Words on the Word
2. Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1-9: Wrap the cloak of integrity around you.
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11: Never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception of what is best.
Luke 3:1-6: In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign.
The word of God has been present in creation from the beginning. By God’s word all things came into being. By God’s word all things are sustained. In earlier times, this principle sounded somewhat abstract. You had to have something of a philosophical bent of mind to grasp what it stood for. We are better favoured. Divine providence and human ingenuity have given us a striking illustration. Think of a WiFi signal. For almost all of us, now, life now seems unliveable without it. Where Mount Saint Bernard is, out in the country, the signal is scarce and sporadic. It is fascinating to watch how guests, who ostensibly come to withdraw from the world, are appalled, almost prone to despair, when they find that the guesthouse is internetless. One sees them wandering around outside looking lost, their iPhones and Pads held high, like the sticks of water diviners of old, on a quest to pick up a virtual signal.
What WiFi is to our gadgets, God’s word is to the world as such. Should it cease, the world would collapse. In a way, then, God’s word is almost banal. It surrounds us everywhere, even though we don’t hear or see it any more than we see or hear a mobile network, be it 5G. We ought to think about this more. The fact that we exist is a constant gift from God. Even our breath becomes prayer if we are conscious of what it represents. ‘Let Christ be the air you breathe!’, said Saint Anthony. Yes!
The Word of God also resounds more particularly, though. Thus it ‘came’ to John in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, while Pilate was governor, etc. This list of dates and names can seem like dull pedantry – but no: these details bear a message. They tell us that God’s action erupts in history measurably. God’s word doesn’t just surround us like a vague atmosphere. It speaks to us personally, expecting a response.
The call to John was preceded by a long prophetic silence. People asked: Has God forgotten us? Why doesn’t he speak? In our days, it is tempting to ask similarly. The life of the Church is marked by crises, compromised trust, broken promises. We live with great sadness and worry. We might wonder: What has happened to the promises that were in the air not so long ago, full of sweetness and strength? Where is God now?
It’s a stupid question, of course. God is eternal, unchangeable. He is where he has always been: everywhere. The problem is not that he is far from us, but that we are far from him. I often think of a letter Pierre de Bérulle wrote to a French Carmelite he accompanied in the early 17th century. The nun moaned (as we are all inclined to moan) that her spiritual life had dried up, somehow. ‘Why’, she asked, ‘oh why has God abandoned me?’ Bérulle answered sternly. ‘Why do you expect God to run after you as if he were a nanny? Are you not a grown-up?’ We shouldn’t, he went on, expect to be given gifts all the time. What matters is to make use of the grace we have been given, to let it bear fruit. This counsel chimes in with the Lord’s own teaching. Think of the images from agriculture strewn throughout the parables. One process must follow another, in order. The seed must be sown. It must be given time to develop, while we tend and water it.
The message of John the Baptist points towards something that has already been given. To indicate the new that is to come, he has recourse to old words. ‘Remember Isaiah!’, he cries. ‘The Lord asked us long ago to make what is crooked straight, to fill in valleys and level mountains. Have we done it?’
What about you and me? Do we prepare a way for the Lord in our lives, churches, and communities? Are our eyes fixed on him in expectant longing? Or do we really seek comfort and prosperity for ourselves. Meletios of Nikopolis, a bishop of our times, once wrote: ‘The Church is not of man. The Church is of God. And whenever God is present, the human element ought to recede. When it doesn’t, when instead it is validated, the Church does not do well. Anthropocentrism kills the Church and its life.’
As far as I can see, these are words we need to hear in our times, in our circumstances. ‘Do you seek God?’ This was the only question St Benedict, our Father, asked candidates who turned up, wishing to embrace monastic life. It was his only criterion of discernment, but one that reached far.
Do we seek God? Do we surrender ourselves to him humbly and obey his commandments? Are we able and willing, as St Paul would have us be, to ‘never stop improving [our] knowledge and deepening [our] perception of what is best’, so as to be found blameless and pure on the day of Christ Jesus – not according to our will, but according to his?
If the Church, which at present is living through a long winter, is to ready itself for spring, we must learn anew to live on God’s terms. Monasteries have a crucial role to play in this respect. Indeed, they have a sacred obligation to live prophetically, as Pope Francis likes to remind us. By the grace conferred through profession and consecration, monks and nuns are to show the world that it is possible to live entirely for God, and that such a life is a source of reconciled, sanctified communion in joy and peace.
Today, all Catholics in Norway are united in prayer and action to support your foundation here at Munkeby. May the life lived here, dear brothers, be marked by a profound faith in God, by love of his holy will and by a readiness to follow it unconditionally. The Church needs holy monks, wrapped in the cloak of integrity, to remind us all that God’s promise carries; that his fidelity is unfailing if only we enable it to operate by being faithful ourselves.
Be faithful! Become holy! That is my exhortation to you today, even as I likewise exhort myself and all of us. Amen.