Advent, the season which begins each Sunday following the Feast of Christ, King of the Universe and the shortest of our liturgical seasons, is jam-packed with opportunites. Specifically a coming of the Lord not talked about. One that is personal and must be sought.
Although I’ve read St. Bernard’s sermon countless times in the Divine Liturgy, until now, his words did not penetrate. But this week, this excerpt from one of the saint’s sermons called The Word of the Lord will come to us, phrases like “middle coming in spirit,” the “hidden coming” and ” literally sang in my heart.
Perhaps because of the emphasis on eschatology or the impending end times by so many Catholic and Christian bloggers, these several-century-old words of wisdom from St. Bernard feel critically necessary.
We know that the coming of the Lord is threefold: the third coming is between the other two and it is not visible in the way they are. At his first coming the Lord was seen on earth and lived among men, who saw him and hated him. At his last coming All flesh shall see the salvation of our God, and They shall look on him whom they have pierced. In the middle, the hidden coming, only the chosen see him, and they see him within themselves; and so their souls are saved. The first coming was in flesh and weakness, the middle coming is in spirit and power, and the final coming will be in glory and majesty.
This middle coming is like a road that leads from the first coming to the last. At the first, Christ was our redemption; at the last, he will become manifest as our life; but in this middle way he is our rest and our consolation. If you think that I am inventing what I am saying about the middle coming, listen to the Lord himself: If anyone loves me, he will keep my words, and the Father will love him, and we shall come to him.…St. Bernard of Clairvaux
But it cannot be heard outside in the streets or while listening to CNN. Instead we must silent all the shouts of the marketplace to listen to another voice…more like a whisper.
This is a different kind of celebration –quieter, more intimate…a refuge. Lighting our Advent candles in hope, not naive optimism but the Hope that derives from faith. Only hope permits our escaping the ‘four walls and prison windows of gray days’. Instead, the shaking reality of advent inspires fear and trembling-even awe- if we but pause, close our eyes and let the Truth pierce through the myriad distractions, lies and evil which surround us. These words aren’t mine, but Fr. Alfred Delp’s writing from Tegel prison during WWll:
Oh, if people know nothing about the message and the promises anymore, if they only experience the four walls and the prison windows of their gray days, and no longer perceive the quiet footsteps of the announcing angels, if the angels’ murmured word does not simultaneously shake us to the depths and lift up our souls—then it is over for us
Advent of the Heart Alfred Delp
Not the busy, busy cycle of activity so characteristic of this season but the silent, still kind of work. The stillness and silence are vital to ripping away our defenses and revealing dangerous habits that keep us anxious. Or that fill our overactive imaginations with material which leads us far away from Peace. Finally recognizing the habits we need us to change, perhaps drop altogether.
Like our cultural addictions to news, gossip, food, alcohol, the thoughtless and blasphemous use of His name in conversation or acronym, and the rest of that very long list we all know well. Perhaps knowing them so well that they’ve become treasured friends.
In my case, it’s been an addiction to thriller televsion shows, movies, and novels. The stories that take my imagination to exciting, adventuous but dark places along with the protagonists, and then delighting in the deaths of the “evil” enemies.
What’s strange is that ever since I read about St Ignatius’ conversion-he was another lover of thrillers-, I’ve known that I need to stop. Unlike him, I kept ignoring what I knew. Astounding how long I continued reading and watching that which incited nightmares, knowledge of horrific cruelties but to me, exciting, tales.
Until a week or so ago, when the “nudge” I’d been receiving strengthened. And transformed to an audible, “You need to stop this.” It was a voice I credit to one of my friends, St. Teresa of Avila.
I put aside a novel I’d just started to read, written by a very good writer knowing that I would no longer read his, or other books like his.
Making the sacrifice of (gasp!) I’ll never know how it ends!
Elsewhere I have read: Whoever fears the Lord does good things – but I think that what was said about whoever loves him was more important: that whoever loves him will keep his words. Where are these words to be kept? In the heart certainly, as the Prophet says I have hidden your sayings in my heart so that I do not sin against you. Keep the word of God in that way: Blessed are those who keep it. Let it penetrate deep into the core of your soul and then flow out again in your feelings and the way you behave; because if you feed your soul well it will grow and rejoice. Do not forget to eat your bread, or your heart will dry up. Remember, and your soul will grow fat and sleek.
If you keep God’s word like this, there is no doubt that it will keep you, for the Son will come to you with the Father: the great Prophet will come, who will renew Jerusalem, and he is the one who makes all things new. For this is what this coming will do: just as we have been shaped in the earthly image, so will we be shaped in the heavenly image. Just as the old Adam was poured into the whole man and took possession of him, so in turn will our whole humanity be taken over by Christ, who created all things, has redeemed all things, and will glorify all things.St Bernard of Clairvaux
These Advent days before the birth of Christ are, of course, counter-cultural. Our altars are stripped of flowers and the colors a penitential Lenten purple. On November 15, our Byzantine brothers and sisters began their Monday, Wednesday and Friday, forty-day Phillips fast to augment the sacrificial nature of these days. And are encouraged to increase our spiritual and corporal acts of mercy toward our neighbors. All this to immerse our will, intellect and memory so that we can perceive the “angels’ murmured word… simultaneously shake us to the depths and lift up our souls.”
Theotokos, the mother of God speaks just 172 words in the entire New Testament. They appear only in the Gospels of Luke and John. We can write billions of words about this woman without coming close. Perhaps this poem I wrote shortly after my conversion may provide a glimpse.
Do you wonder why these beliefs have taken root in your
Roots which deepen, burrow into the secret places of mind and
Year after year, prayer by prayer, tear by tear, doubt by doubt until
Do you wonder why you believe the impossible-god as infant born of a
Do you wonder at this girl child, at her trust in the incomprehensible
How can this be, she asked, how can this be, we ask? Why such
For faded facsimiles of divinity, stumbling blindly toward light and
The Holy Spirit will overshadow you, Gabriel answered… is that an
Enveloped by wisdom, she carried eternity in her womb,
A child emptied of ego, of self, of sin, full, instead, of grace.
She who was filled with the hope of Adam, she who came
To dry the tears of Eve through her incomparable sorrows.
Do you wonder if there is a price for these gifts we have been freely
Must we not somehow offer back to Him some tiny
Struggle and sacrifice, penance and passion, some small
Finally we hear, we see and understand from her silence, her
Too immense for words, cannot be contained by the sea or the
We are to proclaim, to put in our hands and our hearts, to be