Savoring B&B During Advent

My impression (certainly subject to correction) is that most parishes still retain the “four-hymn” format at Sunday Mass. A growing number, however, seem to be adopting a chant version of the “Introit” or “Entrance Antiphon” of the Mass, whether in English or in Latin. In my view, much is gained by that practice. Not only does chant serve to foster a meditative opening to liturgical worship; the “Introit” itself is integral to the day’s liturgy, setting its doxological tone.

Thus the “Introit” for this Third Sunday of Advent boldly hymns the Pauline injunction: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near.”

Those of a certain (my) age remember the designation of Advent’s Third Sunday as “Gaudete Sunday” – a welcome reminder that Advent’s expectant austerity is a joyful austerity. A salutary reminder more urgent in this time of enforced austerity, both physical and spiritual.

Yet the perennial challenge, whether in times of stress or (ever relative) security, is to appropriate personally the new life that Jesus offers, that Jesus is. In terms so central to Saint John Henry Newman’s preaching and writing: how are we to pass from a merely “notional” to a “real” understanding and experience of the saving truths of the faith? In the case of the entrance antiphon of today’s liturgy: how make real for ourselves that the Lord is truly near and that abiding in him is cause of exceeding joy?

Newman suggests that the passage from notional to real is facilitated by the “imagination.” Think of Saint Ignatius’ procedure in his Spiritual Exercises. He recommends placing ourselves imaginatively in the Gospel scene, as a participant or onlooker. By exercising our senses of sight or hearing, touch or smell, the scene becomes vivid, our meditation more personal and affecting.

Though Newman does not define what he means by “imagination,” he typically associates it with the affections, the heart, especially within the setting of a concrete encounter between persons. No surprise, then, that he chose as his “motto,” when he was made Cardinal: Cor ad cor loquitur –“heart speaks to heart.”

Two persons have been speaking to my own heart in a special way this Advent season. Though separated from each other by 600 years and from us by even more, they are cherished “mystagogues” – guides into the Mystery of Advent and the still greater Mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation. The two are St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). A spiritually inebriating B&B.

Focus upon the “heart,” as the seat of human affectivity, is prominent in both Bernard and Bach. They appreciate that unless the heart is touched, roused, enkindled, religion remains merely a dry and dutiful practice. So they set their poetic and musical genius to stir into flame the embers of devotion that may lie dormant.


For neither of them does affection connote sentimentality. Both, in different ways, rouse the heart without deprecating the head. Though Bernard is fond of speaking of the “sweetness” of Jesus – “Jesu dulcis memoria” – it is an invigorating, never a saccharine sweetness. He exclaims in the Twentieth Sermon on the Song of Songs: “Your affection for your Lord Jesus should be both tender and intimate, to oppose the sweet enticements of sensual life. Sweetness conquers sweetness as one nail drives out another.” A “sweetness” hard as nails!

Bach twice composed Advent Cantatas based on Luther’s hymn, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” – “Come now, Savior of the Gentiles.” In the first, he offers a lovely aria for soprano who sings softly: “Open fully, my heart, for Jesus comes to enter in.” In the second rendition, ten years later, the bass intones his conviction: “The hero comes forth from Judah. He runs his course with joy to redeem us the fallen.” And Christ the hero wrings from the human heart the joyous choral refrain: “O wunderbarer Segensschein” – “O wondrous sign of blessing.”

But Bernard and Bach employ all their gifts of poetic and musical rhetoric to lead us yet deeper. The goal of the diapason of Advent affections they sound is to promote a renewed realization of the intimate union uniting Christians with their Lord. Both chant a spousal mysticism that joins Christ and Christian in loving embrace. In his Seventy-fourth Sermon Bernard assumes the persona of the Bride in the “Song of Songs” and pledges: “As often as he slips away from me, so often will I seek him. . .begging him, with a burning desire of the heart to return. I will beseech him to give me the joy of his salvation and return to me.”

Bach, in a third Advent Cantata, “Schwingt freudig euch empor” – “Soar joyfully aloft” – provides the tenor with a tender aria, accompanied by oboe d’amore, to declaim: “As the bride is enchanted to behold the bridegroom, so the heart seeks Jesus.” And the chorus ecstatically celebrates the wedding feast: “Sing, dance, rejoice, exult, thank the Lord!”

In his fine book, Bach’s Major Vocal Works, Markus Rathey sums up well Bach’s synoptic vision. Bach gives voice, in surpassing musical genius, to “the love story between Christ and humanity, bridegroom and bride. . .the longing and waiting for the beloved, his arrival, the loving gaze, the kiss.”

And a discerning commentator on Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs writes: “the name of Jesus is constantly on his tongue, in his heart, on the tip of his pen. The name of Jesus is light, nourishment, and medicine for the poor human heart.” Saint Bernard himself rhapsodizes: “Only one who has shared the experience can know what it is to love Jesus.”

So we return to the “Introit” for the Third Sunday of Advent, enlightened and enchanted by Bernard and Bach, enabled to appropriate more deeply the glad tidings it proclaims. Why rejoice? For the Lord is indeed near! How near? In our very heart – heart speaking truly to heart.


*Image: Apparition of The Virgin to St Bernard by Filippino Lippi, 1486 [Church of Badia, Florence, Italy]

Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. His collected essays and reflections, some of which first appeared at The Catholic Thing, have recently been published as Christ Brings All Newness (Word on Fire Academic).