DECEMBER 22, 2002, 4TH SUNDAY OF ADVENT: CHAPTER

 

WE AWAIT THE COMING OF OUR SAVIOR, OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST WHO WILL REFORM THE BODY OF OUR LOWLINES, CONFORMING IT TO HIS GLORIOUS BODY. (Phil. 3:20) St. Paul had an intense faith in the risen Lord Jesus. He never knew Christ in his pre-resurrection condition, limited as the rest of us are in this life to the conditions of time and space. Accordingly, his spontaneous responses when he thought and spoke about the Savior were to the Lord of glory. He tells us as much in his 2nd Cor. 5: 16.  ‘From now on, therefore, we know no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh [prior to his conversion, and then only by hearsay, not by sight] we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.’    

In his 6th Advent Sermon, St. Bernard cites the text from Philippians that I quoted above: WE AWAIT THE COMING OF OUR SAVIOR, OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST WHO WILL REFORM THE BODY OF OUR LOWLINES, CONFORMING IT TO HIS GLORIOUS BODY.   It is not too much to say that he makes it the inspiration of his conference. This is a noteworthy emphasis on the topic of the final resurrection and the transformation considering that the sermon is given in Advent as preparation for the Feast of Christ’s birth. Nothing could be more theologically sound and firmly based than this perspective. That Bernard thinks of Christmas in these transcendent terms reveals how far removed his spirituality is from any overemphasis on sentiment. In other talks given during this season he also speaks of the birth of Christ as a source of renewal of the spirit rather than dwelling on the more sensible features of Jesus’ birth in the flesh. He goes further and sees in the birth of Jesus a powerful reminder of our call to be conformed to him in his glory. This entails our cultivating a vivid sense of our dignity as being made in the image of God. We must act accordingly, giving our energy to training the body to serve the soul that is the determining element of our conformity to God. If the body serves the soul and assists it to become holy, pure and filled with love then the body will itself have a share in the glory at the end. 

A noble guest you have, o body, [that is, the soul], noble in great measure and all your salvation depends upon it. Treat with great honor such an important guest. You, it is true, live in your own region, but the soul finds domicile in you as a stranger, in exile. (Sermo 6.3 En El Adviento,  Obras de San Bernardo I, [Madrid: B.A. C., 1953] 180)  

Among other facets of the mystery of Christ’s birth, what attracts Bernard’s attention is the newness of life that is manifested in the appearance of an infant child who comes into this world with all the freshness and promise that attaches to human birth. While there is a strong appeal to human sentiment in such a manifestation of vulnerability and need for tenderness as every human infant displays, in this birth there is an altogether distinct feature that makes it utterly different and even unique. For this child is the Word of God; he comes to us from the bosom of the eternal Father. Moreover, he comes as our Savior, to redeem us from the disastrous alienation in which we were to remain had he not freely chosen to become one of us. 

This is the fundamental theological insight that determines Bernard’s enthusiastic welcoming of the newborn Christ. He is moved by the humility that leads the Divine Word to take on the helplessness and needs of an infant, but the affection that he experiences for this child is not predominantly that of human sentiment in the first instance. For many Christians Christmas evokes the same kind of feelings of tenderness that are aroused by treating with any newborn infant. That is all to the good, provided one does not stop there. Bernard faces this issue very directly in his first sermon for Advent where he urges his monks to pass more deeply into the mystery of this particular birth. 

You, then, brothers, are those to whom as to little ones God discloses what is hidden from the wise and prudent according to this world. Apply yourselves with continuous meditation to the things that contribute truly to what is saving and think with care of the mysterious sense and the reason for this advent. Seek to know who it is who comes, from where, why, when and from where he comes. This is a praiseworthy and saving curiosity without doubt. For the universal Church would not celebrate with such devotion the present advent if it did not enclose in itself some great mystery. (Obras I, 155, 156). 

The mystery to which the abbot of Clairvaux refers here is, of course, that of the Incarnation and in particular its significance for the salvation of our race. That Bernard himself gave much consideration to this topic is everywhere evident in his writings. Certainly in his talks in chapter at this season of Advent and during the Christmas season as well he makes it evident that he had meditated long and intensely on the meaning of the fact that the infinite God humbled himself to become a man like us in all but sin. He commented, for example, as follows: 

‘Who will doubt that the motive for which such a high Majesty from such a distance lowered him self to such an unworthy place? Certainly it was a great thing for it was a great mercy, much condescension, abundant charity.’ (Obras I, 159).    

In order to highlight the loving condescension of the Lord who comes to us, he describes in extensive detail what is the function of the soul he has given us in making us according to his image and come to save.   

Do not despise then or hold in small esteem your guest [the soul] because he is a stranger and is outside his own country. Pay close attention to the good the presence of this guest brings to you.  He it is who gives sight to your eyes and hearing to your ears; the same person furnishes voice to your tongue, taste to the palate and movement to all your members. If there is any life in you, if you have any senses, any beauty, be aware that you are indebted to this guest for these benefits. (Obras I, 191) 

We can do nothing more efficacious to prepare ourselves for Christmas than to give our attention to the mystery of the Trinity and contemplate as intently as we are able the nature and attributes of God. For the measure of our understanding of man depends ultimately on the living knowledge we have of the Trinity. The reason for this is that we are made by God and for him, being fashioned in his image. St. Gregory the Great taught that the first concern of anyone who set out on the spiritual journey should be to obtain a true knowledge of self. 

