|Detail from Fra Bartolomeo's |
Vision of St. Bernard
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t feel strongly about the Gregorian calendar as most of America uses it. January to December, twelve evenly spaced months, with a handful of holidays, each proceeded by shopping seasons and themed napkins, and accompanied by maybe one Monday off of work. It’s just one straight line, front to back, left to right, over and over again. Pretty boring stuff.
So I never would’ve guessed that when I became Anglican, one of the things I’d fall in love with would be our Church calendar! It’s a wonderful thing. I was taught that it isn’t a line, but a circle, reminding us that God is both beginning and end, recalling God’s eternity. And the Church’s calendar isn’t an even grid, but is a cycle of changing seasons, running close to the seasons of the natural world.
These seasons are anchored in the stories of our tradition, and especially in the life of Christ as we know it in the Gospels. The movement of the seasons is the movement of stories, as a collection of narratives draws us along. And in each season, in each different color and pitch, we’re invited to hear echoes of our own lives. Each season is capacious and complex enough to speak to us no matter where or how we find ourselves that year.
To refresh your memory: Today is the first day of the church year, the first Sunday in Advent, as we prepare the mystery of the Incarnation; then comes Epiphany and the brightness of how God is revealed to us; and Lent, the solemn penitential season, dark and full of God’s mercy; and Easter, that bright white season of alleluias and the Resurrection; then Ascension Day, as Christ leaves his disciples, and the fiery red day of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, and the long green growing season of Pentecost. This ends—last week!—with the feast of Christ the King, a reminder of Christ’s kingdom as it is coming into being and as it will be.
And then, back to Advent again. The word “Advent” is from a Latin word that means “to come.” In Advent, we slow down from the rush of summer, and quiet our minds, and try to pay attention as we wait.
But what are we waiting for?
Since we’re in church, the answer to that question is, naturally, “Jesus Christ.” We are quieting down, opening our eyes, and waiting for Jesus.
But the trick in Advent is that we’re waiting for him twice. Most obviously, as we live in the narrative of the prophets and the Gospels, we await his birth, this long-awaited “righteous Branch” which will “execute justice and righteousness,” as Jeremiah says. The Nativity is the strange and humble way in which this righteous branch springs up, a vulnerable beginning to the security and safety promised in Jeremiah.
But as you probably noticed in our reading from Luke today, Advent also begins with a different coming of Christ—the second coming, “that last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead,” as the Collect says. This part of the story is as of yet unwritten, except for in broad bright symbolic visions. The signs mentioned in Luke, we have seen them already—we see distress among nations; we hear the roaring of the sea, we feel the fear and foreboding in the world. The folks who wrote the Gospels had first-hand experience with such things, and they wanted to remind each other that the kingdom of God, with its new green leaves, is near. So in this second coming we await a Christ who will bring to its fullest blossom and fruition the kingdom which is already alive and growing on earth.
The season of Advent is a strange layering of a beloved past—a fulfilled promise—and an unknown but promised future. Christ is coming.
And! if that’s not enough narrative and movement for you, just wait, there’s more! Because St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an eleventh century monk, in his sermon on Advent says that there are in fact “three comings of the Lord.” Bernard says, “In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.” This middle advent is “a sort of road by which we travel from the first to the last.” Unlike the other two, it is invisible, and hidden “within our own selves.” Christ is coming to us—now.
What does it look like to wait for this invisible advent of Christ’s spirit and power? What should we do to be ready for it? And what does it look like when it happens?
St. Bernard reminds us of John 14:23 : “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him.” He then asks, “Where is God’s word to be kept? Obviously in the heart, as the prophet says: I have hidden your words in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. If you keep the word of God in this way, it will also keep you.”
That’s how we wait for the middle advent—by keeping God’s word in our hearts. Today in our Gospel we were warned against letting our hearts be weighed down with dissipation—be spread thin, lost, spent wastefully. Instead, like St. Paul, we should ask that the Lord will strengthen our hearts in holiness. We can say with the Psalmist, “Show me your ways, O Lord, / and teach me your paths.”
Now, as to what this middle advent looks and feels like, Bernard has his own story to tell. He says, “I admit that the Word [Jesus Christ] has also come to me—and I speak foolishly—has come often. As often as he has come to me, I have not perceived the different times of his coming . . . I perceived that he has been present, I remembered that he had been there. Sometimes I was able to anticipate his coming, but I never felt it, nor its departing either. Even now, I don’t know whence he came into my soul and where he went . . . and by what way he entered and left . . .”
This invisible advent of Christ in spirit and power is not easy to pin down. When I first read this, I thought, Oh man, I definitely know the feeling of having just missed the point! But I think St. Bernard is simply explaining here what it’s like for us—finite humans, moving along in time and space—to encounter God.
Sometimes Christ comes to us in an interaction with another person, a friend or a stranger. Sometimes Christ comes in the words of the Bible, as we read it alone or hear it in church, or suddenly remember a verse in the middle of the day. Christ comes to us as we sing together, Christ comes as we take Communion, Christ comes when we share meals.
And sometimes, Christ comes to us in complete silence, with a slow or sudden but certain sense of his immediate, immanent presence to us.
All of these, are a kind of middle advent, and these are the advent which we live day after day and year after circling year. Christ has come.
Now, the season of Advent has neither the unrelenting joy of Easter nor the unbroken solemnity of Lent. Advent is called “mildly penitential.” (Which, for the record, always sounds to me like “partly cloudy” or “fold in gently”.)
But this isn’t a wish-washy thing—it’s mildly penitential because our attention is caught in tension between a serious penitence and a sense of joyful hope as we wait to see what God will do. Yes, we admit that our hearts are often weighed down with dissipation, drunk on the unnecessary excess of life, and tangled in worry over things that don’t actually matter. Yes. We know this is wrong, and we ask for God’s mercy and grace as we work to right ourselves and our world.
But we also know—we also know that something good is coming. We know that the Lord’s compassion and love are, as the Psalmist says, “from everlasting,” that for those who are committed to him, “the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness.” We remember that Jeremiah’s promise was for us, too, and that in our own lives there are righteous growing things waiting to spring up. We know that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem; we know that he will come later, in unimaginable glory; and we know that he will come to us, now, today, tomorrow, here, in our lives.
This balance, between penitence and happy anticipation, feels to me like kneeling in sincere confession with a small smile in the corner of your mouth. We know we are imperfect, and we need God’s mercy—and, we are confident in God’s mercy, happily awake and alert to see what God will do next.
What makes this prayerful anticipation even better is that Christ is coming to us no matter what. Are you happy, is your heart light? Christ is coming to you. Are you weary, is your heart heavy? Christ is coming to you. Are there parts of your life which you know are not pleasing to God or even to you? Christ is coming to you, too.
Christ has come, and is coming, and will come, and we don’t always know what it looks like.
So I have some questions for us as we pray both together and alone this Advent. We might think of these when we find ourselves alone on our walk to class or work; perhaps as we lie down to sleep, or as we brush our teeth in the mornings. When we take a study break, or when we turn off the computer to look out the window, maybe we can say to ourselves:
Christ is coming. Where is my heart?
Christ has already come to me. When did he do that? What was that like?
Christ will come to me. What might that be like?
God has been made manifest to us, and he will be made manifest to us again; am I awake? Am I watching? He is coming—where is my heart?