First Tuesday of Advent
Psalm 71: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
The photograph is of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar of the church of Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Virginia.
The Advent Collects
The Collects of the Advent liturgy merit our close attention. Crafted under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they are a distillation of life-giving doctrine. Our own personal prayer derives from the prayer of the Church and flows back into it.
What the Church asks for all her children in the Collect of the Mass and Divine Office, I must learn to ask for myself and for those recommended to my prayer. It is through the sacred liturgy and, in a particular way, through the daily Collect, that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26).
Today’s Collect comes from the rotulus or scroll of Ravenna and, according to some scholars, could date from as early as the fifth century:
be gracious to our supplications
and in tribulation grant us, we pray,
the help of your strong and tender love;
that being consoled by the presence of your Son who is to come,
we may be untainted, even now, by the contagion of our old ways.
The Collect makes two requests of God. The first is, “be gracious to our supplications and in tribulation, grant us we pray the help of your pietas, your strong, fatherly love.” The tone of the prayer is humble and full of confidence. We ask God to be gracious to our supplications. Supplication comes from the Latin verb supplico, meaning to kneel down or to bend low. We approach God humbly, making ourselves close to the dust of the earth from which we were created (cf. Gen 2:7).
The first request is for the help of God’s pietas, his strong, faithful, fatherly devotedness, in our tribulation. Tribulation means affliction, oppression, distress, or trouble. No one of us is entirely free from tribulation. Each of us has his troubles or, as Julien Green says, “each man has his night.” Today’s Collect teaches us that in the midst of trouble we can and must kneel in the dust, beseeching God to grant us his pietatis auxilium, the help of his fatherly love.
The Pollution of Sin
The second request is related to the first: “that being consoled by the presence of your Son who is to come, we may be untainted, even now, by the contagion of our old ways.” We ask that we may be untainted — the Latin says not polluted — by the contagion of old patterns of sin. The notion of defilement by contagion is found in the Old Testament. The nineteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers describes the situations which render a man unclean, that is, polluted or defiled. Such a man has to be purified with water sprinkled from a hyssop (cf. Num 19:18).
Every sin of ours leaves in the soul a trace of defilement. Sin is the great unseen pollutant. The tradition of the Church has always viewed sin as a kind of sickness of the soul. Today’s Collect says that sin leaves behind a kind of moral contagion. Our spiritual immune systems are compromised by past patterns of sin. It is easy for us to be reinfected by sin, by the contagion of what is old. This refers not only to the condition of poor old Adam after the Fall; it also refers to the “old man” in each of us, to the “old man” who shows his deformed face in every actual sin of ours. Actual sins, that is, our own personal sins committed after Baptism, weaken the effects of the Redemption in us.
Christ the Consoler
This is why we pray today that, “consoled by the presence of your Son who is to come, we may be untainted, even now, by the contagion of our old ways.” The Collect speaks of Christ’s consoling presence. Christ comes to console us in our weakness and infirmity.
In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus says, “I will pray the Father, and will give you another Consoler, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him” (Jn 14:15). Christ is the first Consoler sent by the Father; by his priestly intercession he obtains for us another Consoler, the Holy Spirit. The consoling mission of Christ is completed, not abrogated, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christ remains for all eternity the Consoler, the Comforter.
A certain Jansenistic point of view would have us believe that it is somehow wrong to pray for consolation. Most of us have somehow subscribed to the idea, albeit unconsciously, that we ought not to pray for comfort. “Consolation is for the weak,” is the thinking of many of us. We forget that the Father sent a consoling angel to Christ in the hour of his agony in Gethsemani (cf. Lk 22:43).
Saint Paul presents the Father himself as consoling us through Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4). Saint Thomas Aquinas, explaining this passage says, Qui non est consolatus, nescit consolare, “He who has not been consoled, does not know how to console.” This is why today the Church makes us ask for the consolation of the presence of Christ.
The Eucharistic Advent of Christ
The only little phrase in the Collect that gives it an Advent colour is: “the presence of your Son who is to come.” He who will come as Judge at the end of time, comes to us now in Word and in Sacrament as Consoler. Christ’s Advent in glory is prepared by his Advent in mystery, by his Eucharistic Advent.
In coming to us in the mysteries of his Body and Blood, Christ consoles us. He strengthens every soul weakened by recurrent sin, or diminished by the tribulations of physical, emotional, or spiritual tribulation. In place of the contagion of our former ways, he gives the grace to walk in newness of life.
The prose of the Advent chant Rorate expresses the reality of every Eucharistic Advent of the Lord: Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus, “Be ye comforted, be ye comforted, O my people” (Is 40:1). The presence of the Consoling Christ does not end with the celebration of Holy Mass. Christ the Consoler remains. The abiding presence of the consoling Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar is one of those things “hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed to little ones” (Lk 10:21). And, mysteriously, His consolation is that we should go to Him to be consoled.