Every soul should have as its paramount concern that it know itself. For who knows himself, knows that he was made to God’s image and that he ought not to follow the likeness of animals, either in his sexual practice or in his desire for the things of this world. (‘In Canticle’ 1.28, cited in Michael Casey, ‘Athirst for God’, 154, n. 47) 

Some 200 years before reading Pope Gregory a similar emphasis was given to such self-knowledge by another Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa. This Gregory gave to the Canticle a strongly Christological. He saw the necessity of realizing the program of self-knowledge that the later western doctors, Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux considered essential to attaining the purity needed for union with Christ. He states his view in these terms. 

He did not make the heavens in his image, nor the moon, sun, the stars’ beauty, nor anything else you see in creation. You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding, the image of incorruptible beauty, the impression of true divinity, receptacle of blessed life, seal of true light. You will become what he is by looking at him. By imitating him who shines within you [2 Cor6:26], his gleam is reflected in your purity. [Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Song of Songs’ Homily 2, tr. C. McCambley (Brookline, Mass., 1987) 70.] 

Of course, both these authors have in mind not only psychological knowledge of temperament and character but, primarily, insight into our spiritual nature, our beginning as creatures and our end as children of God destined for glory. And as a result, such self-knowledge situates us appropriately before God and creation. It makes us aware of our sinfulness and need for redemption, for mercy and grace. When St. Bernard speaks of the obligation to know oneself this is the concept he has of such understanding. He grasped that this emphasis on self-understanding derived from Greek culture as well as from Sacred Scripture. He states this explicitly: “I am careful, according to the saying of the Greeks, ‘to know myself’, and also with the prophet ‘to know what is lacking to me.’” (Sermon Sobre el Cantar, 23.9 (Obras Completas V,  [BAC: Madrid,1987] 330. 

Bernard was fully convinced of the soundness of this teaching as were all of the Cistercian writers of the early period. Bernard understood that our being made to the image of God is the firm foundation of our dignity. He is aware that it is not enough simply to believe this truth. Such belief will remain of little efficacy until we actually experience its reality by penetrating into our deepest interior and discovering by exploration what it entails in the way of possessing intelligence, memory and above all freedom to choose. Of our faculty of free choice he exclaimed: ’What is there more similar to eternity among all that is not eternity?’ (‘De la gracia et libero arbitrio’, 28, Obras II, 954) Since the eternal God is our end as well as our beginning, we know that we are made for Him. We know too the meaning of our life is within our grasp precisely because we are made in His image and destined to reflect His likeness.  Capable of knowing and loving God, we cannot be ourselves unless we experience something of Him. The purpose of delineating by careful analysis just how the human person is made in the image of God is to assist us in discovering by experience the firm basis we have for trusting in God’s love for us. This experience is meant to supply a personal basis for the confidence necessary to believe effectively that God, infinite as He is, and occupied with the whole of the great cosmos, nevertheless is concerned for us, individually and as members of the one Mystical Christ.

We all come into this world with a sef-centered consciousness that causes us to feel as if the world and those who populate it should be at our service. This is surely a form of self- love. Unless it is corrected by an appropriate discipline through training and contact with reality that we interiorize, it becomes the height of egotism, which is a distorted form of self-love. We can maintain it only at the cost of alienation from the reality of our true self, and living in delusion. Everyone suffers from such a condition at early stages of development. To learn from others and from events to renounce the falsity of deluded opinion of oneself is a condition for cultivating those habits of soul and body which correspond to our actual gifts and capacities. Only the person who willingly subjects himself to such discipline from the heart is able to discover the solid basis of his dignity and so to believe that he is known and loved by another.  

Fortunately, there are countless degrees of such personal maturity; we cannot expect to attain to it by some single act. We must daily strive to live in the truth by following conscience and by recognizing through daily self examination those occasions when, to some degree or other, we do not manage to be simple and at one with our deepest self. By studying the lives of the saints and their writings we come to appreciate the value of continuing on this journey that passes through the truth of our inmost self to the eternal Truth manifested in the incarnate Word of God. Once we learn by experience the sense of wholeness that attends each increment of such simplicity deriving from our true self, we find it easier to continue the effort to advance further on this path that carries us to the fullness of that truth which is God Himself.  According to Bernard, ‘The soul that does not possess knowledge of the truth cannot be said to live… Truth then is the life of the soul.’(‘De diversis 10.1, Obras I’, 924)  But he also adds that ‘The soul that lacks charity lacks sense… charity is the sense of the soul.’ 

The conclusion to draw from these considerations is that we must seek the truth in charity from the heart. This is the sole fruitful choice to make in life, if we would truly live and attain to the end for which we are made. We soon discover that we need to renew this choice frequently if we are to maintain it to the end for many interesting matters solicit our attention and promise satisfactions that are immediate. Much watchfulness alone can keep our actual intention operative in the many decisions we make daily.  Only by keeping our hearts set on this ultimate goal alone can we maintain the course that eventually provides the fulfillment for which we long by nature and by grace. It is the function of that wisdom given by the Spirit of the Lord so to enlighten and strengthen us as to avoid losing sight of the one goal of our whole monastic endeavor. This goal is life with the heavenly Father through conformity to his Son ‘who is the image of the invisible God’, born for us of Mary, ever virgin. 

   Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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