WE EXPECT THE BLESSED HOPE AND APPEARANCE OF THE GLORY OF THE GREAT GOD AND OUR SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST (Titus. 2: 13). Bl. Guerric refers to this text of St. Paul at the beginning of his first Sermon for Advent. He develops with the passion of an intense personal involvement the theme of expectancy as he elaborates on the hope we repose in God and his promises. Thus does the abbot of Igny, from the first line of his series of sermons to his monks at the beginning of the Church year, strike a major chord of the Advent liturgy. This season is given over prominently to our preparation for the coming of the Lord in glory at the final day to reward his faithful as well as to readiness for the birth of our Savior. He states this explicitly as a well-known characteristic of the Church's teaching: "Just as the Church in the ancient just men expected his first coming so also in the new it expects once again his second coming. As in the first she was certain of the price of redemption, so in the second she is sure of the reward to be paid (Sermo de Adventu Domini I: 2 PL 185: 12)".
Bl. Guerric, along with all the Catholic teachers, read the prophets in light of the Incarnation of the Word of God. For him it was evident that the prophet Isaiah referred to the Lord Jesus who alone is the source of our confident hope of eternal life, as we see in his comments on a verse of that prophet's text.
We acknowledge in the humility of the flesh the majesty of divinity. "Behold", they say, "we expect him, and he will save us. He is the Lord, we wait for him. We shall exult and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25: 9)."(op. cit., I: 1 PL 185: 11, 12)
This expectation of a definitive encounter with our Redeemer is a function of our desire for him to come to us in the flesh so as to bestow on us a firm basis for hope of eternal life. When the desire is pure and strong enough it raises us above this world.
And held aloft from earthly matters by this expectation of hope, she happily and ardently pants after eternal things.... blessed is the man whose hope is in the name of the Lord... although the soul is weary from the deferral of its desire, yet she is secure because of the promise. Hoping in Him alone but also hoping above hope I shall add hope (op. cit., I: 2).
Guerric's vocabulary in this sermon is reminiscent of the preaching of St Gregory the Great who repeatedly emphasizes the role of ardent desire in the spiritual life of the Christian. He carries the analysis of desires further when he associates this longing with compunction, humility and the determination to avoid sin as does the Cistercian abbot as well.
And so it happens at times that one is admitted to an unusual sweetness of interior taste, and on a sudden he is renewed in some way by an ardent inspiration of the Spirit. He aspires after it all the more in proportion as he tastes wheat he loves. Then he hungers within himself for that which he perceives he tasted inwardly to be so sweet. From love of its sweetness he comes to have a low opinion of himself, for after this experience he is able to sense what he had formerly been without it. So he attempts to cling to it, but in his weakness finds he is repelled by its strength. Then because he is unable to contemplate its cleanness, he finds it satisfying to weep, and to shed tears of weakness for himself as he fall back upon himself (Moralia XXIII. XX (PL 76: 277 B, C).
This doctrine is particularly suited to the season of Advent in that it lays bare the origins of the nostalgia for heaven that is so prominent in the liturgy of these weeks before the birth of the longed for Savior. This note of home-sickness and the longing for a return to the Father's favor is especially marked in the classic Advent hymns that have for so many centuries been sung at the divine office. The tone is established by a mood of tender melancholy that haunts the heart of those who feel they live in exile, unable to return as yet to the one place where they can find happiness and the fulfillment of their most personal aspirations. A certain experience of life over extended time is usually necessary to appreciate more fully the dimension of sadness that is an inevitable accompaniment of every person's voyage through time. Some, such as Mozart, learn this lesson when still rather young. He subtly suggests the tint of sadness, so well described by the term tristesse, that colors our passage through this world where time consumes all things. This somber mood announces itself as a companion to the joy that his music so brilliantly conveys.
If the music of Advent contains this note of a tender melancholy it derives from a consciousness of the longing for a redemption that for so many centuries had been promised and which, even today after the first coming of our Savior remains only partly fulfilled. This music is the strain of deferred hope with continues to breathe out of the depths of the heart. It is the melodious expression of one who is aware of a happier, more abundant life to which as yet access is barred. The tone of Advent then is that of a church whose vision has been graced with a divine beauty that remains elusive but continues to exercise its attraction in a world that is all too marked by the ugliness of sin and evil. The journey is long and arduous but is enlivened by the hope of arrival and of eventual fulfillment.
If Advent speaks with the accent of a certain nostalgia it nevertheless has no admixture of that sentimentality to which home-sickness all too readily succumbs in the deluded effort to recover a past that is largely imaginary. Rather, the longing for a Savior and a return to the good life of the Father's home confronts the need to overcome evil through a suffering freely accepted that accompanies all striving after virtue. For only the pure of heart, that is, those cleansed from all sin and adorned with those virtues that alone make us pleasing to God, will be admitted into the Fathers presence. The Savior whom we expect to welcome when he comes at the end of time is the crucified one whose death obtained for us the hope of eternal life that is the source of our joy. Accordingly, the other theme that figures so prominently at this season is that of penance which cleanses the soul and thus readies us to recognize and receive with willing heart and with understanding the Redeemer who comes to give himself up to sorrow and death that we might know the joy of confident hope in God's mercy.
The fruit of penance and purification is confidence which is fruit of experiencing God's grace and favor. It is imbued with the conviction that God is faithful to his promises and will fulfill them for us, personally. One of the convictions of the great monastic teacher and author, Macarius the Great is that the normal development of Christian life is a contemplative experience that we attain to a knowledge of God by experience and with full confidence.
