Advent Sermon of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
GREAT are the works of the Lord,” (Ps. cx. 2.) says the Psalmist. Great indeed are all God s works, but the mysteries which chiefly excite our wonder and admiration are naturally those which concern our eternal salvation. Hence the same Prophet sings: “The Lord hath done great things for us.” (Ps. cxxv. 3.) His munificent dealings with us are shown forth chiefly in our Creation, our present redemption, and our future glorification. O Lord, how greatly art Thou exalted in all Thy works! Do Thou proclaim their excellence to Thy people, and let us not be silent concerning them.
There is a threefold commingling to be considered in these three mysteries, most manifestly heavenly, most evidently the effect of the omnipotence of God. In the first of these mysteries, that of our creation, “God made man from the slime of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” (Gen. ii. 7.) What a wonderful Creator, Who unites and commingles things so opposite! At His beck the slime of the earth and the spirit, or breath of life, are united, and make one being. The earth of which He made man had been previously created when “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But the origin of the spirit was special, not common. It was not infused into the mass of matter, but is specially breathed into each individual of the human race.
O man, acknowledge your dignity! Recognize the glory of human nature! You have a body taken from this earth, for it was fitting that one who is the appointed lord of all visible creatures should bear a similarity to them. But you are at the same time more noble and more exalted than they; nor are they in any way to be compared to you. In you body and soul are closely united; the first is moulded and fashioned, the second is inspired. On which side lies the advantage? Which of the two is the gainer in this union? According to the wisdom of this world, where what is low and mean is associated with what is excellent, those who are in power lord it over their inferiors, and bend them to their will. The strong man tramples on him who is the weaker; the learned man ridicules one who is unlearned; the crafty one deceives the simple; the powerful man despises the weak. It is not thus, O God, in Thy work, not thus in Thy commingling. It was not for such a purpose that Thou didst unite spirit with matter; what is exalted with what is lowly; a noble and excellent creature with the abject, worthless clay. Thou didst will the soul to rule; at the same time who does not see what dignity and advantage it thus confers on the body? Would not the body without the soul be senseless matter? From the soul it derives its beauty, from the soul its growth, from the soul the brightness of the eye and the sound of the voice. All the senses are animated by the soul. By this union charity is commended to me. I read of charity in the very history of my own creation. Not only is charity proclaimed in its first page; it is imprinted within me by the gracious hand of my Maker.
Great indeed is this union of body and soul; would that it had remained firm and unbroken! But, alas! though it had been secured by the Divine seal – for God made man to His own image and likeness – the union was marred, for the seal was broken and the likeness defaced. The worst of thieves approached, stealthily damaged the yet fresh seal, and so sadly changed the Divine likeness that man is now compared to senseless beasts, and is become like unto them.
God made man just, and of this his likeness to God it is written: “The Lord our God is righteous, and there is no iniquity in him.” (Ps. xci. 16.) He made man just and truthful, as He Himself is justice and truth; nor could this union be broken while the integrity of the seal was preserved. But that forger came, and, while promising a better seal, broke, alas! that which had been stamped by the hand of God. “You shall be as gods,” he said, “knowing good and evil.” (Gen. iii. 5.) O malicious one! O crafty spirit! Of what use to that man and woman could the likeness of this knowledge be? Let them “be as gods” by all means, but let them be upright, truthful, like God, in Whom there is no sin. While this seal remained whole the union remained uninjured. Now we have a woeful experience of what we were persuaded to attempt by the devil’s craft. The seal once broken, a bitter parting followed, a sad divorce. O wicked wretch! where is your promise, “You shall not die”? Behold, we all die. There is no man living that shall not taste death. What, then, will become of us, O Lord our God? Will no one repair Thy work? Will no one help to raise the fallen? None can remake but He Who first made. Therefore, “by reason of the misery of the needy, and the groans of the poor, now I will arise, saith the Lord. I will set him in safety: I will deal confidently in his regard.” (Ps. xi. 6.) The enemy shall not prevail over him, nor the son of iniquity have any power to hurt him. Behold, I now make a new mixture, upon which I set a deeper and stronger seal. I will give to fallen man Him Who was not made to My likeness, but Who is the very image and splendour of My glory and the figure of My substance; not made, but begotten before all ages.
