+OPENING OURSELVES TO THE ADVENT MYSTERY ChapTalk 5 Dec. ‘21
Last week I spoke of Advent as Sacrament of Christ’s presence, drawing on Merton’s reading of our early Cistercian fathers. In Chapter two of his Seasons of Celebration, he asks if Advent, because of how it is actually experienced is “Hope or Delusion?” He wants us to take a close look at how we actually experience this time of the Church year.
Because of it being such a busy time for us here at Gethsemani, we may feel it difficult to enter fully into this Liturgical season but far more is involved. How Advent and Christmas are programed in our world today is often at variance with what goes on in the monk’s heart and to experience this is really a healthy sign. The season has become so commercialized, it is not be easy to discern its real meaning.
Merton sees the figure of John the Baptist as an authentic example of what takes place in the monk’s heart. He writes:
The Advent Gospels, like most of the other liturgical texts of the season, are sober to the point of austerity. Take for example the question of St John the Baptist in Herod’s prison, where he was about to undergo a tragic death that was at once cruel and senseless: “Are you He who is to come, or look we for another?” Strange and even scandalous words, which some have never been able to accept at their face value! How can John have meant such a question, when he had seen the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the Jordan? Yet the directness with which the question was asked was the guarantee of its desperate seriousness: for at the close of his life, John was concerned not only, as we might say, for the ‘success of his mission’ but more profoundly still, for the truth of his own life, the truth of Israel, indeed the truth of Yahweh Himself. (p. 89)
Not long ago I read a respected commentary on this questioning of John in prison and it explained it as really spoken for the sake of his disciples and not from out of his own inner struggle. Merton takes a very different perspective and I think he is right. As he puts it:
We must be willing to see Him [the Christ] and acclaim Him, as John did, even at the very moment when our whole life’s work and all its meaning seem to collapse. Indeed, more formidable still, the Church herself may perhaps be called upon some day to point out the Victorious Redeemer and King of Ages amid the collapse of all that has been laboriously built up by the devotion of centuries and cultures that sincerely intended to be Christian. (p. 91)
Are we seeing in our own time something of this collapse of which Merton writes? The interplay of Cultures, Customs and Church practice have changed dramatically as the result of the Covid crisis. The Christmas celebration that many of us experienced in our youth, is no longer viable and is giving way to a new presence of Christ in our world. Merton asks us if we are not being called in our time to better:
understand the kenotic quality of the Advent mystery? The Christ who emptied Himself taking the form of a servant, dying on the Cross for us, brought us the plenitude of His gifts and of His salvation. But He continues in us a kenotic and hidden existence. The fullness of time is the time of His emptiness in us. The fullness of time is the time of our emptiness, which draws Christ down into our lives so that in us and through us He may bring the fullness of His truth to the world. (p.93-4)
Many of us heard about this sharing in the self-emptying love of Christ at the night Office yesterday morning. To allow ourselves to experience this is something wonderfully freeing for it takes us along the path a pure faith so that Christ takes over the center of our lives. By allowing ourselves to enter into this kind of faith we do away with the false ideas of our own accomplishments, opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit who comes to rest on the humble and poor. Let me conclude with one last quote from Merton:
The Advent mystery in our own lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ. It is the beginning of the end of unreality. And that is surely a cause of joy!