MARANATHA! COME, LORD JESUS! This briefest of prayers is a fitting summary of the dominant tone of the Advent season that begins with today's liturgy. It is also one of the most venerable in that it was already in use before any of the New Testament was written. St. Paul cites it at the end of his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians (v. 22). The fact that it is preserved in Aramaic, Jesus' own language and that of his first disciples, attests to its antiquity.
The NT ends with this same prayer, rendered in Greek, which had become a kind of watchword used by believers who eagerly awaited the final advent of their risen Savior. The Apocalypse puts on the lips of the Lord, in answer to the ardent desire of his Church to be with him again in person, a promise that has ever since stirred the hope and fanned the desire of the faithful: Indeed, I am coming quickly (Apocalypse 21: 20). The Church answers: Come, Lord Jesus! In the Didache, the earliest text witnessing to the celebration of the Eucharist, it appears again, closely associating the second coming of Jesus in glory with the memorial of his death and resurrection as represented in the Lord's Supper. Closely related to this attitude of expectant desire for the presence of the glorified Savior is St. Paul's reminder in his Epistle to the Philippians (4: 4) that the Lord is near!
Advent is the time of preparation and purification for the birth of the Savior in the flesh and so it has been established in these four weeks prior to the Nativity of Jesus. At the same time, mindful of his present glorified state and of his promise to come in glory to judge all the liturgy treats of two other comings: in the present in the form of the graces of the spirit that unite us ever more closely to him, and his definitive return when he will take to himself those who, having remained faithful through trials, belong wholly to him.
As time went on, the desire for Jesus' presence was kept alive by the repeated persecutions to which the Church was subject. The felt need for special divine help remained strong so long as the Church went unrecognized by the Roman powers. Not long after Constantine in 313 A.D. gave respectability to Christianity in the eyes of the populace at large, the edge of desire became less keen; many in the Church began to adapt all too comfortably to society. It was not long after these developments that a liturgical period preparing for the coming of the Lord appeared in Spain and Gaul. Remaining traces of this celebration indicate that took the form of a three week preparation for the feast of the Epiphany.
By the fifth century there was a further evolution that had a profound influence on the whole of the liturgical cycle. November 11th, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, opened a season of preparation for the birth of Christ that lasted, like Lent to which it was assimilated, seven weeks. In fact, in the Ambrosian liturgy of Milan this Lent of St. Martin continues to be observed today. In Rome there were several stages in the creation of the present practice of a four week Advent. At the time of St. Leo the Great there was no such season at all, as we see from the absence of any homilies for this purpose in his large collection of sermons for the Liturgical Year. In the sixth century a six week arrangement was in vogue until the time of Gregory the Great. He is the one who established the present four week season, probably under the influence of the liturgy of the Church at Capua.
All these efforts to devise a special season in which attention would be focused on the coming of Christ in the flesh and especially at the end of time indicate the concern of many churchmen to keep alive the desire for the presence of the Lord himself, so essential for fidelity to the Gospel. The fact that Advent was the season that opened the liturgical year gave prominence to the movement of time and of the need to be ready to greet the Lord when he comes in definitive judgment at the end of all time. The focus of Advent in the early period was centered on the second coming of Christ, though its position prior to the nativity assured that it would also be a time of readiness for welcoming him as the Church commemorated his birth in the flesh. Readiness meant a conversion of the heart and so this season had a special penitential flavor at first. Gradually this aspect of Advent was replaced with the emphasis on desire for the final fulfilment of Christ's work and for his grace that would purify hearts, enabling his faithful to receive him and be received by him at his appearance. It is this emphasis on desire for the Savior's coming in the flesh and at the end of time that is still today the dominant tone of this season's liturgy.
By the time the Cistercians came along, Advent had been a major season of the liturgical year for some centuries. The early abbots of our Order had deep insights into the theology and spirituality of these weeks in which attention was given to the mysteries associated with the birth and manifestations of the Savior. Thomas Merton, who read the Cistercian Fathers assiduously, commented on this feature of their teachings.
The Cistercian Fathers of the 12th century reveal themselves most fully to us when they are contemplating the mercy of God in the mystery of the Incarnation. It is in the sermons for Advent, Christmas, the Epiphany, the Purification, the Circumcision that we are able to find at the same time the great themes common to St. Bernard and his chief disciples, and the particular traits which characterize the individual teaching of each writer (The Christmas Sermons of Blessed Guerric, 1).
The first point that St. Bernard makes as he begins the first of his Advent Sermons is the need for us to learn to be detached from the satisfactions of this life. How quickly such gratifications fade away; they pass out of existence in the very using and yet we not only seek them out we grasp them with both hands, like a drowning man who in his panic seizes any thing within his reach, regardless of its utility, even to his detriment.
