Reading I: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10
Reading II: James 5:7-10
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) underscored not just two “adventings” of Christ, but three. The first coming of Christ disrupted human history when God came to dwell with us as Emmanuel, the Word of God embracing the limitations of a human body. Sooner or later, God will surprise us again with Christ’s final coming when his glory will be apparent to all and creation itself will be renewed to its final fulfillment. Meanwhile, Christ perpetually arrives among us in what Bernard calls a “third” or “middle” coming, a coming not as before (“in our flesh and in our weakness”) or as eventually (“in glory and majesty”) but now “in spirit and in power.” This intermediate coming, Bernard proposes, “is a hidden one” where God comes to us and we sense what God promised through the prophet Isaiah: “Here is your God,” the One who “comes to save you.” Therefore, “Because this coming lies between the other two, it 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.” (See Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3.)
On this Gaudete Sunday, with the Scripture readings proffering grand promises which people begin to realize through simple acts of patient faith, the coming we seem challenged to rejoice in is the ambiguous third or middle coming of Christ that is “hiding” among us and within us.
At Advent’s midpoint, we pray with the psalmist, “Lord, come and save us!” We encounter the darkness and difficulty of the world in myriad ways: from the devastations of war to the degradations of earth’s ecosystems, from the pervasive effects of systemic oppression to the personal ravages of bodily affliction. We long for God coming with vindication, with divine recompense to send sorrow and mourning fleeing from our justifiably frightened hearts. We have experienced enough of the world and ourselves to know that we cannot save ourselves. For us to meet genuine joy and gladness, God must step in and do something that thwarts the way of the wicked and draws all to delight in God’s glory and splendor. Maybe this sometimes involves us going out, to see something special in places and people where God is preparing a way for the inbreaking of something new. But more often, God meets us in mundane moments where we already are. Like a patient farmer, we are urged to trust the process with an attitude of expectant hope as God prepares precious gifts for us in God’s good time. Like a doubting imprisoned prophet, we are called to examine again the signs of our times and notice what we might have missed.
What is God waiting for us to see, to hear, to leap toward, to sing? A slight perspective shift could make all the difference when confronted with consternating enigmas; there is but a little space between despairing that “GOD IS NOWHERE” and arriving at the recognition that “GOD IS NOW HERE.” Right here is your God, coming to save you.
There is also an invitation in these readings to cooperate with the work of God in preparing the way of salvation. God, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, implores us: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God!” Stop complaining about one another, advises James’ letter, and let God judge. Go and tell anyone who asks what you hear and see, Jesus insists. In this way, we make our own hearts firm while helping others to see the salvation we have glimpsed, the salvation already sprouting among us and even now growing toward fuller and more glorious manifestations to come.
Encourage how you can, where you are. We cannot open blind eyes, clear deaf ears, prompt paralyzed legs to leap, or put songs in mute mouths in the same ways that God might, for example. But we can all co-create communities where people with varying abilities are unencumbered by stigmas, structures, and situations that would hamper the full flourishing God intends for them. Just as Christ’s first coming involved God’s Word united to the vulnerability of a human body taking place in time and space, so in this mysterious middle coming of Christ, God’s plan of salvation is still working itself out here and now through the mediated mercies of our broken yet redeemed bodies, which God conforms ever more closely to the divine Word.