“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 46: 53-54)
Legions of Angels
Many Years ago I taught in a (more or less) Catholic high school. One day a certain student wanted to know how many soldiers were in a Roman legion. Around 6,000, I answered. “Well,” he offered, “Jesus said that if he asked, his Father would send him twelve legions of angels.” I acknowledged that he had (see Matthew, 26:53). The student’s face then broke into a huge grin as he blurted out, “That’s a whole lot of angels!”
I wasn’t sure at the time, and I’m unsure still more than two decades later, what my student was getting at. Was he making a joke of some sort? Did he really admire Christ’s power to command the hosts of Heaven? I do know that Jesus was serious. His point wasn’t the exact number of angels he could summon. Now, I’m sure that the number twelve is meant to correspond to the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, etc., but that’s secondary. Christ’s immediate point was that he had all the power he could want. He had the power to save Himself . . . if he chose.
How Then Should The Scriptures Be Fulfilled ?
It will be helpful to look at the context for the comment about legions of angels. Jesus’ affirmation of his authority over angelic armies comes during Matthew’s Passion Narrative. He is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his Apostles. At that moment Judas arrives, “and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 26:47). Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss,
Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 46: 50-54)
Jesus surrenders willingly to the violent mob, not because he can’t free himself, but because he chooses to surrender. He allows the crowd to take him, knowing that it means an agonizing death by crucifixion.
This is a good time to talk about the Passion of Jesus, by the way, because we are now in that part of the Liturgical Year that we call the Passiontide. This is the last two weeks of Lent, when we focus our Lenten observance more explicitly on the suffering and death of Jesus. The transition to Passiontide, unfortunately, is no longer as obvious as it was when we called the Fifth Sunday Passion Sunday. The TLM still follows the the traditional practice; in the ordinary form, however, Passion Sunday has now moved one week later to combine with Palm Sunday.
While it may not be as obvious as in the traditional arrangement, the liturgy is still pointing us more directly in the direction of events of the Triduum. Consider the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, the Woman Caught in Adultery from John’s Gospel (John 8:1-11). As in the Passion narrative we have a violent mob, eager for blood. The difference is, here Jesus does frustrate the crowd’s murderous designs, and he does it without so much as a single cohort of angels.
The Guilty And The Innocent
That’s not the only difference between the two passages. Isn’t it interesting that the woman Jesus saves really is guilty: she was caught in the act. Jesus himself, on the other hand, is totally without sin, and yet he allows himself to be taken. In fact, it is because of her sin (and mine, and yours) that Jesus surrenders his own life.
That doesn’t make sense, without the eyes of faith. But of course, “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). And in fact, that surrender of his own innocent life is an act of power greater than anything the “wisdom” of this world can imagine. All the legions of angels together can’t match its power. For the sake of sinners such as the adulteress (and me, and you), Jesus Christ conquered Death.
Yes, Christ has freed us from death. The freedom he purchased for us by his own free choice, however, has a purpose. After he tells the woman, “Nor do I condemn you” Jesus adds, “Go and sin no more.” Our liberty in Christ isn’t license. He didn’t suffer and die on the cross in order to enable us to continue our lives of sin. He gave us freedom so that we, too, might freely choose the good. It’s an awesome gift, and an awesome responsibility.
This coming Sunday we will celebrate Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. Over the week that follows we will relive the events of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Let’s remember that, if he chooses, Jesus can ask his Father for twelve legions of angels. Instead, Jesus chooses to suffer and die: not because he’s guilty, but because we are.