Jesus' existence.  No one witnessed the resurrection itself.  It perhaps exceeds the possibilities of this world; Jesus' resurrection is not a single, isolated miracle within the world.  In this, it is difficult to translate into ordinary human communication.  Because of the eschatological nature of this resurrection, it is no wonder that seers and prophets use apocalyptic language to describe it.  Their bizarre images and scenes attempt to communicate the ineffable they have witnessed.  But this means that the resurrected Jesus is a cipher not a word.  Without the angelic speech, "he is not here," the ending of Mark would be closed.  Perception of the glory of God unveiled is not immediately given except in a contrary way.  The being of the young man, of angels, belongs to the contradictory glory of the word of the cross, of God's glory in the crucified Jesus.
            The women at the tomb understood what the young man said.  And they are terrified because rather than disaster this crucified Jesus is free.  This understanding is made possible by the translation of angelic speech into human speech.  As the condition for the possibility of the word of the cross, angels are those creatures that speak the glory of the resurrection in ordinary ways.
            All this means that if Jesus’ resurrection is true, that if the word of the cross is true, then the union of heaven and earth has begun, God is now “loose,” and its freedom now is given in a single word. Angelic being is here the possibility of human speaking.  It may be that the Spirit, as the very breath of God, is the possibility of God’s speaking the divine Word.  But since the word of the cross is both a human and divine word, it requires a creaturely possibility antecedent to its translation into human speaking.  This addresses the worry that angelic being usurps the community of divinity and humanity in Jesus or the Spirit.  No competition exists between angels and the Triune God since angels are the purely creaturely possibility of human beings speaking the word of the cross.
Thus, angels are the creaturely possibility of human beings speaking the word of the cross.  None of the fragments of an angelology presented here have addressed the nature of angelic individuality, their agency, or their fall.   These traditional topics would find new place in the angelology that attention to Mark brings.  Attending to their freedom, their individuality, or their action would emerge out of reflecting on them as speakers of the word of the cross.
            Modern theologians have many just suspicions about angels.  They belong to an outmoded cosmos, to a discredited metaphysic.  Angels may tempt human beings to worship them.  Beings that flit willy-nilly represent a surd in the natural ordering of the cosmos.  A theology that concerns the word of the cross additionally carries suspicion that angels all-too-much belong to the glory of God and therefore distract from the specific glory of God hidden under the opposite.  But the cross does not oppose glory.  Rather it conceals it, hides glory in the lowly, in its proper form in Christ.  We need not abandon Jacob's ladder, just find it elsewhere.  Heaven does not exist as the final sphere encompassing the world.  Rather, it hides and appears among the lowly and emerges in unexpected ways in the word of the cross.  Angels, as beings of this crucified glory, engender and tend the possibility that humans might speak this word.

In memory of Donald H. Juel (1942-2003)

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg reassigns angelic activity to the forces that bind the cosmos.  See Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey Bromilly (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), vol. 2, 102-109.  Three other important angelologies that seek the rationale for angels in the message of the gospel or the drama of salvation may be considered:  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromilly (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960) III/3, 369-530; Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), vol. 3, 465-504; Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), vol 2., 112-132.  Readers of these theologians will the many ways the present essay diverges from these powerful thinkers.

[2] See, among others, Donald H. Juel, The Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 33-44.

[3] Theologians often have expressed worries about a naïve or spatial relationship between heaven and earth, particularly when considering Jesus’ ascension to heaven or the implied translation of his body to the Eucharistic altar.  See, for instance, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 75. a. 1.  On the support of Copernicus by Lutherans and the theological commitments that arose from their Eucharistic doctrine, see Charlotte Methuen, Kepler’s Tübingen:  Stimulus to a Theological Mathematics (Brookfiled: Ashgate, 1998), 1-60.

[4] Andreas Lindemann, “Die Osterbotschaft des Markus.  Zur Theologischen Interpretation von Mark 16.1-8,” New Testament Studies 26 (1980) 298-317.  The other gospels, which present appearances of Jesus, are themselves careful or cautious of appearances and visions.

[5] Donald Juel argued the difference between an open and closed ending in The Master of Surprise, 107-122.


  1. You're putting a lot of weight on the identification of the neaniskos at the empty tomb with angels in the totality of Mark's narrative. Given this weight, can you spin out the relationship between the angel/neaniskos at the tomb with the young man/neaniskos who flees naked from the arrest in the garden in Mark 14:51-2? Same guy/order of being or something different--and how do we know?

  2. Thank you for your comment! The connection you draw would be interesting to develop. A point of clarification, which you stress: I do make an easy identification of the youth with an angel, but only to draw out what angelic being or the angelic function might be when taken from Mark and not other textual loci. I know that some lines of interpretation make a lot out of the connection to get someone in Mk to "get Jesus right." Your question would then further draw out my line of reasoning to claim that the young man who deserted naked in Mk 14 is now clothed in angelic being (here meaning that he is able to announce the resurrected Jesus). This may not work.