The First Sunday of Advent [C]

Here is the homily preached to the IHM Sisters on November 29, 2015.

The First Sunday of Advent [C]
Jeremiah 33:14-16  +  1 Thessalonians 3:12—4:2  +  Luke 21:25-28,34-36
November 29, 2015
 

“ ‘And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’ ”

In praying about today’s Gospel passage, this “cloud” seemed full of meaning:  both specifically regarding Advent, and more generally regarding growth in our Christian spiritual life.  The more that I prayed about it, the more it seemed that this “cloud” in which the Son of Man comes “with power and great glory” signifies the two nights—two purifications—of the sensory part and of the spiritual part of the soul.  It’s through this cloud that the divine “Son of Man” wishes to come to you, His beloved, “with power and great glory”:  that is, the grace of contemplation.

Consider in this regard what St. John of the Cross teaches us in the Ascent of Mount Carmel.  This work, the holy doctor tells us, “explains how to reach divine union quickly” by presenting “instruction and doctrine [that is] valuable for beginners and proficient alike” (we might say, for novices and the professed).  St. John teaches them “how to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete {detachment} and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union.”[1]  Unburden, avoid, and live:  so masterful and subtle is St. John’s teaching that it’s easy to overlook that even in saying this, in the very first paragraph of the Ascent, he’s summarizing the whole of the spiritual life:  “to unburden themselves of all earthly things” summarizes the purgative stage of the spiritual life; to “avoid spiritual obstacles”, the illuminative stage; and to live in “complete {detachment} and freedom of spirit”, the unitive stage.

Of course, those who look from the outside in at the lives of the “consecrated” might imagine that the first, purgative stage is over and done with in the lives of the “consecrated”.  Mind you, here I’m using this word “consecrated” in a two-fold sense to refer not only to those in “consecrated life”, but also to those who are ordained priests, “consecrated” with Holy Chrism during ordination.  So I speak from my own experience of what the laity imagine that the life of a priest is like, as I also speak about what I’m sure the laity often imagine that the life of a consecrated religious is like.  “Imagine” is the key word here, because the lay faithful are often very much unaware how much the spiritual life for the “consecrated” can be a matter of “two steps forward, one step back”.

“ ‘And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.’ ”  Is this verse from today’s Gospel passage also summarizing our spiritual life?  Are the three stages of the spiritual life, within which we at times take two steps forward and one step back, proclaimed here?

“[T]hey will see the Son of Man coming”.  Who is this “Son of Man [who is] coming”?  Perhaps because we know so clearly that this is the One who will be born in the stable at Bethlehem, we give no thought to these words, and let them pass by without our notice.  This is the One whom we await during Advent.  But why does Jesus say that it is “the Son of Man [who is] coming”?  Why does He not say that “the divine Word made Flesh is coming”?  Why does He not say that “the Son of God and Son of Mary is coming”?

Those who practice the art and science of sacred theology have a phrase that they use for the principle at the heart of God’s advent in Salvation History.  “Divine condescension”, far from being a phrase of insult, describes the manner in which God tenderly reaches down to His children and—as the modern saying goes—meets his sinful children “where they’re at”.  Teachers practice their own version of this principle every day in the classroom.  Can you imagine a kindergarten teacher saying to her children, “Open up your copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, kindergartners, to Number 213 as we learn today about who God is:  ‘The revelation of the ineffable name “I Am who Am” contains then the truth that God alone IS.  The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church’s Tradition, understood the divine name in this sense:  God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end.’  Isn’t that wonderful, kindergartners!”  No Kindergarten teacher would try to reach her students’ hearts and minds in that way.

This point of the “divine condescension” is worth dwelling upon today, on this first day of Advent.  Let me use another example from the realm of human teaching.  Consider this quote from a university professor, C.S. Lewis, who offers a contrast in order to highlight the teacher’s difficulty in descending to the level of the pupil:

“It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can.  When you took the problem to a master, … he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you.  …

“The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less.  The difficulty we want him to explain is one [the fellow-pupil] has recently met.  The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten.  He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”[2]

God, in His eternal omniscience, not only knows all Truth, but also the ignorance within His children.  So He reaches out to His children according to this principle of divine condescension.  This is part of the joy of Christmas morning:  rejoicing in the Omnipotent God who became a helpless infant for us men and our salvation.  In His helplessness and in His infancy, the Christ Child has become like us poor, ignorant sinners.

Let us dilate upon this point with the help of my favorite author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  At the beginning of the second half of his greatest work, The Everlasting Man, Chesterton writes in his own unique way about this principle of “divine condescension”:

“It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians, because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. It may not be a difference of moral worth, for the Moslem or the Jew might be worthier according to his lights; but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.”

These extremes meet not only in the Incarnation, but also—through the Incarnation—in the prayer life that culminates in contemplation.  It is the “Son of Man”, then, who comes “in a cloud with power and great glory”, condescending to our state as man, and revealing in his sacred humanity our need for purification in both the sensory part and the spiritual part of the Christian soul.

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane and experienced flying into a large and thick cloud, you know that when you first enter you can still sense the brightness of the sun even if you cannot see the sun itself.  But then when you enter further into the cloud there is greater darkness.  So it is with the two-fold purification demanded of the devout Christian.  As Saint John of the Cross teaches us, “The second night or purification takes place… to lead [the proficient] into the state of divine union.  This purgation, of course, is more obscure, dark, and dreadful, as we will subsequently point out.”[3]

“[O]n earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”  To be of this world here below is always to be fearful:  fearful of one’s own sinful self, fearful of others who inhibit our freedom, and fearful most of all of God who proclaims that He wants to be the Lord of our life.  But none of this fear is needful:  “when these signs begin to happen,” our Savior explains, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”

Today and each day of Advent, we need to make the words of the Psalmist our own:  “To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.”  The Lord is coming:  indeed, He is coming soon.  But we must run to meet Him by lifting our souls to Him in prayer and active charity, in silence and aloud, knowing that the Lord comes to us not because we are worthy of His love, but to transform our sinful hearts into tabernacles of the Most High.

 

[1] St. John of the Cross, O.C.D., The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (rev. ed.), Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., trans. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 113.  The {  } brackets in this and future paragraphs indicate a word or words taken instead from the translation of the Ascent by E. Allison Peers.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 1-2.

[3] St. John of the Cross, O.C.D., Ascent, 119.