Withered Leaves: the First Sunday of Advent 2014

There is something melancholy about Isaiah’s description of the people of Israel as ‘withered leaves, blown away by our sins, as by the wind’ (cf. today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 63.16–17, 64.1, 3–8 ). It conjures up a vision of dryness, deadness, being scattered to the four winds in a cold and dusty Gobi of the soul. Yet this is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, the first day of her Year of Consecrated Life! The irony is almost too much. Many a parish congregation, many a religious community, may secretly be feeling a lack of energy and enthusiasm. The last thing we need is to be reminded of our failure, isn’t it?

That is true if we believe in D.I.Y. redemption, but the fact is that we cannot save ourselves, nor can we be saved in spite of ourselves. At some point or other we have to face who and what we are and allow grace to work its miracle. We begin by acknowledging the fact of sin in our lives — not wallowing in it, just admitting it. This frees us from all the false selves and idols we have created and worshiped instead of God. Only then can the Lord Jesus Christ step in, as it were, as Saviour and Redeemer (cf. the second Mass reading, 1 Corinthians 1.3–9). But once he has stepped in, what then? Then we wait, as the gospel says, (cf. Mark 13.33–37).

The meaning of this waiting is admirably expressed in the first Preface of Advent. The English version we use now reads

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,
that, when he comes again in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
as we sing the hymn of your glory
without end we acclaim. . . .

But let’s spend a moment or two on the Latin and see if we can tease out a little more depth of meaning than the English translation suggests at first sight.

Vere dignum et iustum est, æquum et salutare,
nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere:
Domine, sancte Pater, omnipotens æterne Deus:
per Christum Dominum nostrum.

Qui, primo adventu
in humilitate carnis assumptæ,
dispositionis antiquæ munus implevit,
nobisque salutis perpetuae tramitem reseravit:
ut, cum secundo venerit in suæ gloria maiestatis,
manifesto demum munere capiamus,
quod vigilantes nunc audemus exspectare promissum.

Et ideo cum Angelis et Archangelis,
cum Thronis et Dominationibus,
cumque omni militia cælestis exercitus,
hymnum gloriæ tuæ canimus,
sine fine dicentes. . . .

To me, the English text doesn’t really convey the interplay between the First and Second Comings of the Lord contained in the Latin (the latter is never mentioned as such in the translation, though it is plainly there in the original: primo adventu . . . cum secundo venerit), and it misses the force of the relative qui linking the introduction with the wonderful proclamation that follows (‘through Christ our Lord Who . . .’). These are small points, perhaps, but in such a pithy text, they are worth remarking. I’m not entirely sure that the translation doesn’t do violence to the original by suggesting that Christ opened the way to salvation, rather than the way of salvation itself. Again there is a difference which is breath-taking when one thinks about it. The Latin text states these things in a beautifully concise, declarative style: three short sentences announcing some of the greatest truths ever enunciated. But what really bothers me is the way in which munus has been translated. I have always taken this to mean the great work of salvation being made manifest, not just a vague ‘all’ or ‘all things’, for it is surely salvation that is our great hope, the promise to which we look forward. In Latin, that promise is the culmination of the Preface text, rather than, as in English, ‘in which now we dare to hope’ (nunc audemus expectare promissum . . .  ‘what we now dare to hope for, your promise’).

Am I just being pedantic or obscure? I hope not, because the Preface contains the theology of Advent in a little and I think it is worth trying to see exactly what that is and how the Church understands it. The interplay between First and Second Comings, the Day of the Lord which we await, the Salvation for which we watch, the Promise for which we dare to hope — these are the great themes we shall be exploring during the first part of Advent. They are what make us shake off our sloth or indifference and fill us with fresh energy and enthusiasm. They mark the springtime of our liturgical year and remind us that the withered leaves of sin and failure can become a rich humus from which new life will grow.

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10 thoughts on “Withered Leaves: the First Sunday of Advent 2014”

  1. Thank you, I was fascinated how the JB altered the Greek of the Corinthians – speaking of ‘teachers and preachers’, thus focussing on us whilst the Gk has ”speech and knowledge’ i.e. from God.

