Advent Intimations and Fulfillment

“One mightier than I is coming.” (Luke 3:16) These words of John the Baptist sound the expectant tone for the Liturgy of this Third Sunday of Advent. The scene, of course, is the preaching of John near the Jordan, and is followed immediately in Luke’s Gospel by the baptism of Jesus with the attestation by the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased!” (Luke 3:22)

But then, unexpectedly, Luke inserts his account of the genealogy of Jesus. It’s as though Luke were now stepping back to paint the larger canvas, highlighting the world-historical import of what had just transpired.

Matthew, of course, also provides a genealogy of the Savior, but does so at the very beginning of his Gospel. Moreover, in keeping with his own evangelical purpose, Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Luke’s rendition of Jesus’ genealogy traces it beyond Abraham, however, to Adam, who is identified as “son of God.” (Luke 3: 38) Luke thereby underscores Jesus the Messiah’s universal significance.

This Lucan universality memorably also appears in the seventeenth chapter of his Acts of the Apostles. Paul is in Athens, preaching at the Areopagus to a crowd including Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. Strikingly, Paul begins by appealing to their own religious sense, to their quest for the “unknown God,” the Creator “by whom we live and move and are.” Indeed, he quotes one of their poets affirming: “we are God’s offspring [genos].” (Acts 17:28) All humanity, Jew and Greek alike, shares a common genealogy.

This conviction by no means lessens the imperative to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s unique offspring; but it provides a precious point of contact with the inchoate longings, the deeply felt intimations of God’s presence in human history and culture.

For this reason, the Catholic tradition, taking its lead from Paul, has shown respect for philosophical reflection, for the conjoining of faith and reason – the Fides et Ratio of Saint John Paul II’s great encyclical. Though some like the truculent Tertullian were skeptical – “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he grumbled – the mainstream of the Great Tradition seeks, with Justin Martyr, to discern “seeds of truth” (semina Verbi) wherever they are encountered.

Vatican II clearly aligns with this universalist tradition in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) when it asserts that every manifestation of “good or truth” can serve as “a preparation for the Gospel.” (LG, 16) And its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) joyfully announces that in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the mystery of man stands fully revealed. “For Adam, the first man, was a figure of him who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the new Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father’s love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his true calling clear.” (GS, 22)

The Christian’s celebration of the Advent season is not diminished but wonderfully enlarged when he or she discerns the fervent Advent yearnings that still abound in human culture, despite the always threatening darkness. It takes Pauline perspicacity to perceive, among the idols of the marketplace, the one altar dedicated to the unknown, but deeply desired Deity who is Source and Goal, by whom we live, move, and are.

When the Mighty One comes in truth, he will assuredly purify and transform all our intimations, our “hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot calls them. But he will also bless them and bring them to fulfillment beyond imagining.

Some sixty years ago I first read the Gitanjali, the wonderful book of “Song Offerings,” by the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 (the first non-European so honored). One poem resonates strongly with me every Advent season.

Have you not heard his silent steps?
He comes, comes, ever comes.

Every moment and every age,
every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.

Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind,
but all their notes have always proclaimed,
He comes, comes, ever comes.

In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.

One senses Advent intimations and more here. And, though the coming of Jesus Christ calls to conversion, it is a conversion to the deeper meaning of all we encounter, in all its scandalous particularity. The Gospel recapitulates all anticipations and presses them to an awe-filled epiphany, a fulfillment beyond all human reckoning. Christ’s coming as this child, as this crucified criminal. His coming in this bread and this wine, transforming the fruit of the earth and of human cultivation into his very body and blood. The Advent of the Mighty One made vulnerable, made incarnate, become human, all too human.

The same Paul, who discerned points of contact with the culture of his time, was unstinting in his insistence upon the transfiguring newness of God’s coming in Jesus Christ. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16)  Are we truly enthralled by this decisive Advent reality? Determined to share the wondrous Good News of God’s coming? I fear that our present peril is not proselytizing (against which we are ceaselessly cautioned). The scandal, rather, is our far too timid proclamation, our hesitant evangelization.

The Advent of the Lord is sheer grace, the real presence of Him who is ever coming. Therefore, as this Sunday’s Liturgy urges, Gaudete in Domino semper – rejoice always in the Lord!

 

*Image: The Visitation by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1445 [Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig, Germany]

You may also enjoy:

Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas’ Hope, the Future, and Advent

Stephen P. White’s Advent and Reform

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).