SEE, THE DAYS ARE COMING WHEN I SHALL RAISE UP THE WORD WHICH I HAD SPOKEN TO THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND TO THE HOUSE OF JUDA (Jeremiah 33: 14). Usually we associate the prophet Isaiah with the season of Advent, and rightly so. His preaching is the most frequently cited by the liturgy in connection with the coming of the Redeemer. And in fact the book of Isaiah is the prophet cited most often in the New Testament as a whole precisely because so many passages apply to the mysteries of Christ's life and death and resurrection. But the liturgy begins this year with a passage from the other prophet who so vividly portrayed the Savior's work of redemption, namely Jeremiah. He did so as much by his life as by his preaching, so that during the life time of Jesus many who heard and saw him even before his passion mistook him for Jeremiah who returned to fulfill God's plan.
The expression that the prophet uses in this citation to indicate the fulfillment of God's promise reminds one of the Resurrection of Jesus. The verb hakim in Hebrew that means to 'raise up' or, more literally, "I will cause to stand", and which is used in connection with the resurrection of the Lord, is employed here to mean "fulfill" or "realize" in regard to God's earlier promise. The coming of the Lord in view of his eventual resurrection is the fruit of God's fidelity to his engagements; in the coming of the Word in the flesh God raises up the words given earlier to his people in the person of Abraham and through the mediation of Moses. Accordingly, the liturgical year that we inaugurate with today's Eucharist begins with a hint of the Easter victory of the Savior for whose coming we begin anew to prepare our self by the exercises of this holy season of Advent.
While this first Sunday of Advent now marks the beginning of the Church's liturgical year, this was not the case from earliest antiquity. Only gradually did the Christmas Cycle evolve and come to form the initial season of the liturgy. Originally, Easter with its celebration of the resurrection was taken as the beginning of the new dispensation and so considered to be the proper season for the commencement of the yearly commemorations. Since Easter occurred in relation to spring and usually in March, the beginning of the Church's year had the advantage of coinciding with the Roman civil calendar according to which March was the first month. If we attend carefully to the names of our months we find residual evidence that at one time March, not January, was the first month of the civil year. September, which is actually the ninth month of the year, means "the seventh month". In fact, each of the last four months of our year has names that are two months behind our way of numbering. St. Ambrose in relation to the liturgy witnesses to this earliest tradition: "Easter is truly the origin of the year, the beginning of the first month."
The evolution of the Advent season to its present prominence was a gradual one, as we would expect. As time went on the implications of Easter with its focus on the risen Savior, who was glorified body and soul in the Spirit and taken up into glory, unfolded and found expression in the liturgy. In particular, the insight into the fact that the risen Lord is the person of the Word who took flesh of Mary led to an emphasis on the birth of Christ. As is commonly the case, knowledge of the stages this development underwent in the course of its history contributes to a fuller appreciation of the meaning of Advent.
The earliest Advent texts stressed Christ's Second Coming as judge at the end of time. This feature of Advent has continued to be a theme of the season down to the present. But very soon emphasis on preparing for the birth of Christ began to assume larger proportions and included other aspects of Christology. The very serious and prolonged struggle between the Roman Church and the Arians played a major role in the course taken by this development. While the conviction that Jesus in whom the Word was flesh is truly equal to the Father was maintained from apostolic times, this topic was not addressed in precisely these terms until several generations after the death of the apostles. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find treated the question of the precise relation of Jesus to the Father and the Spirit. That he claimed to be God is asserted in the most formal terms: this was the actual reason for his being put to death. His enemies presumed that to affirm he was God was blasphemy, for God is one. His early followers believed indeed that God is one; at the same time they affirmed that Jesus is God and is distinct from the Father. They saw no contradiction in these statements; nor did they feel the need for further explanations. Later when this teaching was challenged and some denied that Jesus was fully equal to the Father, others, such as Athanasius and his followers, maintained that full equality to the Father is the only true Catholic position. The Arians, on the other hand, kept insisting that while he was indeed divine in that he was raised above all other creatures, yet he was not of the same nature as the Father, but was essentially inferior to Him.
As this conflict spread through the Church the Arians became more influential politically and at times even more numerous than the Catholics. Although orthodox doctrine was defined by Councils and was supported by such outstanding leaders as Athanasius and Ambrose, yet only gradually was it able to eliminate Arianism as a movement. This prolonged struggle was the context in which the Advent liturgy made its early appearance and took its first forms. The earlier stages of this successful suppression of this heresy took place during the lifetime of St. Benedict. His insistence on rising and singing the Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritu Sancto after each psalm of the divine office reflects this conflict with the Arians whose teaching he sought to counteract by giving special honor to the Trinity.
