The Advent Message

Romanesque Angle in Priestly Vestments
Romanesque Angel in Priestly Vestments

We are very close to mid-Advent. Tomorrow, Gaudete Sunday, the church will be a riot of rose vestments, music and incense. For some, it will be an anticipation of Christmas, for others, a mildly bewildering interruption of the “normal” sequence of events.

Advent is a mystery, rightly so since it is a preparation for the most wonderful event in human history, the birth of Christ. Mystery can only ever be hinted at, never fully explained or articulated because human language cannot express all the levels of meaning inherent in it. This beautiful romanesque sculpture from Hungary, however, seems to me to convey much of what Advent is about.

The Christmas story begins with an angel and a young Jewish girl’s acceptance of her vocation to be the Mother of God. It ends, if it can be said to end at all, with Christ the Eternal High Priest interceding for us before the Throne of Grace. In between these two we have, here and now, the sacrifice of the Mass which we pray “your angel  (i.e. Christ) may take to your altar in heaven.”

An angel wearing priestly garments and holding in his hand the sign of Christ’s triumphant death: here, surely, is the message of Advent. We are preparing for something, or rather someone, that goes far beyond our human imagining, that unites heaven and earth and gives us, even now, an eternal hope.

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Tota pulchra es, Maria

Murillo: The Immaculate Conception
Murillo: The Immaculate Conception

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood. What the Church teaches is that Mary was “preserved exempt from all stain of original sin by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.” That means that Mary’s sinlessness is a direct consequence of the redeeming work of her Son. Put another way, Mary was as much in need of a Redeemer as any of us, although she was without sin.

So many people think they have somehow to earn God’s favour and are cast into gloom every time they sin. Perhaps today’s feast can therefore be offered as an encouragement. Sinlessness does not equal redemption. We are redeemed by grace; and God’s grace is wide enough and deep enough to embrace us all, no matter how badly or often we sin. That doesn’t mean we should sin with impunity, so to say, but it does remind us to drop, once and for all, any of our lingering  ideas of D.I.Y. salvation.

It is a pity that Mary has inspired so much bad art and, dare I say it, lazy theology. Once we have grasped that everything the Church believes and teaches about Mary is meant to help us focus on her Son, all makes sense. The Syrian Fathers, in particular, are lyrical in her praise, but they, too, want us to look beyond her to God himself when they call her “all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate”. To him be all glory and praise for ever. Amen.

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Humility and Assurance

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist

On the Second Sunday of Advent our eyes are on John the Baptist. What a strange mixture of humility and assurance he is. Or rather, how his humility confounds our ideas about both.

It was precisely because John was so humble that he could be so assured. Like Moses in the Old Testament, he was “the humblest man on earth”; and his humility and assurance came, like Moses’, from his sense of the nearness of his God.

One who is close to God tends to see as God sees, and that perspective is utterly transforming. John looked at the world, saw the beauty and holiness of its Creator and wanted everyone and everything to share that transforming vision. Hence his passion and his joy, his severity and tenderness. He could not contain himself, so near was our salvation. If he were silent, the very stones would speak. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This Advent the grace of sharing that transforming vision, of repenting, of turning again to God, is offered to each of us, if we will but accept it. Only the molehills of pride and self-sufficiency stand in the way, but we know how easily we stumble over them. Let’s ask St John the Baptist, with his humility and assurance, to show us the right path. For, as he himself would say, there is no other Way but One, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Waiting in Hope

There is a sentence in the first preface of Advent that never fails to make me shiver. In our current translation it reads:

Now we watch for the day,
hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ the Lord will come again in his glory.

Surrounded by the commercialism of the “Winterval” being celebrated in our shopping malls or the flurry of Nativity plays and special Services that already dominate our church noticeboards, it is only too easy to forget. We are not awaiting the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas, as though it were something that has not yet happened (although we shall recall that event through our liturgical remembrance of it); we are awaiting those two comings of Christ of which St Bernard wrote: his coming now to our souls by grace and his coming in glory at the end of time.

Christ coming now to our souls by grace is all right, rather nice in fact; but that bit about coming again in his glory is more problematic. We are jerked into an awareness of the danger of presumption. As the preface says, we are “hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours”. We cannot take it for granted, yet in practice most of us do.

How many of us are thinking about the final coming of Christ this Advent? If we do think about it, how many of us are eagerly awaiting it? I suspect that many of us think of the Final Coming as an event far distant in the future, which might not even happen. Perhaps it would be worth thinking about what we really mean when we pray the preface at Mass. It might possibly transform our Advent.

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