Thus perish, in this broad and spacious sea, thus the miserable perish. While they pursue what is to perish they lose what is solid, by clinging to which they could escape and save their souls. For it is not said of vain things but of the truth that You will know it and it will make you free (John 8:32) In Adventu Domini, 1.
Bernard makes an important point here, one that is concerned with the issue that is so prominent in Advent, that is desire. My longings, my desires result from my loves. And, as Augustine has long ago observed, my love is my weight, that is to say, it is the measure of my worth. If I examine carefully what I desire I shall soon know what I love. And when I know what I truly love I know pretty well who I am and where I am heading for. Advent confronts us precisely at the level of our desires. What are we seeking from life? What do we hope for in the future? To answer these questions in all truth we must examine our motivations as we go about our daily life. What in fact gives us satisfaction, and why? Let us not be too hasty in replying to such questions for the first answer we come up with may be only a part of the truth, and not necessarily the most indicative part. To discern our motivation at times we must struggle with our self-delusions, around which we have erected defenses often without realizing it. Instinctively we strive to maintain what is familiar and habitual when it provides a sense of security and satisfaction, even when, in the long term, it is not in our best interests.
St. Bernard understood that the surest means of arriving at such honesty and self-knowledge as is needed to become truly detached from this world is to cultivate a personal knowledge of the One who comes as our Savior. Truly to know him is to admire him, he goes on to add. " In the first place, therefore, do you also observe with the admiring and marveling apostle how great is the one who is entering, for he is, according to the testimony of Gabriel, the Son of the Most High, and, for that reason, himself most high with him (op. cit., 2)." Consideration of the heights from which he descends to be with us so as to seek us out who were lost leads us to appreciate his surpassing mercy.
Finally, it is through the pure and humble virgin Mary that he comes to us. We have her as our intercessor with the son to whom she gave birth. May she obtain for us the grace to share in his glory and beatitude. Thus it is by consideration of his divine nature and the circumstances of Jesus' birth that we come to long to be with him and to share his life. Desire is bred of such consideration and culminates in the love of him who so loves us as to descend into our lowly condition. Intensity of desire and depth of knowledge of God and the mysteries associated with our redemption supply the motive force requisite for demolishing our defenses against renunciation of our selfish habits and so attaining to the detachment that makes us ready to welcome the Lord when he comes to us.
In a later sermon on the same theme he states this quite explicitly. The prophetic soul desired his first coming [at his birth in the flesh] by which she knew she would be redeemed; but much more the flesh desired the later coming and her glorification. For then our desires will be fulfilled and the whole world will be full of the majesty of the Lord (Sermo 6.6 de Adventu Domini).
The Abbot of Clairvaux had a remarkably broad knowledge of human nature. He moved in high circles of government; he was familiar with the men who maintained order, fought wars and punished criminals. He had many opportunities to observe the misery caused by poverty, by immorality and social sins. When he spoke of human misery and of the plight of human being alienated from God and destined for death he spoke from experience on a vast scale as well as from the depths of his own soul. Yet Bernard always remains optimistic. The reader comes away from his works with the impression that it is more reasonable to hope in redemption than to despair of our race. To have confidence in God's mercy, he teaches and communicates, is not only desirable, it is the more reasonable course to choose. The basis for Bernard's optimism is his firm, unshakable belief that in sending His son into this world as our redeemer, the Father has revealed how immense is His love for us. In his very person Jesus is the embodiment of God's offer of forgiveness and of reconciliation. More, he is the head of the Body to which he joins us by the sacraments. We are destined to be united with him, even to be his familiar friends, as it were, to be espoused to him if we but accept him as he comes to us and trust in the love he holds out to us.
His contemplation of the Word made flesh, then, and the loving knowledge of God's mercy that flows from it, is the secret of Bernard's unfailing enthusiasm for the things of God which colors all his teaching with the warm tints of hope and confidence. This hope is the message of Advent- hope based upon the Incarnation of the Word of God who comes into this world, not for his sake but for ours. He seeks us. He knows how to find us, and but asks us to come with him when he calls us.
By taking up the practices of this season in the liturgy, in a more careful observance of silence, recollection and prayer, with a greater measure of fasting and a more careful service to our neighbors we make ourselves ready to respond to his loving invitation. Once we truly realize with whom we are dealing, who it is who comes to us and for us, surely our desire will go out to him and we shall find it easier to leave behind those attractions and satisfactions that bind us too tightly to our own small world. May our desire then be turned to the Lord and grow stronger during these coming weeks of Advent and we shall not be disappointed at the end when he comes no longer in the lowliness of his birth, but in the majesty of his glory at the right hand of the Father.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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