What is the newness of Christianity? What is the heart, the fulcrum, of the Christian event? From where does its attractiveness, its beauty, flow? What makes it convincing? We could consider different theological answers, but I think that it will be enough to remember a verse from the Scriptures, a key verse, which we call to mind at least three times a day: and the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14). In the Word made flesh, the glory of God appeared, all of the glory of God. In the Word made flesh, the love of the Father was manifested and communicated itself, without interference. In the flesh of Jesus -and only in it- we can find salvation.
Advent prepares us for Christmas. It is a school of Christianity that pushes us to live not only four weeks a year, but every hour of every day, in the memory of the surprising fact of the Incarnation, as an expectation of the presence of God among us, as an openness to welcome this grace. I would like, therefore, to fix our attention on the dynamic of the Incarnation and on what it implies for us, which is the sacramental dimension of Christian life.
Insisting on the sacramental dimension seems useful, if not necessary, because it contains the force, the concreteness, the beauty, and the fruitfulness of our faith. The weakness or absence of liveliness, of persuasiveness, of constructiveness, and of missionary impetus in the majority of the baptized today, stems from a way of living the faith not as a belonging to a concrete place, which would be sacramental, not as an offering of the self to the You of Jesus Christ within daily life, but as a religiosity practiced beginning from one’s self, from one’s feeling; perhaps that religiosity is even noble and inspired by the Bible and by liturgical habit, but still it does not begin from the recognition of a present event: the presence of God in the fabric of creation.
Christmas proclaims the coming of the Savior. Radiant among the thick darkness, Jesus, true light comes among us, as a famous hymn of Advent says. What is this luminosity of Christ? What makes him so radiant, true light capable of defeating even the most dense darkness? The force of Jesus does not belong in something that He carries in Himself, but in the gift of self of the Most High become Emmanuel, of God-with-Us.
Luke the Evangelist opens the curtain for us on the modest dwelling of Nazareth, where the angel Gabriel encounters the Virgin. Iconography of this moment, from the gothic onwards, often depicts Mary in the context of her home. Not so much, as one might imagine, engrossed in domestic tasks, but in prayer, while reading Scripture.
Let’s try to imagine how the Madonna would have recited the pages of the Torah, of the psalms or the prophets, meditating on the promises that God placed on the lips of Moses, David, Isaiah or Jeremiah. The handmaiden of the Lord carries within herself, incarnates, is completely transfixed by the expectation of her people. That chosen people that exists only in as much as it is chosen and preferred by Yahweh. The God of Israel literally “fought” with this people, so that it would be His, be holy, so that it could become a blessing for all of the peoples on earth. Mary is pervaded by the drama of the relationship between God and Israel. She was certainly pained by the infidelity of her people that the prophets denounced and pronounced judgment on with words as harsh as they were tender. Pained, but also joyfully certain of the love of God.
To this woman whose expectation was so totalizing, in that corner of Nazareth, the angel appears: Rejoice, full of Grace, the Lord is with you! (Lk 1:28).
After this solemn greeting, the angel announces to her that she will conceive a son who will be great and will be called Son of the Most High (Lk 1:32). The Holy Spirit will come down on you and the power of the Most High will cover you in its shadow. For this reason, the one to be born will be holy and will be called Son of God (Lk 1:35). The allusion is clear and recalls the end of the Book of Exodus, where it says that when the cloud covers the Ark of the Covenant, the glory of the Lord filled the dwelling place (Ex 40:34), so much so that even Moses could not enter. And now this same cloud of the Most High would overshadow the womb of this young virgin. What a mystery! Yahweh, the Most High, the creator of the universe, the God who with a mighty arm had freed His people from slavery in Egypt, the God of the Covenant, the God who, in the course of centuries, had spoken to, judged, condemned, and consoled His chosen people through the prophets – this God, was now asking to dwell in her, to make Himself a bud of human life, a fetus of a son within her womb. Not anymore, therefore, inspired words that inspire action, but a human presence.
We will never be able to grasp in an exhaustive way the radical newness, the change so full of consequences, the tenderness and human density of this announcement of the angel that led to this conception. The Creator who made Himself creature.
The Logos -that is, the principle that guides the cosmos and gives life to every blade of grass, but which is, above all, the ultimate ordering and meaning of the cosmos- reveals itself as Emmanuel. With this fact, the communication on the part of God does not take place as a word that is proclaimed (as it was through the prophets) and not even as law (as it was with Moses), but as a human presence with whom one could enter into relationship, like a neighbor. The Logos became biography, a You towards which to look, with whom to dialogue, to whom one could become affectively bound.