By way of emphasizing the divinity of Christ from the time of his birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary greater prominence was given in various countries to the Christmas Cycle. Shortly after the Council of Nicea, the feast of Christmas was established and promptly taken up by the faithful. Already in the time of St. Augustine it was a prominent part of the liturgical year as we see from the first collection of Homilies on the yearly cycle of feasts which brought together the talks given on these occasions by the Bishop of Hippo. This cycle included thirteen homilies for the Christmas feast.
However, there is no mention of an Advent season in Augustine's cycle of Feasts. The first developments on the way to creating such a period of preparation for the birth of the Savior consisted at this earliest period in two commemorations, one of Mary, the other of John the Baptist, made prior to Christmas. Then in mid fifth century Gaul a seven-week fast as a preparation for the birth of Christ was established. It was known as St. Martin's Lent, for it began on his feast day, November 11th. In different countries of Europe from the sixth to the tenth centuries there were variant liturgical expressions given to this period, but all had the same general purpose.
It was only in the year before St. Benedict died, 54 6 A. D., that Advent was fixed as a period of four Sundays prior to Christmas at Capua in the neighborhood of Benedict's monastery of Monte Casino. As a result, his Rule for Monks, which was written some time prior to this date, does not mention any special arrangements for observance of the Advent season. Some fifty years later Pope Gregory the Great introduced this four-week observance into the Roman Liturgy whence it gradually spread to other churches in the West. By the eleventh century the season of four Sundays was generally the practice, though at Milan the Ambrosian Liturgy continues to celebrate the seven weeks of preparation.
The texts for the Advent liturgy effectively convey the continuity between the Old and New Testaments by making generous use of the Hebrew prophets, especially Isaiah. The first twelve chapters of the Book of Isaiah are referred to as the Book of Emmanuel so much do they speak of the child who is destined to be the redeemer of Israel. The tone set by these and similar prophecies is one of longing for the coming of God's special envoy who is to save His people from the sins they have been made so conscious of by the prophetic word. The certitude that this longing has already found a partial hearing in the form of graces received through the victorious resurrection of Jesus gives a strong note of hope and quiet joy to these weeks of preparation. Moreover, this hope is intensified by the expectation of the Second Coming of the Lord at the end of time, a theme that remains in the background throughout this period. Accordingly, while the mood of this season remains penitential and calls for a response on our part of an increased measure of prayer and fasting, at the same time it is suffused with the joy of an eager and firm expectation. Our profound longing for our redeemer will surely be fulfilled in response to faith and prayer. Christ will surely come to give us new and true life.
St. Bernard gave much importance to this season of Advent in his preaching and writing. He stressed in his first sermon on this mystery that our gratitude for Christ's coming in the flesh should be all the greater in that he is motivated only by love for us in his accepting to be born of Mary so as to carry out the Father's plan. His words echo those by St. John in his Gospel relative to the Father: "God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that every one who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life ( 3: 16)."
However, I would like to know what it means that he came to us or why we did not rather go to him. For we are the ones in need and it is not the custom for the rich to come to the poor not even when they wish to give help. Yes, brothers, that is the way it is; it was rather for us to go to him, but we suffered from a two-fold impediment. For our eyes were darkened, while he inhabits inaccessible light (1Tim 6:16), and we lay paralyzed on our couch unable to rise to that divine height. For these reasons the most benign Savior and physician of our souls came down from his summits and tempered his brightness to our weak eyes.
The Birth of Christ as an infant was the beginning of a revelation adapted to our human condition. Through his birth God's glory and truth became visible to us in the person of his Incarnate Son. Later, during his public ministry, Jesus continued to reveal the glory and divine truth hidden in the Godhead from all eternity. Prior to his birth it was partially made known, first through creation and the law of nature, and then through the Patriarchs and prophets. Christ further specified this revelation and carried it further both by deed and by word. His words were abundant and efficacious; he had a gift for teaching, for finding images that spoke to the wise and the simple and which continue to be eloquent of the transcendent beauty and truth he was sent to disclose. We are not surprised then to discover that he was known from the very opening of his career as a teacher.
I suspect though that most of us would be surprised to learn that this is by far the title most frequently given him in the Gospels. He is far more frequently addressed and referred to as teacher than as pastor or shepherd, king, or even prophet. In fact, the Lord Jesus is called teacher (didaskalos) 41 times in the Gospels. Such frequency is all the more impressive when we note that the term is found only twice in the whole of the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament. The term, John tells us, translates the Hebrew title Rabbi, and if it was used of Jesus so widely, this was because outwardly he conformed to the usual concept of a Rabbi in his teaching role. But not in his message. The intense conflict that his teaching caused was due to the fact that his person is the heart of his message. This gave a distinctive character to his teaching. As Rengstorf observes:
Thus when the word diadaskalos is used of Jesus, His person gives it a tremendous weight which it can never have elsewhere. We might almost dare to say that it stamps Jesus as the new Moses who frees the law from national limitations and offers it to all men. It thus indicates both His authority and His dignity.
