T HE PEOPLE WERE EXPECTANT AND WERE PONDERING IN THEIR HEARTS WHETHER JOHN MIGHT BE THE CHRIST (Luke 3: 15). Perhaps this year in the United States we can better appreciate this text that speaks of the tense alertness of a whole people as they awaited a leader and sought to determine whether this popular preacher was the right one to accept. Whereas in this time of a Presidential election we have been expecting daily only for six weeks for the right man to be determined and proclaimed to rule us for the next four years, the oppressed Jewish people were awaiting for generations the one to be sent by God for permanent deliverance. Accordingly the tension at the time of John's preaching was greater; for many it was all-absorbing.
Expectancy focuses our attention and, in proportion to our eagerness, absorbs our energy and monopolizes our thought. While such an attitude has the salutary effect of producing alertness of mind and readiness for action, yet it is not without its disadvantages and even its dangers. Some wiser heads recognize the disastrous effects, for instance, of arriving at over-hasty conclusions that soon prove to be unlivable, and which produce effects more troubling than the confusion that creates the doubt in the first place. Their warnings are ignored by the majority whose passions are in play; these men of calm judgment appear too timid, out of touch with the needs of the times. The activists have the ear of the multitude. The temptation grows in strength as time draws on to employ precipitous means to settle matters and get on with life. Violence seems justified to the more engaged and short-sighted; withdrawal and indifference is the reaction of the larger number after a short period when their hopes for a clear and prompt solution are frustrated. Others, however, are made aware that a change of attitude is called for, seeing that they live in a world whose stability and order is so fragile as to provide little long- term assurance of that tranquility essential for a prosperous and happy future.
All of these features, which we have experienced in the past weeks in this country, are referred to in the Gospel accounts of the climate in which John the Baptist carried out his ministry and which was also the setting in which Jesus preached and carried out his mission. When the Word of God came in the flesh he humbled himself, taking on the condition of man in a world that is fraught with confusion, oppression and conflict of interests, even in the best of times. In a passage that sums up the essential meaning of Jesus' mission St. Paul informs us that the Lord came "in the fullness of time":
When the fullness of time came, God sent his son, made from a woman, made under the law, so that he might purchase those who are under the law, in order that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4: 4).
The time that God considered ripe, seen from the perspective of his chosen people, was not one of freedom, prosperity and happiness. As the Gospel state the matter:
And when Jesus went out he saw a large multitude and he felt compassion for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them (Mark 6: 34).
Jesus came to serve and redeem people who were oppressed, humiliated by a military defeat and occupation, poor and so suffering from sickness, ignorance and lack of direction and purpose in life. At the same time they held out hope of deliverance and a better future that would be brought about ultimately by God acting through one he would send, a Messiah (the One Sent). He would be their anointed leader, the Christos, as he was designated by the Greek-speaking people. Obviously, God's thoughts are not our thoughts, as the prophet Isaiah had already proclaimed; what He views as the completion of a long preparation is a time of trouble, suffering and humiliation.
One of the major challenges to the generality of the chosen people at the period was the need to arrive at clarity of mind concerning the identity of the Christ. Not surprisingly, then, we find at the beginning of the Gospel people asking John the Baptist whether he is the one they are to expect; is he the Christ? During his ministry and at the very end, the last full day of his life, the same question is asked of Jesus as well. "Perhaps the leaders know that this man is truly the Christ?", said many who heard him in the temple (John 7:26). Are you the Christ?" "Are you the King of the Jews?", Pilate asked Jesus before he pronounced final judgment ( John 18: 33). The fact that this question permeates the Gospels reflects the confusion of the times and implies that the first duty incumbent upon the leaders and the people of his day was to discern whether Jesus was truly sent by God as the anointed deliverer. What we find in these same accounts is that only a small minority of the people and almost none of the leaders managed to make an adequate discernment and so they not only failed to accept God's chosen one, they put him to death. In doing so they assured their own ruin and the immense suffering that came upon their people in the ages to come.
Evidently, one of the very first obligations imposed on anyone who would truly seek God is that of recognizing his chosen redeemer, as the evangelists and St. Paul make evident in their writings. The role of discernment is fundamental in the spiritual life as the early monks saw very clearly as well. St Antony, the Father of monks, understood this point with a sharpness of insight that he confidently expressed in his teaching. He maintained that discernment is the very first and most essential of monastic virtues, and devotes his chief discourse largely to explaining its nature and function. In summing up the effect of Antony's teaching on his disciples, Athanasius, his biographer, states that "all were in admiration of the grace given to Antony by the Lord for the discerning of spirits" (The Life of Saint Antony, par.44, tr. Robert Meyer, Westminster 1950, 57; see also par.88, p. 92). Interestingly, this discernment entailed confronting the various distracting and disturbing thoughts and passions that arise so readily in the daily course of a life of prayer whether lived in community or in solitude. Antony obviously had spent a large portion of his energy in striving to understand the motions of his own heart and their source and implications, and considered such efforts at self-knowledge and purification to be essential and to represent a major part of what we call today the contemplative life.
The Christian who truly seeks God, and the monk in a particular way, has the duty of not only coming to a definite view of the Christ, and so of his life and teaching, but having formed his judgment by faith he must discern God's will day by day so as to remain at one with him until the end. This entails a right understanding of the Gospels and the teaching of the church for one thing. More challenging, it further requires that we perceive correctly the movements of the Spirit within us. Rightly to interpret our impulses and aspirations, our insights and inclinations, is essential for putting into practice the truths revealed by God to bring us to himself in a union of heart and will.