Mary, she who awaits and welcomes
Let’s reflect a bit on the figure of the Madonna. Mary is the prototype of Advent because, as we’ve said, she waits. She waits with all of the fibers of her person. It was she, with all of the vibration of her humanity, or -to say it in the words of Fr. Giussani- with all of her religious sense, who was waiting.
This waiting, even if it was an existential position, was not solely an internal fact. It was a personal waiting, but one which was the repercussion in her flesh of the entire drama of her people. It was a religiosity that safekept the drama of the people of which she was a part. And how did she safekeep this expectation of her people? With faith! Mary believed that the God of the Covenant would have kept his promise. The expectation of Mary, her Advent, was an expression of attachment to God, of faith, of abandonment to His promise. Faithfulness to the history of Israel and, therefore, faithful waiting. Mary of Nazareth, spouse of Joseph, is the tip of the iceberg of the rest of Israel.
Mary, however, is the paradigmatic figure of Advent and of Christmas not only because she awaits but also and above all, because she welcomes the word and the coming of God. When in human history was there a pronouncement of a “yes” that is more dramatic, but also more beautiful, more pure, more total and unconditioned, more fruitful, than that of Mary? Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done to me according to Your word (Lk 1:38). She became the prototype of all of those who are called. Her beauty flows from the fact that she, before all, “joyfully gave everything,” as an antiphon dear to Fr. Giussani goes: Domine Deus, in simplicitate cordis mei laetus obtuli universa (cfr. 1 Cr 29:17).
In this way, in her, freedom was exalted and made fertile as in no one prior to her. When is a Stradivarius most exalted? When it is played upon by a genius violinist. It’s the same: the virginity of Mary flowered and became fruitful maternity because she was tenderly “valorized” as the instrument of God Himself!
Christ, the universal become man
We do not have the purity of Mary. We are sinners affected by a certain obtuseness before the Mystery, burdened by superficiality and by a continual tendency to be distracted; for this reason, we must help one another to live Advent with greater awareness. This is the important thing: not to help each other to live in a pious way, but to live in an aware way, oriented towards grasping the meaning, towards grasping the import of what the Incarnation represents.
Let’s think about this mystery: 13.81 billion years after the Big Bang, in a little town in the Roman Empire, on a planet in the Solar System that is found at the margins of the Milky Way, a galaxy that is 100,000 light years wide and is only one among billions of others that are even greater, in this tiny corner of the universe and of history, the Logos that transcends this cosmos -because it is He who created it- became man. The Only Begotten of the Father became a fetus, then a needy newborn, then a playful child, then an adolescent with perhaps some acne on his skin, then a man whose trade was carpentry. A man with a manly face, as the Shroud allows us to imagine, a man who spoke, discussed, was a guest at meals, a man who was so exhausted that he slept on a boat, a man who wept for the death of his friend, Lazarus. The Logos became man!
But pay attention: when this man says “I”, it is not some inspired person speaking, nor a human genius in action, but is the Only Begotten of the Father, the second person of the Trinity. Jesus of Nazareth is not an inspired man; He is God incarnate.
The Catechism underlines that “Christ’s human nature belongs, as his own, to the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it. Everything that Christ is and does in this nature derives from “one of the Trinity”. The Son of God therefore communicates to his humanity his own personal mode of existence in the Trinity. In his soul as in his body, Christ thus expresses humanly the divine ways of the Trinity” (CCC 470).
Giussani, even as a high schooler, remained deeply wounded, amazed and moved by the fact that God became man and, therefore, that goodness, beauty, truth, and justice are not anymore to be sought in general principles -which is the great quest of Greek philosophy, but also of the Enlightenment and of idealism- or in who knows what cosmic, natural, or magic forces -as certain fashionable and current ways of thinking would have it-, but are communicated in the face of Jesus, son of Mary, whose feet walked on the dusty roads of Palestine during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Truth, and Love, are He. The universal is He, able to be encountered in the particularity of that man. God, Destiny, does not need to be imagined; it can be looked at.
Better: it is He who sees you, who comes to you and provokes, invites and challenges you. Peter spoke to us of this. The adulteress washed his feet with her tears. Jesus does not reference -like a prophet or a religious genius- a God who lies beyond things, but is the presence of God. The one who sees me, sees the Father (cfr. Jn 12:45). In the son of Mary, it is YHWH who revealed and made a gift of himself.
