Saint Benedict expected that the whole life of a monk ought to be like a continuous Lenten observance. This can sound dour until we realize that this means a perpetual preparation for the Resurrection. Contemplative monks and nuns are the Church’s watchmen, waiting with the angels for the return of the Lord. From this perspective, one might also consider the life of a monk a continuous Advent. Each morning, we rise well before dawn and keep vigil. This vigil has a two-fold focus. We await the rising sun, which is the mysterious sign of the resurrection and the new creation. But we also rise in the middle of the night to be sure to be awake when the Master returns.
“Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare. [Luke 21: 34]” Thus does our Lord caution us about His return., the great Day of the Lord, prophesied by the obscure Second Temple prophet Joel. This prophecy is the basis for the double motet Canite tuba/Rorate caeli, set for us this evening by Palestrina, but popular among many of the great Renaissance masters.
It is worth lingering a bit longer on the dense imagery in these twin motets. Both end with “Come, Lord, do not delay!” It might appear from this longing that as we turn our focus to the Lord’s coming, we turn away from the dire needs of this world. But this either/or, black-and-white understanding, while tidy, is inaccurate. The desire for the Lord’s return is the desire to see the crooked ways made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. In the beautiful prophecy of Isaiah 40, we also recognize Christ as the “Just One,” whom we await, the King Who will restore justice to the earth. For us to have a genuine longing for this arrival, we must cultivate the ability to name injustice where we see it. We also must work against injustice, first in our own hearts, but in our world as well. Only if we are passionately concerned for peace and justice can we properly long for the final and definitive restoration of shalom and tzedek, the fervent concerns of the great prophets of old.
It is worth noting that the First Sunday of Advent also focuses on Jerusalem, and more particularly, Mount Zion. To understand the rich reference here, it helps to look ahead to the goal: the visible manifestation of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christmas season is replete with the language of sight. God’s decisive epiphany uses our physical sense of sight to open up the eyes of faith. As the Christmas preface puts it, “In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.” This theme is played out in myriad ways. Both St. Stephen (whose feast is kept on December 26) and St. John (December 27th) were privileged to see the heavens opened (Acts 7: 56 and Revelation 4: 1). When Jesus is presented in the temple on February 2, this theme arrives at its climax, with the old man Simeon uttering, “My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations [Luke 2: 30—31].” This scene is climactic precisely because of its location in the temple on Mount Zion. The temple was the place in which the chosen people of Israel encountered God in the shadows of the old rites. As the Lord “suddenly appears in His temple [Malachi 3: 1],” the temple fulfills its mission, and the way is cleared for the new temple, the Body of Christ, to be consecrated by Christ’s self-offering upon the Cross.
But this is to look ahead. Today, we are humbly, though fervently, placing ourselves before the Lord and asking that the vision sought by the prophets might be fulfilled in us. We seek that the glory of the Lord might fill us completely, that we might rejoice with daughter Zion at the Lord’s coming, and that we might gain the illumination of spiritual sight, and the “medicine of grace,” not only for ourselves, but “to save and heal the human race,” in the moving words of John Mason Neale.
Show us, Lord, you mercy! And grant us your salvation! May our celebration tonight move our hearts closer to the realization of Christ’s saving presence.