The first mixture was compounded of two things, earth and spirit. The second is made up of three, that from this fact we may learn to contemplate the mystery of the Blessed Trinity – the Word Who was in the beginning with God, and was God; the soul, which was created out of nothing, and had no previous existence; and the flesh, taken from corrupted nature without any corruption, separated and singled out by a Divine plan, as if it had not been a portion of mortal flesh; and these three are united together in one Person, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We have in these three a threefold exhibition of power. What was not was created; what had perished was recreated; and what was higher than all was made a little lower than the angels. Here are the three Gospel measures of meal which are, as it were, fermented, that they may become the bread of angels, in order that man may eat the bread which strengthens his heart. Happy Mary! blessed amongst women, in whose chaste womb that bread was prepared by the Holy Ghost Who came down upon thee! Yea, happy woman! who hid in these measures the leaven of thy own glorious faith; so that by faith thou didst conceive Him, by faith thou didst bring Him forth, and by thy faith those things were accomplished in thee which were spoken to thee by the Lord, and for believing which Elizabeth declared thee blessed.
And who need wonder when I say that the Word was united to human flesh through the faith of Mary, seeing that He received that same flesh from hers? There is nothing in the foregoing explanation opposed to our regarding the faith of Mary as a type of the kingdom of heaven; nor does it seem unfitting to compare her faith with the kingdom of heaven, since by that same faith its losses are re paired. This bond of union, this Trinity in Christ, no human power could wholly sever. The “prince of this world” had nothing in Him, the latchet of whose shoe the Baptist himself was unworthy to loose. Yet it was necessary that this triad should in a certain way be dissolved; otherwise, what is not dissolved cannot be reconstructed. Of what use are bread unbroken, a treasure hidden, wisdom concealed? Well might St. John weep when no one was found to open the book and break its seals. Whilst it remained closed, no man amongst us could attain to its Divine wisdom. O Lamb of God! O truly meek Lamb! do Thou open the book. Open out Thy pierced hands and feet, that the treasure of salvation and the plentiful redemption hidden in them may come forth. Break Thy bread to the hungry. Thou alone canst break it to them, Who alone couldst stand firm and unshaken when the union between Thy Divine and human natures appeared broken in Thy passion. In this breaking Thou still hadst power to lay down Thy life and to take it up again. In Thy mercy Thou didst to a certain degree destroy this temple, but didst not wholly dissolve it. Let the soul be separated from the body, the Word will preserve that flesh from corruption and bestow a full liberty on the soul, that it alone of all human souls may be free among the dead, and lead forth from the prison-house those who were bound, those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Let this holy and Divine soul lay down its immaculate flesh, that by dying it may conquer death; but let it resume that flesh on the third day, that by rising again it may raise us all from death to life. This has been done, and let us rejoice in the accomplishment of the mystery. By that death, death is destroyed, and by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we are regenerated in the hope of life.
But who shall say what is to take place in the third and future union? “Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive what God hath prepared for them that love Him.” The consummation of the union will be when Christ shall have restored and given back the kingdom to God and the Father.
To sum up, in the first mixture, where man is made and composed of body and soul, we saw charity recommended. In the second mixture or union, the Incarnation, humility shines pre-eminent in the infinite condescension of God in assuming our human nature, whereby He teaches us that it is by humility alone we can repair the wounds of charity.
In the first union it is no result of humility that the rational soul is united to an earthly body, for it is not by any deliberate act of its own. The soul is immediately breathed into it by God.
It is otherwise in the second union, where the Uncreated Spirit, Himself the Sovereign Good, humbly drew nigh to our nature, and of His own will and choice assumed an unsullied body.
From both we learn that charity and humility are deservedly followed by glorification, for without charity nothing can profit us, and without humility none shall be exalted. In humility, then, is laid up for us the perfection of the beatitude which we expect and long for. May we be so blest as to attain it!