Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Advent of Love

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 or 1091-1153) was without doubt one of Christianity's greatest preachers.  Aside from his questionable involvement in cheering along the Crusaders, his sermons generally bespeak a man who truly loved God and who, as a Cistercian abbot, diligently taught his monks that their whole lives were to be spent in the labor of love.  

In one of his Advent sermons, Bernard speaks of the threefold benefit of the coming, the "advent", of Jesus into the world: the greatest of all demonstrations of love.  In the opening lines he declares: "If we celebrate the Lord's coming with devotion, we are doing what we ought to do. What is more, the One who has no need of our goods not only comes to us, but comes for our sake."  He goes on to explain that the cost of Christ's medicine for humankind gives some hint of the danger of its illness.  And the variety of gifts which Jesus brings, he adds, points up the multiple kinds of needs and weaknesses that we have, far too many to cover in a sermon.  So, he singles out three of them which he takes to be common among us all: 1) our blindness and propensity to be easily led astray; 2) our feeble efforts and weakness in trying to choose the good and do it; and 3) our human frailty, weak resistance and powerlessness in the face of evil.  

The punch line in this remarkably short sermon of only 22 lines (would that all we who are clergy would exercise our homiletic skills in such fashion more often!) is this: "This is why he came into the world: that by dwelling in us, with us, alongside us, he might illumine our darkness, lighten our labors, and ward off all dangers."   And all that, a no-strings-attached gift of love.  Well, maybe one little string: that we, in turn, pass that same gift on to each other.  

A quintessentially simple pre-Christmas message with immensely profound implications in each of our lives.  I think my friend, brother Toby from Starcross Community, must've been reading Bernard's sermon recently.  He sent an email on Sunday to offer comfort in my dealing with my son's current illness: "As you know," he wrote, "God is with you and needs nothing from you...all shall be well."  (For many of you, his comment "God is with you" will call to mind the familiar Advent hymn which has been sung and played so often over the past four weeks: O come, O come, EmmanuelEmmanuel, the Hebrew phrase for God with us.) Bernard probably couldn't have summed it up any better than that!

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