This Advent we will look at Advent sermons of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. They are concise in words and huge in thought, a model for priests to strive to emulate. Go here to view the first one, here to view the second and here to view the third.
IN the Nativity of our Blessed Lord there are two things to be considered, both exceedingly different, exceedingly wonderful. The Child Who is born is God, the Mother of whom He is born is a Virgin, and her child-bearing is without pain. To celebrate these new wonders a new light from heaven shines forth in the darkness of midnight. The angel announces tidings of great joy. A multitude of the heavenly army praise God and sing, “Glory to God on high, and peace on earth to men of good-will.” The shepherds hasten to find the Word that has been announced to them. They proclaim it to others, and all that hear are filled with admiration. Mysteries such as these are signs of Divine power, not of human weakness. They are as the gold and silver vessels, from which, on account of the solemnity, even the poor are served at our Lord’s Sacred Table.
The wise man says, “Consider diligently the things set before thee.” (Prov. xxiii. 1.) I may truly claim to myself the time and place of this Nativity, the weakness of His infantine body, the tears and cries of this sweet Little One, as well as the poverty and vigils of the shepherds to whom our Saviour’s Nativity was first announced. These circumstances are truly mine; for me they were planned, before me they have been placed, and they are offered to me for my spiritual food, for my contemplation.
Christ was born in winter. He was born in the night. And are we to believe that His coming into the world in such an inclement season and in the darkness of night are mere casual events, matters simply fortuitous? From Whom come winter and summer, day and night? Other children that as yet have hardly begun to live do not choose the time of their birth; they have not the use of reason, nor liberty of choice, nor faculty of deliberation. But Christ, though man, was nevertheless God. He was in the beginning with God. He was God, the same of Whom He is the Power and the Wisdom, for He is “the Power and the Wisdom of God.” Therefore, the Son of God, in Whose power it remained to do whatever He willed, when about to be born, chose His own time, and chose, too, what was most specially burdensome to a little child and to the son of a poor mother who had hardly sufficient linen wherewith to swathe Him and no cradle wherein to place Him. And though so great was His necessity, and He God, we hear no mention of a rich and warm coverlet for His Divine and royal members. The first Adam was clothed in a tunic of skins; the second Adam was swathed in rags. Such things are not according to the judgment of this world. Either Christ is deceived, or the world errs. But that the Divine Wisdom could be deceived is impossible. Justly, therefore, is the prudence of the flesh an enemy of God; for the prudence of the flesh is death, and the prudence of the world is folly. What follows? Christ, Who could not be deceived, chose what was painful and troublesome; therefore it is the best, the most profitable choice, that which is to be preferred to all others, and whoever teaches or persuades to the contrary is to be avoided as a tempter and deceiver.
Our Blessed Lord willed to be born in the obscurity of night. Where are they who so shamelessly and studiously display themselves and their actions in the blaze of day? Christ chose what He judged to be most salutary; they choose what He rejected. Which of the two is the more prudent choice? Whose judgment the more just? Whose sentence the more reasonable?
Christ is born in a stable, and lies in a manger. Yet is He not the same that said, “The earth is mine and the fullness thereof”? Why, then, need He choose a stable? Plainly that He might reprove the glory of the world, that He might condemn its empty pride. The Infant Jesus is silent. He does not extol Himself; He does not proclaim His own power and greatness, and behold, an angel announces His birth, a multitude of the heavenly host praise and glorify the new-born King. You that would follow Christ do in like manner imitate His example. Hide the gifts and graces you have received. Love to be unknown. Let the mouths of others praise you, but keep your own lips closed.
His tongue has not spoken, and, behold, everywhere He is proclaimed, preached, made known. These infantine members will not be silent; they have another kind of language: in all of them the judgment of the world is reproved, subverted, and set at naught. What man with intelligence, being free to choose, would not prefer a full-grown, robust body rather than that of an infant? O Divine Wisdom! Thou art manifested by Thy preference for what was hidden and abject. O truly Incarnate Wisdom, veiled in the flesh! This is nevertheless what was long ago prophesied by Isaias: “The child will know how to refuse evil and choose good.” The pleasures of the body are the evil which He refuses; affliction is the good He selects. And assuredly, He that makes His choice is a wise Child, a wise Infant. He is the eternal Word of God, for the Word was made flesh – infirm flesh, tender flesh, the feeble, helpless flesh of an Infant, incapable of its own nature of any good work, feeling a repugnance to labour and hardships. Truly the Word was made flesh, and in flesh dwelt amongst us.
