As we journey through Advent and approach Christmas, it’s always helpful to have wise guides along with us—thinkers, mystics and saints who can remind us of what the season is all about. Maybe they can even give us fresh insight, allowing us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation in a new way.
Here are five quotations from important Christian thinkers and mystics whose words we may want to ponder in the coming days.
In a series of essays exploring the nature of miracles, simply titled On Miracles, CS Lewis refers to the Incarnation as the ‘central miracle’ asserted by Christians: the miracle whereby God took human form. In the Incarnation, the transcendent and all-powerful God became a helpless baby.
But Lewis makes the point that this ‘descent’ is in service of an ‘ascent’: he stoops down to lift back up again. Here, Lewis is echoing the ideas of St Paul, St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Anselm of Canterbury, and many others in the Christian tradition who spoke about God reaching down to recover something precious from the muck: his own creation.
Here is Lewis:
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.
Or one may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.
Famous for her diary recounting extraordinary private revelations about the divine mercy of Jesus, St Faustina also wrote this beautiful Marian prayer in which she talks about Mary’s heart as being the ‘first tabernacle’ on earth for Christ.
O Mary, Immaculate Virgin,
Pure crystal for my heart,
You are my strength, O sturdy anchor!
You are the weak heart’s shield and protection.
O Mary you are pure, of purity incomparable;
At once both Virgin and Mother,
You are beautiful as the sun, without blemish,
And your soul is beyond all comparison.
Your beauty has delighted the eye of the Thrice-Holy One.
He descended from heaven, leaving His eternal throne,
And took Body and Blood of your heart
And for nine months lay hidden in a Virgin's Heart.
O Mother, Virgin, purest of all lilies,
Your heart was Jesus’ first tabernacle on earth.
The Venerable Fulton J Sheen was one of the world’s most popular Catholic bishops. A radio show host and writer, he is treasured by many as one of the finest communicators of the faith. Here, he reminds us, as St Bernard of Clairvaux once did, that Advent is not simply about recalling the birth of Christ; it is about letting him be born into our hearts.
Here is Sheen:
There are two births of Christ, one unto the world in Bethlehem; the other in the soul, when it is spiritually reborn. Men think of the former much more than the later, and celebrate it every year; but the spiritual Bethlehem is equally momentous … It was the second birth that Saint Paul insisted on when he wrote from prison to his beloved people, the Ephesians, asking that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith and that they be rooted and grounded in love. This is the second Bethlehem, or the personal relationship of the individual heart to the Lord Christ.
The prolific English writer and spiritual director Evelyn Underhill had an abiding interest in the lives of the saints, and in the way Christ comes to us not just in lofty, mystical experience, but hidden in the ordinary, earthly details of our lives, quietly transforming us as we open ourselves to him through our prayer and adoration.
Observing that ‘In our souls too the Divine Charity must be incarnate’, she encourages us in The School of Charity to humbly submit to the Spirit’s timing and purposes, rather than our own, and to model our lives on the ‘simple poverty and self-abandonment’ of the Christ Child:
This quality of quietness, ordinariness, simplicity—how deeply hidden, how gradual and unseen by us. To contemplate the proportions of Christ’s life is a terrible rebuke to spiritual impatience and uppish hurry ...
In the life of prayer, the Spirit fills us as we grow and make room, keeps pace with us … The life of the Spirit is to unfold gently and steadily within us. It’s an organic process, a continuous Divine action; not a sudden miracle or series of jerks. Therefore there should be no struggle or impatience, but rather a great flexibility, a gentle acceptance of what comes to us …
We are not to grow in wisdom and stature for our own sakes, in order to achieve what is really a self-interested spirituality. The growth points beyond ourselves, so the teaching, healing, life-changing power of the Divine Love may possess us and work through us. We must lose our own lives, in order to be possessed by that life: that unmeasured Divine generosity that enters the human world in such great humility.
In his homily for Christmas 2022, Pope Francis encouraged people to ‘rediscover the meaning of Christmas’ by reflecting on the significance of Christ being born in a manger—the trough where animals feed.
Advent and Christmas is a season where, these days at least, we not only seem to consume more but are consumed by more: more stresses, more events, more worries, more distractions. In the midst of this, it is important to slow down, pause and consider that God wants to feed us with is his own life, his own love.
Pope Francis says:
He comes there, to a feeding trough, in order to become our food. God is no father who devours his children, but the Father who, in Jesus, makes us his children and feeds us with his tender love. He comes to touch our hearts and to tell us that love alone is the power that changes the course of history. He does not remain distant and mighty, but draws near to us in humility; leaving his throne in heaven, he lets himself be laid in a manger.
Dear brother, dear sister, tonight God is drawing near to you, because you are important to him. From the manger, as food for your life, he tells you: ‘If you feel consumed by events, if you are devoured by a sense of guilt and inadequacy, if you hunger for justice, I, your God, am with you. I know what you are experiencing, for I experienced it myself in that manger. I know your weaknesses, your failings and your history. I was born in order to tell you that I am, and always will be, close to you.’
The Christmas manger, the first message of the divine Child, tells us that God is with us, he loves us, and he seeks us. So take heart!
Banner image: Alnwick Lanfranco Bridgeman, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1606.