‘The coming of our God, our thoughts must now employ.” These words set the tone for our approach to Christmas.
The famous Advent sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux helps us to grasp their full meaning. He says that there are three comings of Christ for which we must be ready: the first coming of Christ, in the flesh, in time; his second coming at the end of time; and a third coming which “lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible.”
He makes his meaning clear with these words:
In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.
In this way St Bernard opens the full scope of our Advent preparation and the richness of our Christmas celebration.
In fact, in these words he lays before us a panorama of our Christian discipleship.
In celebrating the first coming of Christ, we are reminded that we are to welcome him not only in the moment of his birth but also by entering more fully into the drama of his daily life, actions, suffering and his self-gift in dying. We are to absorb every aspect of his mission, for in him lies our Way, our Truth and our Life.
People say that a gift of a puppy is not just for Christmas. So too, the coming of our Saviour is for every day of every year of our lives. When we rejoice in his birth, we embrace the gift of his entire life and set out afresh to be shaped by the patterns that he teaches.
The second coming of Christ is our beacon of hope. It is the promise of the completion of all things in him, so that he may bring before his Heavenly Father the completed work of creation, in which all tension, contradiction and antagonism has been resolved. This is the hope in which we live: that despite our failures and destructive behaviour, in Christ all things will be restored and the harmony of God’s creative design will be made clear. Is there not an echo of this hope in every Christmas celebration? So often families get together for this Day. They strive, with great preparation, to sit, eat and enjoy being together and find again the harmony of their family life. It is a challenge. But it is a glimpse of the hope we have in our hearts which, in faith, we know can be accomplished only in Christ.
This is where the third or middle coming of Christ is so important. As we sit for our Christmas meal, he is there in our midst. Listen again to the words of St Bernard: “In case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says: ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him.’ ”
He adds: “This coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”
On this road to the Father we need the accompaniment of each other and the accompaniment of the Church. This is the first priority of the reform of the Church being enacted by Pope Francis. Accompaniment and discernment are the way in which we are to respond to the invitation of our loving Father. Only by showing that this invitation excludes no one, that the embrace of God’s mercy is never withdrawn, can we make clear the true beauty of the Father’s call.
Pope Francis is clear: what is needed most of all today is a word of compassion and encouragement. Arguments can be won and lost, in the Church or around the family table, even at Christmas. But trouble is deepened when those arguments overpower goodwill and the meal ends in acrimony. The light of truth is bathed in compassion and mercy. Only in that spirit can the accompaniment we offer be completed in the discernment we all need.
A happy Christmas to you all.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster