Watching for Dawn

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming in humility, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse; it is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the depressing truth that the good old days were definitively gone, and simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. The only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus always tends to surprise his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

Shame and The Day of Judgment

During this month of November, the Church’s liturgy (together with nature all around us) invites our hearts to consider the realities of death and judgment – events we prefer not to ponder, especially in our culture of comfort and hedonistic escapes.

The monks of the Middle Ages left us with a haunting, yet stunningly beautiful hymn entitled the Dies Irae, which proclaims that the Day of Judgment is at hand, and urges us to cast our hopes of salvation on Jesus Christ, as he resurrects us and tells the true story of our lives.

In elegant Latin verse, the hymn summarizes that great and dreadful Day: the world as we know it will be dissolved into ashes, the trumpet will sound, and all the dead will be raised from their tombs. Death itself and all of nature will stand agape as the Just One assembles us all before his throne. The written book will be brought forth, in which all is contained, and the stories of that book will be told publicly for all to hear. Whatever has remained hidden will be proclaimed openly. My true story and yours will be told in all fullness

At first blush, the thought of my full story being told for all to hear, full and unabridged, is utterly terrifying. When I tell my story to others, I get to pick and choose what they hear, to keep certain things in and leave other things out, to shade things my way. Not so on the Day of Judgment. My truth is my truth.

But I am learning that, rather than being a day of deep shame, the Day of Judgment (if I desire it) will actually be a day on which I am definitively healed from my shame. The very shame that fills me with dread at the thought of being seen and known is the very shame that needs to be brought to the light of day, indeed, to the light of The Day so often promised in Scripture. Until I am fully seen and fully known, I cannot truly be myself.

Is the Day of Judgment not a Day whose coming we pray for daily? Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come!” Many Christians often pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” – in words that echo the last words of the Bible: marana tha (“Our Lord, come!”). If he does not come with the fullness of his truth and love, we will never become our truest and deepest selves. We will remain less than fully human.

Shame is a heavy burden, and one with which I am quite familiar. I have spent most of my life finding ways to hide my true self from others. As an infant, as a child, as an adolescent, and beyond, I learned to hide what I was really feeling (shame, sadness, loneliness, or anger). I even pretended for many years like I didn’t have those feelings at all! I learned to be “independent” and self-reliant, pretending like I didn’t need anything from others. Needing others felt shameful. Reaching out for kindness and support felt uncertain and unsafe. And all the while a deep and painful loneliness grew – undetected for many years because it was the ocean in which I was swimming for so long.

In my hiding, I developed a vast array of subtle (or not-so-subtle) defenses that proved highly effective in keeping other people from having access to my truest, deepest self. What a bind that creates! My inner self continues (as God made me) to desire deeply to be seen and known and understood and accepted for who I really am – yet the moment good people actually draw near, I still tend to react in ways that keep them at a distance. I put on one kind of mask or the other, so they can’t see the real me.

Then, of course, there are my many sins – all the ways, over the years, in which I have stumbled in my ungodly self-reliance and self-protection; the harm I have caused to others and to self; the rupture to relationships. There are my darkest or most twisted fantasies – the “if only…” thoughts or urges that I like to pretend are not really there. How could I possibly look forward to those being proclaimed publicly on the Day of Judgment?

The Dies Irae provides the answer to all this anguish after it asks similar questions. What am I to do, poor wretch that I am, in the face of so great a Judge, before whom even the just cannot be secure? Is there anyone who can plead for me on that Day?

Yes. The King of Majesty will plead for me. He freely and gratuitously saves those who desire salvation. He longs to save me.

The hymn proceeds to tell the ultimate story, the definitive story – the story of Jesus, who though divine, freely and willingly emptied himself, became one of us, and saved us in his Passion and Resurrection. When my story is perfectly united to his story, every moment of my life has new meaning. All my masks can be removed and laid to rest, my true self can be seen, and all can hear my full story – a story redeemed and transformed by Jesus. When my story is told, all can hear how Jesus was there at every moment – especially the moments of greatest heartache, heartbreak, and shame, moments in which I was betrayed, moments in which I betrayed others. All the while he was attuning to my heart, and gazing upon me with love and kindness as a beloved child of his Father. He was suffering with me and for me, weeping with me, breathing life into me, and rejoicing with me.

When we talk about dying with Christ and rising with Christ, it is so much more than a cliché! We prefer to compartmentalize, and lock away certain parts of our story. But that means leaving them unredeemed, and it means not being a whole person in Christ. Only when we allow him, the Alpha and the Omega, the true author of all human history, to take authority over all these shards and fragments, can we find ultimate resolution to the discord in our story. That means going down with him into the dark places and allowing him to shine forth with his love and truth. We all have memories in which (if we are honest) we do not truly believe that God is good. Jesus surprises us with the new life of his resurrection, and opens us to be loved even in those memories in which we feel unlovable. We don’t have to hide.

The Dies Irae has many dark notes in it, and is a beautiful hymn. It ends with stunning trust and hope in the one who loves us and so empowers us to be just and holy. Perhaps the book that will be opened on the Day of Judgment will be more like a book of music. Each of our songs will be sung. No doubt, there will be many discordant measures, bearing witness to our darkest days. But if I give Jesus permission to tell my story, it will be a song that gives great glory to God. And all those assembled will only be able to sing a resounding “AMEN!” in response – for he is Truth itself.

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P.S. – This piece by the CBC explores the vast musical influence of the Dies Irae over the centuries.