1. We begin this mystagogy with Advent and end it with Pentecost. We follow Christ from his birth to the birth of the Church, leading to a deeper discovery of our personal mission as members of the Body of Christ.
2. Only one person in the Gospels followed Christ’s life in its full trajectory, from conception to Ascension, i.e. his mother. So we put our hand in hers. It is Mary / the Church who leads us on the journey.
3. Liturgy and life interpenetrate. Often the liturgical time in which we are, or a feast we are celebrating, throws light on some experience in our life, and that experience in daily life gives us a larger understanding of what we are celebrating in the liturgy.
4. As a liturgical season, Advent is a ‘sacramental’. A sacramental is a holy thing which comes from the Church (Advent goes back to 6th c.) and which if we use it well brings a grace to us (cf. CCC 1667ff). It is a particular door into the Mystery.
5. In the ancient world, an adventus was the visit of the Ruler to a City. So Christ comes to us as messianic King. The grace of Advent is to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ: for the celebration of his birth at Christmas, for his daily coming in our lives, for his coming at the end of our lives and the end of time. The Holy Spirit and the Church ‘conspire’ to prepare us.
6. Mary’s Immaculate Conception belongs here. She was prepared from all eternity (the predestined Mother of God) and by being graced from the first moment of her existence. Thus she became the place where the glory of divinity makes its home.
7. ‘A voice cries, Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Is ch. 40).
8. Advent is full of beautiful customs and liturgy very rich: rich in hymns and songs and carols; rich in antiphons; rich in readings (Isaiah, Paul); rich in prayers (every day its own Collect).
Advent varies in length depending on day of week on which Christmas falls, but always 4 Sundays. 1st Sunday about 2nd Coming, 2nd & 3rd about John the Baptist, 4th about immediate preparations for Jesus’ birth (Mary).
Advent in two parts: up to 16th inclusive, where focus is more on 2nd coming of Christ, and from 17th where focus is on birth.
Weekday readings of 1st part – a great deal of Isaiah. From Thursday of Week 2, gospels all about John the Baptist. From 17th immediate preparation.
Two Prefaces. ‘For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him, the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling, John the Baptist sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came’ (from the 2nd).
O Antiphons used from 17th to 23rd, seven of them. Full of longing for Christ. ‘O Wisdom, who come forth from the mouth of the Most High, who fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle way, O come and teach us the way of wisdom.’ ‘O key of David and sceptre of Israel, who open and noone can close, who close no one can open, O come and free the captive from prison, those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.’ ‘O Rising Sun, the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice, O come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.’
Mary and John the Baptist
1. On saints in general. There are i) those of the bible from Noah and Abraham to Timothy and Titus; ii) the beatified and canonised of Church history; iii) the good and holy people we have known, now gone to God, who neither will be or could be canonised, but who are still ‘our’ saints, and to whom we pray. Saints of Bible the saints: the ones who receive the most liturgical honour, who belong to all Christians and to all humanity so far as it knows the Bible.
2. Among them Mary & John the Baptist shine out, and they shine out together. A ‘mystical dyad’ (Sergius Bulgakov). They are only two saints whose births are celebrated; they come together in Advent; they flank the holy sacrifice in the Roman Canon (Mary heading first list of saints, John the second); they bracket Church’s daily prayer, the morning Benedictus hailing John’s birth, the Magnificat being Mary’s; in Eastern iconostases are set either side of Christ the Judge as the twin intercessors for humanity. Mary was the minister of Jesus’ birth, of the Word’s becoming flesh; John was the minister of his baptism, of his public mission. A woman and a man; Mary’s femininity as the service of Christ, John’s masculinity. (As Kingdom of God comes about through the linked divine missions of the Son and the Spirit, so through the complementary human missions of man and woman). Both are types of the Church. Both give us the profile of humanity in Christ, humanity as it should be. Both disclose the beauty of holiness.
3. As patterns and profiles of humanity, of holiness:
a) The whole meaning of their lives is found in their relationship to Christ – as disclosed in their ‘titles’: theotókos, and Forerunner of the Lord / Friend of the Bridegroom – and in their distinct but parallel missions to bring Christ into the world. In the beginning, humanity called to ‘be fruitful and multiply’; highest form of this is to share in the fruitfulness of the Father and in some sense co-generate his Son. Mary ‘prepares a body’ for the Lord, John ‘prepares a people’. Mary brings Christ into the world as a woman of faith and a mother, with her whole soul and body; knew Jesus intimately, from within; fulfilled her mission in the feminine mode. John brings Christ into the world as a prophet by word and deed and ascetic life; perhaps only once conversed with Christ; pointed to him from without; fulfilled his mission in the male mode. Mary’s motherhood broken open to become universal at the foot of the Cross, her own participation in the death and resurrection. John loses his life in Herod’s prison, in ‘sordid particulars’, upholding the law, at a distance from Jesus, and ‘resurrects’ to his eternal place as forerunner in the Gospel and the Church. Their position on the iconostasis points to their role, through intercession, as ‘generators’ of Christ’s full and final coming to the cosmos through judgment. So human vocation, beauty of holiness, is to ‘generate’ Christ in others at the cost of one’s own separate, private, egocentric existence, to live for Another.
b) This mission comes from above and is received as a gift. In the lives of both Mary and John shines the eternal predestining of God. Mary is chosen from eternity, from her conception, by the sheer grace of God. John’s life and mission disclosed to his father before he was conceived and he is graced before his birth. Both were prophesied in the OT. So human vocation, beauty of holiness, is not self-constructed, but to discover God’s eternal plan for oneself as it unfolds piecemeal, stage by stage, in one’s life. It is to receive a gift, then to consent to it and cooperate with it. ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.’ ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ The parallel to the Annunciation in John’s life is the moment when Jesus comes to be baptised (Mt 3:13-15). Jesus asks for baptism, John refuses, Jesus counters:‘Allow it for now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ (i.e. to fulfill God’s plan, the Mystery. ‘And he allowed it.’ He ‘humbled his humility’ (Bulgakov). ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’ John’s joy is the marriage of the Bridegroom to the Bride. So human vocation, beauty of holiness lies in this active surrender, receptive consent, this giving up of one’s way to enter God’s, which is infinitely richer and more thrilling.
4. This is grace of Advent, the level way along which the glory of the Lord is revealed. Fill in valleys of our sadness, self-doubt, fear; level hills of our arrogance, judging, contempt. All in view of revelation of glory: humanity the ‘place’ of this. Mary and John the great signs of all this entails, human beings in whom the glory is revealed.