04 December 2023, The Tablet

Trusting in the unconditional love of God at Advent


Though each season of the liturgical year recalls one or more aspects of our lives, viewed and lived within the perspective of faith, Advent, in many ways and for various reasons, is the most arresting. The season of Advent renews and deepens the hope and expectation that shapes not just these days leading up to Christmas, but every day of our lives, by bringing together the irreversible past and the unknown future in a grace-filled present. It reminds us not only that we are ‘time-chained creatures’ (Pauline Matarasso), but also that, as in today’s gospel, the day is coming – ‘the fullness of time’, is the word used – when our lives will be lifted out of time into an eternal present. Then, hope and expectation will cease; in their place will be endless delight and unutterable happiness, in the presence of God, the unfathomable fount of all beauty, goodness, truth and love, and in the company of all whom we have loved in this life.

Time, of course, can stir anxiety and fear within even the stoutest heart. But though time’s passing can be heart breaking, Advent refreshes our faith that the eternal and the temporal have already been brought together in the coming of the Word made flesh, dispelling forever the ‘shadow of death’. God is with us: he became visible in a vulnerable child, and he continues to be visible: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, To the Father through the features of men's faces” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). Advent also brings to mind judgment: but it gently reassures us that this calling to account will be a reckoning unlike any other. It will not be wrought by a remote and distant deity, but by one like us, who knows our humanity from within, who has confronted the demons of appetite and obsession, and the pain of loss and grief, and even the anguish and darkness of death; but who rose from death and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We will be judged, in other words, not by divine decree, but by the gaze of one who loves us beyond the power of words to convey. But above all, Advent reassures us that God comes to us: he does not wait for us to find our way to him. And he comes for one purpose only.

The medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), reminded his congregation in a Christmas sermon that God became a fleshly, vulnerable human being, just as we are, solely to reassure us of his love. In his disarming yet homely way, Eckhart told this story to illustrate the truth at the heart of Advent and Christmas: There was once a rich husband and his rich wife. The wife suffered a misfortune, through which she lost an eye, and she was much distressed by this. Then her husband came to her and said: “Madam, why are you so distressed? You should not distress yourself so, because you have lost an eye.”

Then she said: “Sir, I am not distressing myself about the fact that I have lost my eye; what distresses me is that it seems to me that you will love me less because of it.” Then he said: “Madam, I do love you”. Not long after that he gouged out one of his own eyes and came to his wife and said: “Madam, to make you believe that I love you, I have made myself like you: now I too have only one eye.” Meister Eckhart comments on his story: This stands for us, who could scarcely believe that God loved us so much, until God gouged out one of his own eyes and took upon himself our human nature. This is what ‘being made flesh’ is. God was prepared, in other words, to do whatever it took, to prove beyond all doubt his love for us. Advent affords us a precious opportunity to renew our faith and trust in his unconditional love.

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