Tuesday of the First Week of Advent
Psalm 71: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
We celebrate the Holy Mysteries today in the company of Saint Barbara, virgin and martyr enlightened by the brightness of the Three Divine Persons — which is why she is represented holding a tower pierced by three windows, and of Saint John Damascene, Priest and Doctor of the Rightness of Making and Venerating Sacred Images. Today’s two saints and, indeed, all the saints, are witnesses to the hope that does not disappoint.
Familiar With the Saints and With Their Stories
Attentive readers of Spe Salvi, the Holy Father’s Encyclical on hope, are struck by the importance he gives to the witness of the saints. This is characteristic of Catholic theology. It is a theology that springs out of the experience of God and stimulates one to seek His Face. It is a theology springing out of holiness and bearing the fruits of holiness. Consider just this: the Holy Father presents the life experience of Sudanese Saint Josephine Bakhita, a former slave, as an authoritative illustration of what hope means. Pope Benedict XVI is one of the great theological minds of our age, precisely because he is familiar with the saints, with their stories, and with their experience.
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. It too bears witness to the experience of the saints of every age:
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 prayer 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 and tender 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 Contagion 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).
The Great Pollutant
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.
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, and the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Consolatrix Afflictorum, the Consoler of the Afflicted.
The Consoling Angel
A certain Jansenistic perspective, especially prevalent in some religious Orders, 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. It is not virile. 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.
Pope Benedict XVI addresses the grace of consolation in his Encyclical. He too presents God in Christ as one who consoles us. Con-solare: to be with another in his solitude. Christ came into the world, and remains present in the Sacrament of His Love until the end of time, in order to be with us in all our solitudes.
He Who Is to Come
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.
Changed by Hope
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 Eucharist: Consolamini, consolamini, popule meus, “Be ye comforted, be ye comforted, O my people” (Is 40:1). Ask today to be consoled by the presence of Him who comes. And prepare yourself to be changed by hope, as were all the saints without exception.