[Revised and re-posted from Advent 2020]
We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming, 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 (or an apocalypse that is allegedly happening right now). 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 already 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 particular 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 grief of definitive loss and change, while 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 in church life or society has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. As with ancient Rome, some of what collapsed was beautiful, and some of it was already evil – using piety or patriotism to cover over greed, exploitation, or abuse. I may return to this discussion of nostalgia for the “good old days” another day. For today, the main point is that when you are standing amidst the wreckage, the only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged or cling to fantasies about how fighting “those people” will fix everything.
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 frequently surprises 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.