Circular Letter: Advent 2004

“In Your Light We See Light”

In the last Circular Letter we began to discuss the “stream that gives joy to God’s city”. We pointed out that this stream, often mentioned in Sacred Scripture, can be understood as the river of life that flows from the open side of Christ on the Cross. And as the river that flowed out of the Garden of Eden divided into four parts, so also this stream from the Heart of Christ has four divisions. The first division, which we discussed in the last Letter, is the stream of praise and adoration which flows over the choirs of angels down into the Church on earth. This stream gives beauty and joy to the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, as it is expressed in the unending song of praise sung by the angels and joined in by men: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might…

In this meditation we shall consider the second branch of the stream which flows from the Heart of Christ. This stream corresponds to the second fundamental direction in the Work of the Holy Angels: contemplation or, in its initial form, meditation. Like the first, this stream gives joy to the City of God. It is the light that enlightens the world with the true Light of God and which warms the world with the ardent furnace of divine charity: the sacred Humanity of Jesus.

Meditation, as one of the fundamental orientations in the Work of the Holy Angels, focuses especially on the Incarnate Word of God. Throughout the history of the Church, as in our own time, there have appeared certain writers who have offered what seemed to be a more “spiritual” way of meditation which does not focus on the Humanity of Christ. Rather, they seek to bypass the Incarnation in order to “immerse oneself directly in the Godhead”. But though this may seem more “spiritual”, in fact it ignores the extraordinary light which God has given to both men and angels in giving His Son. The Incarnate Word is “the mystery hidden for ages in God Who created all things; so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:9-10). This Word Incarnate was the hope of the just in the Old Testament as expressed by Job:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  (Job 19:25-27)

The desire of Job was to “behold God with his very eyes”. It was a privilege enjoyed by the disciples of Christ: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it; and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Lk 10:23-24).

Every year we are faced with the challenge of directing our gaze toward the glory of the Lord which once shone around the shepherds of Bethlehem. We say that it is a challenge because the world, especially during this Season, offers so much tinsel and glitter to deflect our gaze from true glory. It is not easy, at times, to see beyond the many pretty Christmas lights to see the Light of Christ. It is important that we recognize the special grace offered during this Season to meditate on the infancy of the God-man, the first revelation of “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). When the Wisdom of God, the eternal Word, became flesh and dwelt among us, there was fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has coneflower a Child has been born for us, a Son given to us; authority rests upon His shoulders; and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Is 9:2-6)

With the birth of Christ there began to shine the “the true Light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world” (Jn 1:9). By sending His Son, God the Father lit a lamp to give light and joy to His entire house on earth, the Church. That same lamp will continue to shine in the City of God for all eternity, as St. John describes in the Apocalypse: “And the City has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev 21:23-24). It is important to note that the lamp for the heavenly City is not simply the eternal Word of God, but the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, represented by the image of the Lamb.

Jesus Christ takes away the veil (cf. 2 Cor 3:14), so that all of us, “with unveiled faces seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). Once more, this was prophesied by Isaiah:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dona sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.
(Is 60:1-3,19-20)

Every element of Christ’s earthly existence, from His crib in Bethlehem to His Cross on Golgotha, as well as His glorified Humanity risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, serve as a source of light for the Church. But in a very special way, the “glory of the Lord” shone forth on the first Christmas day (cf. Lk 2:9), and that same glory continues to shine in the world especially during the Seasons of Advent and Christmas. By meditation on the Incarnation of Christ one can truly sing this passage from the Psalm:

How precious is Your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They feast on the abundance of Your house, and You give them drink from the river of Your delights. For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.
(Ps 36:7-9)

The feasting from the abundance of God and drinking from the river of His delights is experienced in “the shadow of His wings”, that is, in the shadow of His sacred Humanity. As we mentioned, the “river of [His] delights”, flows from the sacred Heart of Christ. In this stream of light men can know the preciousness of God’s steadfast love. In this stream the saints have feasted on the abundance of God’s house. In the light of the revelation of the perfect love of the Word Incarnate, we can see the Light of God Itself. Considering the special graces offered during this season, we do well to heed the exhortation of the English martyr, Robert Southwell, SJ:

O dying souls, behold your living Spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your Sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your Joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despair:
This Life, this Light, this Word, this Joy repairs.
 (The Nativity of Christ)

The brightness that first began to shine in the dark streets of the little town of Bethlehem came to a certain fullness on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem. It was on the Cross that Christ opened up a most bright fountain of light for all mankind. The splendor of the glory of the Cross becomes evident to us only in the Resurrection. It is a light so bright that it blinds many. Even of those who can manage to look upon it, most can only “squint”, taking in a very limited amount of its splendor. Very few have the strength to gaze upon this light of Christ with wide open eyes. The spiritually blind can only see it as folly, as St. Paul wrote: “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:21). The light of Christ Jesus Crucified is the glory of God the Father. This is the lamp which gives light to God’s city. For the Lamb spoken of by St. John in the center of the Heavenly Jerusalem is the “Lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12).

Many saints and poets have seen that in the Nativity, the glory of Christ’s Paschal Mystery is already prefigured. Mary kneeling at the side of the poor wooden manger foreshadows the moment she stood by the poor wood of the Cross. It is in this same tradition that Robert Southwell, SJ in another poem placed in the mouth of the Christ Child the following words:

“Alas,” quothe He, “but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel My fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
For which, as now on fire, I am to work them to their good,
So I will melt into a bath to wash them in My blood.”
 (The Burning Babe)

The meditation on the Nativity of Jesus also embraces the meditation on the way in which the river of Christ’s light continues to flow into the Church of God through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this Sacrifice the miracle of Bethlehem is in some way renewed. At Holy Communion we can meditate on how Mary, through Holy Mother Church, entrusts to us her divine Child to hold in our embrace for a while. The continual presence of Christ in the Eucharist makes of every tabernacle on earth a Bethlehem, a “House of Bread”; a place where we, like the shepherds, can hasten “to see this thing that is come to pass which the Lord has shown to us” (Lk 2:15). Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, invites us especially in this Year of the Eucharist to meditate on this mystery of divine love and humility.

