Advent means ‘coming’…the God who is to come. The Latin word for Advent is ‘Adventus’ and the Greek word ‘Parousia’. Building on the early Patristic Fathers, the Cistercians of the twelfth century spoke of ‘three comings’: the first, the birth of Jesus in history; the second the coming or birth of Christ in the human soul; the third the final coming at the end of time. I will focus on the second coming. I will do this using Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon 74 on the Song of Songs.
In this sermon Bernard speaks of the nature of the Word: “Who will adequately explain to me the going and coming of the Word” (74.1). Then, he adds: “The Word is recalled—recalled by the longing of the soul” (74.2). Bernard describes the soul’s longing as a “voice, a powerful voice.” The cry of the soul, the longing of the soul: this desire for the Divine Presence lives in us; it is endemic to our humanity. The season of Advent, as we live it, stirs up this longing. We hear it in the readings and the music sung during this liturgical season: ‘O Lord stir up your power and come…’
Bernard bemoans: “The Lord says, ‘I go away, and come again to you’, and ‘a little while and you shall not see me, and again in a little while you shall see me.’ Oh, little while, little while! How long a little while!” (74:4). Is this not the mood of Advent? This ‘little while’, which feels a long time, depicts the longing for the Coming One: “‘If he delays wait for him, for he will come, and will not delay’”, the soul leans on her faith. The soul in her longing calls back the Word, the Word that saves, the Word that will usher in new life, the Word that is to be born yet ever-again within our heart and in our midst.
Then Bernard asks us “to bear a little of his foolishness” (74:5) as he shares his own experience of God coming to his soul and this, he says, “many times”. He adds this wisdom in sharing his experience: “I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming, I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or going” (74:5). Does this not ring true for each of us? That often it is only afterwards that we realize we were touched or visited by the silent presence of God.
Bernard follows this and says: “You ask then how I knew he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced” (74:6)? And his reply: “He is life and power and, and as soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone” (74:6). Already the Advent grace is happening. Notice when our slumbering soul begins to move towards hope, there is a movement even if small within the depths of silence. God’s new life is beginning to stir, and the heart begins to soften as it feels its longing. So, this Sunday’s gospel is about staying awake, being attentive to these quiet, gentle stirrings where our longing opens the door to God’s new gesture of Divine love. To get an intimate look at Bernard’s interior posture towards the Word, he says: “As often as he slips away from me, so often shall I call him back. From the burning desire of my heart, I will not cease to call him…and I will implore him to give back to me the joy of his salvation…” (74:7).
Wisdom tells us that while gentle silence enveloped all things (18:14), your all-powerful Word leaped into our hearts ever so quietly. Dear sisters, our preparation is simple: watchful hearts, awake and attuned to the silent whisperings, a posture of faith-filled longing. Then, like St. Bernard, with the burning desire of love, we call out to God for the ‘joy of salvation’, the joy of NEW life that Christ’s coming will bless each one of us with…We ‘know’ with an interior knowing for this is faith, that ‘He will surely come’ and come he will with ‘grace and truth’….
And St. Bernard again lets us know his prayer experience, which surely awakens our desire: “And I implore him not to come empty-handed but full of grace and truth, as is his nature…” (74:7). Let us also implore God to come not empty-handed but full of grace and truth, for these we and all people need ever more deeply.
Sr. Kathy DeVico, Abbess
First Sunday of Advent – December 3, 2023 – cycle-B