Advent means “coming”. We all know this. In Advent we relive our Lord’s first coming, we gear ourselves up for his second coming, and we try to be sensitive to the ways he comes now. There is a First Coming and a Last Coming and, in between, a Middle Coming, here and now, every day.
Our Lord loves being hidden. He is hidden in God the Father, from all eternity; God’s encrypted secret. He is hidden in the long grass of human history. He was hidden in the Jewish people and their prophets, hidden for nine months in the womb of a young Jewish woman. He is hidden as grace under the flurry of our lives and the turmoil of our feelings. He’s hidden in those suffering, hidden in the Eucharist. But sometimes out of this hiddenness breaks a flash of light or a sudden word or the touch of his grace or the sense of his presence. This is Advent. It is a game of hide and seek. “I sought him whom my soul loves”, says the Woman in the Song of Songs, symbol of the Church; “I sought him but found him not” (Sg 3:1). But then, a few verses later, “What is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of a merchant?” (Sg 3:6). Something, Someone is coming. The Bridegroom.
“Behold there he stands,” says the Song of Songs again, “behind our wall”, “gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice”, looking for us (Sg 2:9). Advent is a courtship; Christmas is the wedding. And the lattice, we can say, is Scripture. Jesus looks and speaks to us through the lattice of others’ words.
So, let’s take today’s 1st reading. “A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse”, says Isaiah. Jesse was David’s father and, according to Isaiah, the Messiah will be a descendant of David. And so indeed Jesus is, through St Joseph his legal father. He will be a new David, our new and definitive King. The Psalm says the same. He’ll bring lasting justice, and peace till the moon fails. He will do, in a realer way, what a king is supposed to do. He comes with the Holy Spirit resting on him, with a cortege of accompanying gifts: wisdom and insight (judging rightly), counsel and power (skilled in spiritual warfare), filled with knowledge and the fear of the Lord (able to speak of God). He comes on behalf of the poor, the little people, reversing history’s miscarriages of justice. He comes even on behalf of the animal world, for the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion, and for children who’ll no longer be harmed. Here, the Coming One is a new Adam, opening a new paradise, restoring the peace of the Garden of Eden. “On that day”, Isaiah ends, “the root of Jesse”, the Messiah, “shall stand as a signal to the peoples”. This is Isaiah’s portrait of the Messiah, and it is fulfilled in Jesus: fulfilled in his birth and baptism and preaching, and finally in his Death and Resurrection. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself”.
And then, in the Gospel, in the guise of fiery John the Baptist with his camel-hair kit, there he is again. “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. The Lord is standing at the door and knocking. The Song of Songs describes the Beloved “putting his hand to the latch” (Sg 5:4) of the Bride’s house. Then the imagery diversifies. He comes to level and tarmac the roads of our hearts, to fell the dead wood of our souls, to winnow the wheat of our lives from their chaff. He comes to baptise us with the Holy Spirit and fire, to set us ablaze with faith and love and hope.
He comes for two reasons, says St Thomas Aquinas, to heal us and to raise us to a new level. He comes for three reasons, says another tradition: to purify us from sin, to share divine light with us and to unite us with himself and each other, here below and fully in heaven. To purify, enlighten and unite.
However we put it, Advent means coming. It means the One who comes, hidden in the colourful, bewildering language of Scripture, hidden in the signs and symbols of the Sacraments, hidden in our strange, maladjusted selves, in our boredom and longings and fears. And out of this hiddenness he comes. He breaks cover. He peers through the lattice and silently lifts the latch. He comes to bless and transform and bring us to a fulness.
And so, what do we hear at Communion? “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights” – Jerusalem is us and the heights are the Scriptures we hear. Yes, Jerusalem, “arise and stand upon the heights and behold the joy which comes to you from God.” May this be our Advent!
St Mary’s Cathedral, 4 December 2022