I like to begin with a text from the twelfth century Cistercian Abbot, Guerric of Igny, and then tease out what he is saying to his brother monks and to us. This is from his fifth sermon for Advent: “‘Prepare a way for the Lord.’ We prepare the way of the Lord as we are bidden to do so by walking along it; and we can walk along it only by preparin However far you journey along it, the way is always waiting to be prepared, so that you must start afresh from the place that you have reached and advance along what lies ahead. You are led to do so because at every stage you meet the Lord for whose coming you are preparing the way, and each time you see him in a completely new way and as a much greater figure than you have met before” (Liturgical Sermons, book 1, sermon 5:1, p.30).g it.
Guerric is commenting on the prophet’s words: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. How do we prepare the way? We prepare the way, Guerric says, ‘as we are bidden’ and by walking along it: it is important to hear, to receive the prophetic voice: ‘prepare the way’…this voice calls out within us…as we hear the prophetic call we place one foot before the other and begin the ‘walk’. The next part of this phrase seems to tell us what ‘walking on the way’ is about…walking itself is preparing the way, in other words we prepare the way by walking on the path or being on the way. The phrase ‘as we are bidden’ tells us that the Divine voice is reaching out to us…perhaps is even walking towards us as we walk along the way. In fact, the initiator, in this advent journey, is God, who bids us to prepare the way. It is important to note that we are standing in this paradox: that we prepare the way by walking on it, and we can only walk on it by preparing it!
The next movement in this text, and, this text is like a symphony, we get another variation on the theme: Guerric says ‘however far we have journeyed, the way is always waiting to be prepared’! What could this koan-like statement mean? We are never finished with our work, that is, ‘preparing the way’. What concretely do you think this preparation is about? I think it can be summed up in one word: ‘conversion’. It does not necessarily mean that we have done something wrong or have sinned. Rather, it is about the gradual opening of our heart…expanding and deepening the heart, purifying the heart to make it available each step of the way for God to be revealed. To unite our will to God’s will is a life-long process. To make our selves available for new life involves new steps of opening our lives in faith to God. It is interesting to note that no matter how far we have “advanced” towards what lies ahead, we still have work to do! We are told ‘to start afresh from the place that we have reached’: our preparation of the way is always a NEW moment, an entirely NEW possibility. This to me suggests that it is not some same old process…we begin afresh from the place we have reached, which continually asks child-like wonder, readiness, new courage and desire, willingness to take the next step toward the end goal.
Next, Guerric says we are led to do so because we have met the Lord along the way…in fact at every stage of the way we meet the Divine presence! This experience of meeting the Divine along the way impels us forward…we have tasted and we ‘know’…we know now not with our heads alone but with our hearts and souls. There is the end goal towards which we are always moving towards and then the paradox that with each step on the way, we experience the One who is coming. In the immediacy of the moment we meet and experience what we are longing for…this is the God who is coming now.
The final nuance in what Guerric says is that each time we meet the Lord on the way we meet the Divine presence in a new way: ‘he is so much greater than before’! We might ponder: what is ‘new’ in this brief meeting on the way, and, greater in what way? For me it feels to be greater in love, greater in the overflowing gift of peace, Christ’s peace. The ‘newness’ is about the deeper quality of love, the deeper quality of his peace…The coming One who we meet each step of the way is more a part of our lives, our consciousness is more like his, we can experience his peace and unconditional love in all aspects of our lives.
I like to conclude with a final thought, which expresses what I think is the main point of Guerric’s introduction to sermon #5. Raymond Brown refers to a variety of scholars in his commentary on John 14: 6 where Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’. Brown notes this comment of Rudolph Bultmann: “that in Jesus the disciples encounter their Saviour, and the way is no longer spatially separated from the goal of truth and life. Their way is already their goal” (The Gospel of John, XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible series, p.621). Imagine: the way is not spatially separated from the goal…even though it may appear or feel like that. The goal somehow is part of the way! “Their way is already their goal.” Is this not saying that we meet the end goal along the way; that we experience, even if in a quickly passing moment, a taste of Divine life and truth…And so we continue on the journey because we know from experience that we will not be disappointed. We know that we will meet along the way the One who ‘of his grace, we have all received, grace upon grace’. Indeed, as we prepare the way, as we walk along the way, we will meet the One who is the truth and the life. We will receive the grace that opens us up just enough to receive the new life that God longs to bestow upon us.