As we mentioned earlier, the Incarnate Word gives light to the whole house of God. That is to say, He enlightens not only men but also angels. The Incarnation is a mystery into which the angels long to look (cf. 1 Pet 1:12). When St. Augustine described the trial of the angels as contained in the first verses of Genesis, he says that the faithful angels turned toward the Light Who enlightens everyone coming into this world. By turning to the Word of God, they became light, the light of day. The angels who did not turn to the Light became darkness and night. Then God “separated the light from the darkness”, the faithful from the unfaithful angels. This “turning to the Light” of God is a continual activity of the angels.

As Dionysius writes with regard to the highest choir of angels:   “Seraphic love plunges, loses and engulfs itself in the abyss of the Divinity by a glorious transformation. Fire communicates warmth and purifies; the Seraphim carry love and light into all the choirs of the other angels” (Celestial Hierarchies). Similarly, Henri-Marie Boudon writes concerning the second choir of angels: “Divine Light imparts to the [Cherubim] admirable knowledge, and the holy effulgence with which they are replenished is reflected in abundant streams upon the other hierarchies” (Devotion to the Nine Choirs of Holy Angels, Especially the Guardian Angels). So also with the third choir of angels: “The Thrones carry warmth and an outpouring of Wisdom” (Dionysius). This Light channels down through the choirs of angels and is offered to man.

St. John of the Cross describes the manner in which divine wisdom is mediated by the angels, purifying the soul of her deepest faults, making her even more capable of receiving divine illuminations and preparing her for union with God.

…this very wisdom of God, which purges and illumines these souls, purges the angels of their ignorances and gives them understanding by illumining them on matters they are ignorant of. This wisdom descends from God through the first hierarchies unto the last, and from these unto men. It is rightly and truly said in Scripture that all the works of the angels and the inspirations they impart are also granted by God. For ordinarily these works and inspirations are derived from God by means of the angels, and the angels also in turn give them one to another without delay. This communication is like a ray of sunlight shining through many windows placed one after the other. Although it is true that of itself the ray of light passes though them all, nevertheless each window communicates this light to the other with a certain modification according to its own quality.(Dark Night, II, 12)

This text shows that their mediation is not entirely passive. Each angel modifies the light he receives according to his own particular “quality.” Man then is not illumined directly by God, but rather by a spiritual person serving as a mediator who adds to it his own personal element, just as every teacher presents the truth in his own way. This reflects the teaching of the Holy Father where he says,

It is precisely the religious encounter with the world of the purely spiritual being [the angel] that becomes valuable as a revelation…of [man’s] belonging to a design of salvation that is truly great and efficacious within a community of personal beings who serve the providential design of God for man and with man.  (Gen. Audience, Aug. 6, 1986)

The Book of Daniel tells of how the prophet disposed himself for this illumination of God. Because Daniel desired ardently to understand the meaning of a prophecy of Jeremiah, he offered prayers with fasting, placing himself in sackcloth and ashes, and begging that God grant him insight. After having humbled himself, confessing his sins, and making supplication, God sent the angel Gabriel in swift flight to say: “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So consider the word and understand the vision” (Dan 9:20-23).

If Daniel was willing to humble himself to such an extent in order to understand a prophecy of the Old Testament, how much more should we be willing to do so in order to better understand the mystery of the self-emptying of God realized in the Incarnation, the Nativity, and even more, on the Cross. It is not by listening to Christmas carols while reclining in an easy chair, with a soft-drink and a snack by our side that we can hope to truly come “to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18). There has to be a certain similarity between the person who knows and that which is known. For us to understand the humility and the love of Christ in the Incarnation and in the Eucharist, we must have some experiential participation in His generosity. For this reason, the Church offers us the Season of Advent as a Season of joyful self-denial in preparation for the feast of Christmas. If we wish to taste and see the goodness of the Lord as manifested on Christmas day, we must be willing to express this desire by means of some concrete form of sacrifice during the time of Advent.

There is yet another important point indicated in the Book of the prophet Daniel with regard to the influence of the angels in contemplation. When Daniel saw a particular vision, he was so overwhelmed that he fell prostrate and powerless on the earth. But then the angel came “in human form, touched me and strengthened me. He said, ‘Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!’ When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, ‘Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me’” (Dan 9:17-18). Beyond the enlightenment of the intellect, the angel can strengthen us to grasp and bear the brightness of God’s Light. Encouraged by this, we can have confidence that God will provide us the strength that we need to bear the light of His wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross.

This Contemplation of this Wisdom is the second stream that flows from the Heart of Christ, giving joy to the City of God: the stream of light that enlightens the blessed men and angels. They feast on the abundance of God’s house, and He continually gives them drink from this river of His delights. For with Him is the fountain of life; in His light we see light (cf. Ps 36:7-9). To express our desire to drink from this stream, we conclude with the prayer of St. Columban:

Jesus, our loving Savior, be pleased to light our lanterns, so that they may burn ever in Your temple, receiving eternal light from You, the eternal Light, to lighten our darkness and to ward off from us the darkness of the whorled I ever see You only, look on You, long for You; may I gaze with love on You alone and have my lantern shining and burning always in Your presence. (On Compunction, 12, 2)

Fr. Basil Nortz

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