The verb didasko to teach, in contrast with the noun, teacher, is used with considerable frequency both in the Greek OT, where it is used about 100 times, and in the New Testament which employs it in 95 passages. From the distribution of its occurrence it is evident that teaching was much more important among the earliest followers of Jesus than in the gentile Churches of the East and in Rome. All four Gospels witness to the prominence of teaching in Jesus' ministry, particularly in the synagogues, but also outdoors, as on the Mount of the Beatitudes. He took up the same kind of material that other Rabbis treated of, but with this large difference that "For Him the Law and Scripture are rather a confirmation of His own relationship to the Father." His teaching consists of revealing divine truths with the aim of effecting a profound transformation of the hearers, so that they are remade according to God's will, and yield their whole being to their creator. Jesus is both an educator and a reformer of man.
In contrast with the secular Greek tradition, the teaching of Jesus is not marked by intellectualism. Already the Jewish teachers had understood teaching in a non-intellectual way, for they considered it to be "the translation of the Torah into concrete directions for the life of the individual." Jewish and early Christian teaching, including that of Jesus, was based on the inspired Scriptures and took the form of explaining it and applying it to life. Thus for different reasons, the Lord's activity as teacher distinguished itself from that of both Jew and Greek. It was distinctive, even unique. People responded to him and his teaching with wonder. This unique quality of his teaching in turn brought some to admiration and attraction to his person, while it caused others to become hostile.
Not only was Jesus himself a teacher, he commissioned his apostles to teach in his name. Their activity commenced under his direction while He was still with them. After his resurrection he gave them important further instruction, and so, even in His glorified and exalted state, Jesus remains a teacher. After he rose from the dead, in fact, Jesus engaged in some of his most significant teaching, imparting the fuller sense of his earlier efforts. That role continues to be operative through his commissioned representatives ; the risen Christ is still the master teacher today.
St. Benedict begins his Rule for Monks with a reference to the author as a teacher (magister in Latin is equivalent to the Greek didaskalos so that the whole of the Rule is presented as a didaskalia, a teaching.
Listen, o son, to the precepts of the teacher (magistri) and incline the ear of your heart and willingly accept the admonition of a loving father, and carry it out effectively that you might return through the labor of obedience to the one from whom you departed through the sloth of disobedience (Prologue).
This text raises the question as to who is considered the author and so the teacher and father who gives the instruction. Is it the abbot or is it Christ? Scholars have answered this question differently. But the dilemma is only apparent, notes Padre Garcia Columba. He points out that the immediate term of reference is clearly the abbot. This is made doubly clear in Chapter 2 where Benedict makes the fundamental point that the abbot has these titles of father and teacher because, as he states it, "He is believed to take the place of Christ in the monastery." The abbot speaks as teacher, magister, only as representative of the Lord Jesus, not in his own name or by virtue of his own qualities or learning.
For this reason it is fitting that the monastery Chapter room where we are meeting today is called by Saint Bernard the aula Spiritus Sancti, that is to say, the lecture room of the Holy Spirit. For it is by the Spirit that Christ continues to teach his followers. It could also be termed the classroom of Christ, for here we learn not only about Christ but also from Him, through his representative, the abbot. Thus it is filling that the icon here in Chapter which is known as Christ the Pantokrator depicts him as a teacher.[Illustration at the Head of this Conference] The gesture made by his free right hand is a symbol, taken from Roman times into the Byzantine tradition, of a rhetor that is to say, a speaker, a man skilled in the use of words. There is a second reason why this icon is fittingly placed here in our chapter since Pantokrator means The Ruler over All, it depicts Christ as King of the Universe, the Patron of our monastery. The figure of our Lord is portrayed as standing in front of a niche with slit windows that open out into the star-filled heavens. He is holding the book of the Gospels, a further symbol of his power with words. Thus He is the great Teacher, who stands in front of the cosmic spaces as he imparts his teaching which consists in the revelation of divine mysteries.
Significantly, it was at about this same time that St. Benedict was writing his Rule, in the mid-sixth century, that the prototype of this specific rendering of the Pantokrator was conceived. The sixth century original is still in existence. Painted in Constantinople, probably in the time of the Emperor Justinian the Great, it was presented by him to the monastery he founded at Mt. Sinai where it has been preserved to the present, the oldest icon in its great collection. Just as this painting honors Christ as God, so also Benedict depicts Christ as the risen Lord and King who reveals God's truth and glory. This icon, then, reflects, more closely than any other image the concept of Christ that was in the mind of Benedict as he wrote his Rule for Monks.
Today, then, as we begin this season of Advent let us rededicate ourselves to our vocation as monks, that is to say, as men vowed to God, taught by Christ and His Holy Spirit, and formed by His word according to His example. May all that we do in the course of this season of Advent in the way of penance, fasting and prayer in crease our longing for the coming of our Savior. Then shall we know the true joy of men who belong to God and are disciples in the school of Christ, our one Teacher and our Redeemer, who comes to save us and who alone is our hope of glory in life everlasting.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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