In his Prologue, John made a lapidary and incontestable statement: no one has even seen God. The Only-Begotten Son, who is God and is in the bosom of the Father, is He who revealed Him (Jn 1:18). A few verses later, he will recount -banal in its concreteness- the encounter with John and Andrew.
If the existence of the cosmos is a miracle, the Incarnation is an even greater one, because no one would have been able to predict it. And yet, it happened. This is the good news, the surprising novelty that changes everything. This is also our joy, our strength, what moves us. At Christmas, we want to help one another to welcome Emmanuel with eyes wide open, full of wonder, with an open and moved heart, because we are celebrating the greatest thing that could happen to anyone on this earth: to bump into God!
God, becoming incarnate, does not give man something; He gives him Himself: per víscera misericórdiae Dei nostri che visitavit nos Oriens ex alto, as the Benedictus states (Lk 1:78). We are amazed before the manifestation and the gift of the visceral mercy of our God.
If it is true, as it says in the beginning of the Letter of the Colassians, that All things were created through him and for him, that he is the first among all things and all things subsist in him, that it was pleasing to God that in him dwell all fullness (Col 1:15-20), then it is clear: the beanpole for climbing to heaven, the medicine for healing wounds, the forces that defeat evil, the intelligence that advances history, the embrace that consoles, the intelligence to understand how reality works, is Him, Jesus Christ. What He did, His initiatives, His gaze, His judgment, His friendship are the self-communication of the Mystery.
Sacramentality: God became man in order to remain with us
Emmanuel came, not to just make an appearance, but to remain. The motivation of the incarnation is not to show an ideal and then to leave us to carry it out alone. He came to establish a relationship with us. The phrase that ends the Gospel of Matthew is the promise of the Risen One: Behold, I will be with you, even until the ends of the world (Mt 28:20). And we know well according to what dynamic this permanence came about and spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. It is that which John describes in his genius: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).
We know that this permanence happens within and through the life of communion, the life of the Church. The Church is not the place of the memory of a past or the guardians of a discourse of Jesus. It is -and this is the most correct word- the sacrament of His presence and of His action.
The flesh of the Son of God continues to palpate and to act sacramentally through signs, gestures, places and persons who do not only vaguely reference Him, but which are the effective instrument for His self-communication to us, which make our coming into relationship with Him possible, to be able to carnally relate with the Mystery, to allow ourselves to be formed, lifted up and liberated by Him.
This miracle of the Incarnation, which communicates itself to us according to a sacramental dynamic, firstly, makes accessible for us the mystery hidden from ages (Col 1:26), and, secondly, exalts everything that is human. In fact, God uses everything that is human to communicate Himself to us and to valorize the Stradivarius that we are to the greatest extent. God made Himself familiar with the flesh and uses it to communicate Himself. He could have used the method of inspiration: inspire from on high, and instead, he didn’t. Why not? Because he wanted to show the value of our flesh, our heart, our freedom.
Jesus, the Incarnate Word, reaches us today through the Church, the sacraments, the word of God read in the Bible and explain by those who task it is to do so; He reaches us through certain songs and through a certain way to work and to offer difficulties, through the authority of the Church and through those who lead us. In these things, with differing grades and intensities, but always, ultimately, according to a sacramental dynamic, the adventus of the Logos comes about, the giving of the “blood” of God to the veins of our mortal flesh, within our normal daily living. In short, our house of Nazareth becomes the places we inhabit every day.
Martin Luther, thinking that he would regain an authentic religiosity and reform the Church by eliminating all filth and superficiality, affirmed that faith was enough (sola fide) inspired uniquely by the Scriptures (sola Scriptura). These things, according to him, guaranteed redemption; and all of this, he insisted, came about through sola gratia. This seemed to be a very pious discourse, if it had not been for the fact that God had decided to operate a different way: redemption does, of course, come about through grace, but this grace is not given through inspiration. Grace communicates itself in the flesh; it acts incarnated. Grace has historical connotations, biographical connotations, for its action.
This is why -I’m using an example from among the thousands possible- St. Charles Borromeo, often depicted in prayer before the Crucifix, decided to visit the most distant parishes in the valleys of Lombardy, why he took care of the formation of priests, promoting the institution of seminaries, why he welcomed and valorized various new religious orders and why he did not shy away from caring for plague victims. The Office of readings on his feast day, November 4th, proposes his speech at the last Diocesean synod that he led. On that occasion, he paternally recalled his priests to prepare themselves adequately for the celebration of the eucharist from the time they arrived in the sacristy. What attention for the flesh! Because he knew that the novelty of Christianity, its beauty, its redemptive incisiveness, could happen only according to the grace of Christ incarnate, a grace that operates according to a sacramental dynamic.