...those who are truly children of the church of Christ reveal themselves by works of truth and of faith and by an activity of the divine Spirit who comes to rest upon the soul and covers it with his shadow. The Spirit displays in her worthy fruits of grace by power, sensation, and full confidence ( - which can also be translated "consciousness") and by the renewal and transformation of the intelligence and through the renewed and young creature according to the inner man of the heart (Pseudo- Macaire, Oeuvres Spirituelles. I Homélies propres à la collection III, Sources Chr. 275 Paris 1980, Hom. 25.6, p286).
Naturally this experience does not eliminate faith; on the contrary, it represents the actualization of faith at a more intense state so that God's presence is felt with the spiritual senses and impresses a conviction on the soul that gives unshakable confidence. This experiential approach to prayer also marks that of the early Cistercian Fathers. William of St. Thierry, for instance, in teaching novices how they are to pray, has the following advice to impart which views prayer not as petition for favors but rather as the sacrificial gift of oneself. He considers it pure when it is experienced and engages love and the affections.
The novice...should be exhorted to direct his attention with all the purity of heart which he can muster to him to m he is offering the sacrifice of his prayer, to advert to himself, the offerer, and to appreciate what he is offering and what is its quality. For to the extent that he sees or understands him to whom he is making his offering, he reaches out to him with his affections, and love itself is understanding for him. And to the extent that this love animates his affections, he realizes that his offering is worthy of God, and so all is well with him.(The Golden Epistle, XLIII. 173 Kalamazoo 1971, p. 68, 69).
Thus William too emphasizes that the experience of God leads to a consciousness of being accepted by Him and so imparts a sense of confidence that resides deeply within. The concept of confidence resulting from experience that William suggests and that Macarius repeatedly speaks of is also of the themes taken up by the Advent liturgy. It is characteristic of the prophets whose words, conceived under the influence of the Holy Spirit, are so often heard in this season. "Say to those with troubled hearts", he exclaimed, "be strong, fear not! See your God takes vengeance; he will come and repay. God himself will come and save you (35.4)." This confidence is also displayed by the apostles as we read repeatedly in the New Testament they spoke with a boldness that remains surprising considering their lack of education and their minority status. Nothing could intimidate them once they had known the power and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Such unshakable confidence witnesses to their experience of God's love and constancy. God who promised the Redeemer is faithful to his word. His fidelity calls for our trust and confidence that He will not fail us in our need. Not only is He faithful, he is merciful and good to those who place their faith and confidence in Him. By these attitudes and the decision to place our hope in Him, we surrender to Him our very self. In this way we appropriate the fruits of the salvation that the coming Redeemer and Judge has already won for us. This is the work of the heart that we are to undertake with a particular energy and attentiveness at this holy season of Advent.
In order to maintain the tension engendered by hope that stimulates us to continue to place our expectation in the One who is to come and to avoid growing lukewarm and gradually, even imperceptibly growing attached once again to the good things of this world, we are invited by the frequent references to the Savior to contemplate his person. For he is, in the words of Isaiah, "the desired of the nations" and "the most beautiful of the sons of men" as well as the "beloved Son " of the Father on whose lips words of grace are poured out (Ps. 45). Blessed Guerric instilled in his monks the fervent desire for heavenly things by calling their attention to the person of the child who is born for them.
Without any doubt, brothers, if we do not turn our faces away from consideration of the one who lies in the crib, we can be most happily fed by the very sight... Then to be sure we shall know that the most desired fullness of time in which God has sent his Son has come. Through him we are already filled with the plenitude of good things (4eme Sermon pour La Nativité, 5 Sources Chr. 166 , p 166).
Though the fullness of time has already come upon us with the birth of the Savior and his Passion, Death and Resurrection that followed at the end of his days on earth, yet we require to encounter him day by day in the course of our life in order to appropriate for our own self the new life that he has made accessible to us. True we share that life in the measure of our capacity even now for he has come to us in various ways beginning with baptism. Our measure, however, is not a static condition which is fixed and determined from birth; rather, it enlarges with desire and love. Awareness of this potential for growth led St. Bernard of Clairvaux to give attention to what he termed the middle Advent, that is to say, the oft repeated comings of our Lord to those who call upon him with faith and longing during this period between his first coming in the flesh and his final coming in glory.
Bernard's work as an author for the last eighteen years of his life were devoted to commenting and meditating on the Canticle of Canticles which he understood to be a work concerned precisely with the desire that grows out of love. As love for the Lord Jesus takes root in the soul of the believer, she relates to him as a bride who longs for the presence of her bridegroom. Her one desire is to share her life, indeed, her very self with him. Until the Savior comes in judgment at the end and while life on earth lasts for the faithful believer, this desire is subject to intensification as love grows stronger and purer. In one of his final Sermons Bernard treats of this topic at some length.
Seek his face always, he says (Ps 104.4). I consider that even when he is found the search is not ended. Not by the movements of the feet but with desires is God sought after. And to be sure the felicitous finding does not blunt holy desire but prolongs it. Does the consummation of joy mean its consumption? Rather, it is oil for its flame. That is how matter stand. Joy is fulfilled, bu desire knows no end, and by that very fact neither does the seeking (Sermo in Canticle 84.1 PL 183: 1195 A).
Bernard here, whether consciously or not, here witnesses to the truth of the observation made by St. Gregory the Great many centuries before him. Gregory pointed our that whereas the craving of the senses for material and physical satisfaction increases in the absence of their objects and is extinguished when those objects are attained, the longings after spiritual realities diminishes in their absence and are increased in their presence. Thus the importance of renewing every day the search for God, walking in His presence and preparing our self to receive the Lord Jesus in his daily comings to us in this period of the middle Advent. As Bernard states it, the perfection of our longing consists in its consummation, not in its extinction. And the one consummation that can satisfy the full measure of our human capacity for joy and life is the final encounter with the risen and glorified Savior who being rich became poor for our sake and being born in the flesh, died that we might be reconciled to the Father and share in his life with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, for ages unending.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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