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.