  2. I just finished reading this and then moved onto yours. I hope this fits in with your ideas.

    Pierre de Blois (c.1130-1211), Archdeacon in England
    Sermon 3 for Advent

    The three advents of Christ

    There are three advents of the Lord: the first in the flesh, the second in the soul, the third at the judgement. The first took place at midnight according to these words of the Gospel: “At midnight a cry was heard: The Bridegroom is here!” (Mt 25,6). This first advent has already happened since Christ has been seen on earth and has spoken with men (Bar 3,38).

    Now we are in the second advent, provided we are such that he can thus come to us, since he said that, if we love him, he will come to us and make his home in us (Jn 14,23). This second advent is therefore something mingled with uncertainty, since who other but the Holy Spirit knows who is God’s? (1Cor 2,11). Those whose longing for heavenly things transports them out of themselves know well when he comes; however, they “do not know where he comes from or where he is going” (Jn 3,8).

    As for the third advent: it is most certain that it will happen, most uncertain when it will happen. For there is nothing more certain than death, nothing less certain than the day of our death. “It is when people are saying: ‘peace and security’ that death comes upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and none will be able to escape it” (cf. 1Thes 5,3). Thus the first advent was lowly and hidden; the second is mysterious and full of love; the third will be dazzling and terrible. In his first advent Christ was judged unjustly by men; in the second, he grants us justice by his grace; in the last, he will judge all things with equity: Lamb in the first advent; Lion in the last; our most gentle Friend in the second.

  3. Don’t think you are being pedantic at all. To me the difference in those two small prepositions is almost like the difference between walking along a road and persevering in a long and difficult pilgrimage. The way of salvation is not a simple stroll up to the pearly gates, it is a life-long commitment to struggling with our demons and weaknesses aided by faith in God’s ultimate love for us.

    My prayers are often with you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your scholarship. I see many internet searches coming on as I am inspired to look at the translations of the text of the Mass.

  5. Nothing pedantic about your exegesis at all. Or maybe I am a pedant as well.:)
    A very very welcome contribution to Advent. Having spent most of my adult life teasing out the meaning of scriptural texts I deeply appreciate your application of the same to the Latin text.

  6. Looking at different versions, especially looking at the original text, and understanding the context of the times and places where it was originally written can help enormously. In our parish lectio divina group I tried to ensure that we used several different bibles as well as a bible commentary when we were trying to tease out the meaning behind some of the passages.

  7. PS
    Yes, how interesting the semantics of munus are. Its pagan sense involves the visible fulfilment (as you say yourself, ‘being made manifest’) of a ‘moral’, as opposed to a legal, obligation incurred by being the kind of public figure that one is. The implications of this are indeed theologically rich. ‘Designs’ sound rather ominous in modern English, and the trouble with ‘promises’ these days is that they tend to belong to the private, individual, sphere –from politicians, they connote wishful thinking at best– whereas the Latin tells us that, since the fundamental engagement was visibly made by the incarnate Christ, humanity may rightly dare count on God freely to act in accord with the divine nature ; we may trust that in God’s good time all will become universally evident. (The Oxford Latin Dictionary proves once more a good resource, as does Peter Brown. Thank you — I’ve enjoyed the little journey you initiated for me with this post !)

  8. Not pedantic. I am fairly certain that most translations gain something and lose something. Every tongue has nuances and echoes that are near impossible to evoke in a translation. Every language sings its own song.
    Someone recently encouraged me to read Julian of Norwich in the original Middle English. It’s difficult, and I am very slow (very VERY slow) but it is much more textured and once I figure out the words and say them aloud, much more clear.

    I have virtually no Latin, so I appreciate this post very much. Thank you!

  9. Couldn’t agree more strongly that this isn’t pedantic at all! My Latin ended, sadly, with ‘O’ level many years ago, so the nuances around ‘mundus’ escape me – but I can quite see that we don’t have a word that expresses satisfactorily the mystery encapsulated in the ‘why’s and ‘wherefore’s of the Incarnation. I’m just re-reading NT Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ and have been forcefully reminded by it that heaven, ultimately, isn’t some other place that we will go to, but will be here made new. That fills me with Advent hope about our collective calling to participate in the ongoing work of renewal and transformation.

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