When in the beginning the Word was with God, He dwelt in light inaccessible, and there was none that could bear that light. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor? The carnal man of His own nature perceives not those things which are of the Spirit of God; but now he can perceive them though still carnal, for the Word was made flesh. Since man, on account of the flesh, could understand nothing but what was of the flesh, behold, the Word was made flesh that man might be able even by the flesh to hear and understand the things of the Spirit. O man, behold that wisdom which was heretofore hidden is shown forth to you! It is now drawn forth from its hiding-place, and is laid open to you, and it penetrates into the very perceptions of your nature.
I have already said that He preaches to you even in His Infancy, and says: “Fly from pleasure, for death follows swiftly when sensual pleasure enters. Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Stable preaches this penance to us, the Manger proclaims it to us; this is the language which His Infant members speak; this is the Gospel He announces by His cries and tears. Christ weeps, but not as the rest of children that is, not for the same cause. In other children it is from the suffering inflicted on their senses, in Christ the affections were the source of His sufferings. They suffer but do not act, for they have no power as yet to use their will. They weep from passion, Christ from compassion. They weep under the heavy yoke laid upon every child of Adam; Christ deplores the sins of the children of Adam, and that for which He now sheds streams of tears He will afterwards pour out torrents of blood.
O hardness of my stony heart! Would that as our Lord has been made flesh, so He would make my heart a heart of flesh. It is what He promised by His prophet Ezechiel. “I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh.” (Ezech. xi. 19.) The tears of Christ fill me with shame and sorrow. I was taking my pastime with out in the streets, and in the secrecy of the King’s chamber the sentence of death was passed upon me. His only-begotten Son heard this judgment, and, laying aside His royal diadem, He went forth, sprinkled ashes upon His head, clothed Himself in sackcloth, bared His feet, and mourned and wept over the condemnation of His poor slave. I see Him suddenly go forth. I am amazed at the strangeness of the spectacle. I demand, and am told, the cause. What course am I to take? Shall I still indulge myself and deride His tears? Yea, if I am mad, if I am wanting in mind, I shall fail to follow Him, I shall not weep with Him that weeps. Behold, whence comes my shame, whence is my sorrow, whence my fear? From the consideration of the remedy I may estimate the gravity of the danger. I knew it not. I thought my self in health, and lo! the Son of the Virgin is sent, the Son of the Most High God is sent, and it is even ordained that He shall be put to death in order that by the balsam of His precious Blood my wounds may be healed.
Understand, O man, the grievousness of those wounds for the healing of which it was necessary that Christ our Lord should be wounded. Had they not been wounds unto death, and to eternal death, the Son of God would never have died for their remedy. We have indeed reason to blush and be confounded at our negligence in respect to the Passion of Christ, beholding as we do so much compassion shown to us by such infinite Majesty. The Son of God compassionates man, and weeps over him; man allows Him to do it, and keeps up incessant laughter.
Thus, by considering the remedy, my sorrow and my fear are increased. If I carefully observe the injunctions of my Physician, they will afford me consolation. For, though I recognize the grievousness of the disease for the cure of which such severe remedies were needed, from the very fact of their existence I conjecture that my disease is not in curable. The wise Physician would not apply such costly remedies in a hopeless case, for the very reason that He is a wise Physician yea, Wisdom itself. Neither would He apply such remedies to a case easily curable without them, still less in one where cure was impossible. This hope in our Divine Physician s power and goodness excites us to penance, and enkindles in us the most ardent desire of virtue. This is the same consolation that the visit and discourse of the angels gave to the shepherds in their midnight vigils. Woe to you rich, for you have your consolation here; you do not deserve to have that which is heavenly. How many men noble according to family rank; how many of the powerful and wise of this world, were at that hour stretched restfully on their soft beds, not one of them being found worthy to behold the new and glorious light, to share in the “great joy,” to hear the angels sing, “Glory to God on high”!
This teaches us that those who are not engaged in some useful labour or employment are not worthy to be visited by angels, and that labour undertaken with a pure intention is pleasing to the citizens of heaven. Indeed, they have been known to hold converse, and such happy converse, with the poor and laborious. Is it not, moreover, God s own law that man should earn his support by his own labour and exertions?
Let me, then, earnestly beseech you to consider attentively how much God has done for your instruction and salvation, that a “word so living and efficacious “may not be found fruitless in you. It is a word “faithful and worthy of all acceptance”; it is an efficacious word, no mere verbal expression.
I, who have been speaking to you, am but a miserable man, yet do you suppose it would be a small affliction for me if I were to find that my words had failed to produce any good results in your hearts? With how much more justice, then, will the Lord of all Majesty be indignant if our negligence, our slowness, our hardness of heart, were to make void and vain His great and precious labour.
May He Who for our salvation vouchsafed to clothe Himself in the form of a seivant avert this evil from us His servants He Who is the only- begotten Son of God the Father, God blessed for ever and ever. Amen.