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A New World

This essay appeared in the January issue of The Catholic Herald

Each year, we begin Advent singing the Introit for the First Sunday: Ad te levavi. It sets a verse from Psalm 24: ‘To you have I lifted up my soul: My God, I trust in you.’ The parallelism of God’s descent and our rising are a leitmotif in liturgy, structurally embedded in the Mass, when we ‘lift up our hearts’ to prepare for the Spirit’s sending-down and the coming among us in mystery of the Son of God. 

God, who makes all things new, enables us to rise from the dust of old habits, old dependencies, old rancours. He calls us to rise and, by grace, to soar. 

Are we prepared for newness?

Canaanite religion, in whose vicinity Biblical hope was formulated, held that the earth is annually reborn at the time of sowing. This outlook gave men and women cause for revels manifest in sensual excess. Secular Christmas — to hide its hopelessness? — has much in common with this cult. It is important to insist on the Christian difference. The renewal which the Gospel announces is no mere recharging of batteries. It speaks of youth restored. 

One has no need to be old in years to know the opposite of youth. I frequently think of a letter which the poet Marie Noël once wrote to her faithful confessor and friend, Father Arthur Mugnier. The poet was not doing well. On account of illness? No, the reason lay deeper. ‘I suffer from a sudden senescence’ she wrote, explaining: ‘The source of my music has dried up.’ 

Marie Noël went through this crisis in 1928. That year she was younger than I am now. I flatter myself by thinking that in speaking of senescence she referred not so much to the nearness of death as to soul-fatigue, an interior paralysis. 

This kind of existential ageing is epidemic now. One encounters it in the young. It is not rare to meet downcast adolescents who have the sense of having lived a hundred years, who have no zest for life, being vulnerable rather to the dark attraction of annihilation. It’s as if the sap in them had dried up or petrified. 

God became man to heal this malaise. For our forbears in the faith, this was self-evident. They lived in a crepuscular world, and knew it. Think of the hymn we sing at vespers during Advent. The text dates from the middle of the ‘Dark Ages’. The beautiful third verse gives voice to deep insight:

When the world inclined towards its night
You emerged like a bridegroom from his wedding chamber —
The most pure enclosure of her who is both Virgin and Mother. 

The womb of the Theotokos is rightly thought of as a ‘wedding chamber’. There the divine Logos was lovingly united to our human nature. This nature, weighed down by sin, haunted by death, was invested with a spark of glory that henceforth never ceases to stir us, refusing to leave us in peace. It reminds us what our being, athirst for rejuvenation, is capable of. 

I love a footnote Henri de Lubac, one of the last century’s great theologians, added to a third-century homily by Origen on Exodus. Explaining the verse in which the Lord gives Israel the promise of manna, Origen honed in on the expression, ‘In the morning they will have their fill of bread’, seeing it as a reference to the incarnate and eucharistic Christ as eternal Morning Star. Father de Lubac, in an otherwise austerely erudite apparatus, allowed himself this marginal outburst:

For Origen, Christ restored to an ageing world perpetual youth. He conveys the sense of joy that bore up the earliest Christian communities, conscious of being heirs to an ancient tradition yet inaugurating at the same time a new world. It still depends on today’s Christians whether Christianity will appear to all as the world’s youth, its hope.

Here we have the task before us: to inaugurate a new world. We are to be bearers of hope, to reject the seduction of the night, to walk integrally, that is chastely, towards dawn. Living thus we shall know the joy of faith. 

The grace of the incarnation was given us to make us new women and men. God became man not just to be adored in his humanity; he was adorable as it was, enthroned on the seraphim. He came to transform our lives. May our soul rise and sing: ‘O God, you are my God; I count on you; make me worthy of your promises!’ 

The fulfilment of this intention, infused into our minds at the beginning of Advent, is prophetically displayed on the last day of Christmas, when Christ is presented in the temple. The cross overshadows the manger. It beckons. It calls for a response. We mustn’t dither. Hesitation is ancient and nocturnal, the antidote to youth renewed ‘like the eagle’s’ (Ps 103.5) through Paschal waters, to life in ascent.

RP Arthur Mugnier (1853-1944)