In discussing the best way to prepare during this season of Advent for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, Bl. Guerric considers that all of his monks, and himself most of all, can do no better than undertake the works of a continuing conversion from sin and attachment to this world. Nothing is more conducive to such conversion, he affirms, that fidelity to the common obligations of life in the community in which we live. This includes, to be sure, considerable self-denial and the observance of fasts and obedience.
What is it to practice justice than to do penance? than demand from our self what we owe to God and to pay back what we have stolen. This is justice that walks before God and prepares a way that is pleasing to him... O Lord, you have prepared directions for us if only we walk rightly in them You have given us a law, the way of your justifications, through him, that is, whom you made the legislator of this holy institution (De Advent Sermo V.2, and 3 PL 185: 26, 27).
Realizing how demanding and oppressive to the sensibility such a program can become after living it for an extended time, he points out the need for us to keep our mind sharply focused on the goal of our striving.
But if you complain that this way is too narrow, look to the end to which the way leads you. For if you see the end of all completion you will immediately say: "Exceedingly broad is your command (Psalm 118: 96)." ... And so always, brothers, keep in mind the end consisting of rewards and with all your powers and alacrity you will run the way of the commandments. May he lead you and bring to completion who is the way of those who run and the prize of those of arrive, Christ Jesus, to whom be honor and glory through all ages unending (op. cit., 5- PL 185: 29, 30).
Thus, already in this time of preparation we are well advised not only to deny our self and undertake to practice more attentively the various duties of our life, but to carry out our work and fulfill our obligations with a more alert attention to the person of our Lord who even now is present to us and who offers himself as our future prize. This encouragement to alertness is in keeping with the repeated admonitions our Lord made during his active ministry to his disciples concerning the need to watch and be ready. "Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation (Mt.26: 41)", he warned his apostles when in the garden of Gethsemani. But it was not only at times of crisis that he sought to inculcate this attitude of watchfulness. Earlier, in his ministry, he spoke at some length in parables and with examples from the Scriptures of the human tendency to settle down in times of prosperity and drift along, taking the course of least resistance and living a life of ease. The way to avoid this all too human propensity he concludes is for them to "Watch therefore, for you do not know in what hour your Lord will come (Mt 24: 42)." He suggests that the hour will not be a convenient one, it will strike during the night when the householder is asleep (24: 43). Watching makes one ready and prepared whenever the Lord comes: it is at midnight, when the virgins have drifted off into sleep that the bridegroom appears and enters the banquet hall (25: 6). The two basic attitudes of watchfulness and readiness are closely related in the Gospels. It is only by remaining alert, watching over our actions and thoughts that we can hope to be prepared and ready to respond at a moment's notice to the voice of the Lord when he comes, for his arrival will always be untimely when viewed from the perspective of this world with its preoccupations and claims on our attention and affections.
If our Lord insisted on this need for a constant vigilance and a sobriety of life that assured fidelity to daily duty and a readiness to leave all when the final call comes, it was because he knew the human heart. He had observed the world about him with keen interest and a native power of insight that allowed him to form a just opinion of human ways. He concluded that people find it too burdensome to remain free for God's call over any extended period. Consequently, he felt it important to give a pointed warning to the crowd earlier on in his ministry in one of his more significant parables, that the heart must be prepared so as to provide good conditions for the word to take root and flourish if much of the seed sown by God's workman is not to go to waste (Mt. 13: 3 ff). He knew and stated in a sharp admonition that people can be deaf to the saving word. "Let him who has ears listen carefully", he sternly concluded this lesson. In spite of all these efforts to form them in this spirit of alert readiness, his apostles were not prepared for the crisis that overtook them at the arrest and passion of the Lord.
The Church, beginning with the apostles, converted after the resurrection, never forgot this lesson. Quite the contrary, her most faithful and fervent preachers and teachers and the more ardent of her children, made it a prominent feature of their message. We must work at our salvation without let up, in fear and trembling looking to God's grace to assist us, St. Paul urged, for we are under assault from enemies more powerful than we are when left to our self.
For the rest, my brothers, strengthen yourselves in the Lord and with the power of his strength. Put on the armor of God so that you might be able to stand against the cunning of the devil. For our struggle is not with blood and flesh but with the rulers, with the powers, with those who hold the sway in the world of darkness of this age, with the spirits of evil in heavenly spheres (Ephesians 6: 10-12).
Not surprisingly, then, Paul also strongly advises that we "watch and be serious" (1 Thes 5: 6); we should persevere in prayer, watching in prayer with thanksgiving (Col 4:2). The early monks took these admonitions literally and sought to carry them out by their cultivation of solitude for the sake of attentiveness to God and watching over the thoughts of the heart. By their nightly vigils they strove to be ready when the Lord comes and at their synaxeis (gatherings for mass) and common meals to give expression to their gratitude in the Eucharistic sacrifice of thanksgiving. Later on the church established the Advent season as a yearly practice in order to provide for the needs of all the faithful to watch and prepare for the coming of our Redeemer. We have inherited these practices and benefit from them in a special manner at this holy season when we hear so often the words of the prophets and of the Gospel reminding us that the time is near and to prepare our hearts to receive the cleansing word that readies us to welcome the Savior at his birth. Let us make the best of these final days of preparation during the coming week, and keep in our concern and prayer not only our own needs but those of the church and indeed of the whole world, so that at Christmas the grace of the redeemer's birth might be a source of joy to all God's children in this world.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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