And what to say about Fr. Giussani? Does not his method perhaps rest entirely in the fact of having proposed the faith as a belonging to a concrete place and, therefore, characterized by gestures, words, and actions that have the power to make possible an experience with the You of Christ? Fr. Giussani had a limpidly clear perception of the fact that God is Mystery, but equally clear for him was the awareness that this Mystery communicates itself according to the dynamic of the Incarnation. It was as the “prolongation” of the Incarnation that he went up the famous three steps of Berchet High School. And once he was there, what did he do? He did not declare what he thought was the truth, but challenged the freedom and the reason of the students involving them in a relationship of communion that could help them to embrace all of reality and to compare everything with the Christian message. Certainly the Raggio meeting or charitable work in the Bassa were not themselves the Mystery, but they were the place within which the high schoolers became more familiar with it, so much so that their concrete lives began, increasingly, to become memory, offering, and vocation.
We are His sacrament
We have been touched by this charism. Advent this year finds us, therefore, expectant and attentive to welcoming He who became flesh for us too and who operates here and now in the flesh. He is operative in the flesh of the Eucharist, in the flesh of our company, in the flesh of your personal, vocational journey, in the flesh of silence and of charitable work, of study and of free time lived according to intelligence and the ways that we have been taught.
Advent, therefore, is not primarily time to care for an intimacy closed within the self, waiting to be inspired, but it is participation in the flux of a story already begun. It means giving space and letting ourselves be involved with a flesh that is expanding and that is a sacrament of Emmanuel who is engaging you now. Living ascesis in a Christian way does not mean translating a theory into praxis, but interacting with a present fact, with the event of His presence.
The consequence of this method of God is truly wonderful. In his Prologue, John says that to those who welcome Him, He gives the power to become children of God: this is literally a new generation, not according to a human will, but by God (cfr. Jn 1:12ss). This new generation is not the production of a standard model disciple. The Incarnation does not produce models, but generates children. These, like in a family, are never equal. The Spirit of Jesus is creative and makes the individuality of each person flourish. Christian communion, precisely in those places where it realizes a real unity with Christ and with brothers, exalts the originality of the single person. The test of a true Christian community is not the uniformity of soldiers, but the charismatic richness of a body, whose members are all different, but all oriented towards the life of the whole body, which is one.
This is a fascinating consequence of the second coming of Christ, that in the flesh, which happens according to a sacramental dynamic, through which each person is called by name. In this orchestra, every instrument has its function, its utility. In this way, the beauty of each instrument, like that of the whole orchestra, does not come about if each person plays how they feel like playing, but if each person is ordered to the whole of the musical work. Therefore, Advent, if we want to keep using this image, is tuning one’s own instrument to contribute to the great symphony.
The dynamic of the Incarnation, then, exalts every aspect of nature and of human life. Expectation, which is the fundamental dynamic of Advent, is not about sitting on a bench and waiting. The expectation of Advent is question, begging, hope and giving thanks, operosity within the real, curiosity and interest, desire to understand and to judge, work and offering of self. “With our hands, with Your strength” read the title of an exhibit at the Meeting of Rimini some years back, dedicated to Benedictine monks. The order of St. Benedict realizes, in fact, a form of life in which everything becomes prayer and prayer, in its turn, prolongs itself within the smallest gesture of daily life. Just like it was for Mary.
I’ll add something else which regards the sacramental dimension of our life. The coming of Christ, which is His self-communication to man, never reaches me alongside my vocation, but as a valorization of that vocation. Like the person of Jesus was completely pervaded by His mission, so too must we be pervaded by the awareness of being chosen in order to be sent, to be builders of cathedrals, protagonists of His story. In brief: called to be instruments of His operative presence: “With our hands and with Your strength”, as I said.
Advent -which, as a dynamic, cannot be reduced to the four weeks before Christmas- is a protagonism that, welcoming the Word, participates in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. It is not mysticism nor is it a simple liturgical rite. It is a real adventus, a coming of the Messiah, it is a call that reaches us now! Our Fraternity will be that much more beautiful and mature, fascinating and creative, the more that we help one another -we who are united by baptism and by vocation- to welcome it, as just as in the testimony of Mary, John, the Benedictine monks, St. Charles, Fr. Giussani and many others.
Advent retreat in the House of formation, Rome, November 28, 2021
Romano Christen is associate pastor of the pastoral unit of Bad Godesberg, in Bonn, Germany. In the image, Fra Angelico The Annunciation. 1428, Museo El Prado, Madrid