St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of Three Advents. The First one we are familiar with, it prepares us for the birth of Christ at Christmas. The Second is Christ’s return at the end of history, or the Second Coming. But the Third Advent is less known, and points to the arrival of Christ to dwell in our own hearts.
St. Bernard explains: “[The Third Advent] is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation…”
But often the “rest and consolation” of the Third Advent eludes us, particularly during this holiday season. Perhaps a look at that First Advent can help us reclaim its peace.
Peaceful as we may imagine it now, that First Advent was a time of great confusion, hardship, and chaos. First a census, then a dislocating long journey with a very pregnant woman, a rejection of basic shelter at a busy inn, and rounding it all out, the hot mess of childbirth in an unsanitary stable, surrounded by farm animals.
All of this is a fitting image for the human heart: filled with the churning mess of life and all the crap (literally) that goes along with it. Into this animal shelter arrives the Christ child in the dead of night, bringing with him a hidden wholeness and an otherworldly peace.
And then, the nomadic shepherds, the glorious angels, the noble magi, and even the celestial stars themselves arrive to adore.
This Third Advent touches the infinite depths of each one of us, filled as we are with our personal histories, private joys and public sorrows, our hidden wounds and even more hidden desires for wholeness. And into all of this hidden, rejected, mess of our inner lives comes the Christ child.
How, this Advent, can we welcome this divine peace into our anxious human hearts?
St. Bernard guides us: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him… Where is God’s word to be kept? Obviously in the heart, as the prophet says: I have hidden your words in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.“
He continues: “Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.”
St. Bernard offers a final instruction: “The Son with the Father will come to you. The great Prophet who will build the new Jerusalem will come, the one who makes all things new.”
Advent is a good time for new things, a good time to start again. A time to feed on goodness, and to fill our souls with richness and strength.
In doing so, we prepare to welcome the Christ child into the stable of our human hearts, messy and contradictory as they may be. And when Christmas morning comes may we find ourselves resting peacefully in God’s Advent embrace, prepared for that Final Advent when God will be all in all.
For more on the Three Advents, see: https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/three-comings-of-the-lord-st-bernard/
For more ways to make Advent more meaningful, see: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/advent/