Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Advent: Coming and Going

With the excitement of driving out of town to move to a new phase of life, there often comes a pang of sadness in watching the hometown get smaller in the rearview mirror. Now imagine driving into a treacherous dark night with the warm lights of home in that rearview. We think of Christ’s advent as a coming—as the coming—and rightly so. But there is in this coming very much a going. For the Son of God to come, he had to, though being in very nature God, not consider equality with God something to be clung to or used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross (see Phil. 2:6-8).

Christ’s advent and incarnation are about a profound leaving, a leaving behind of surety and trappings and status and comfort and the warm light of power to come to the cold, dark night of anonymity and abandonment, of pain and humiliation and death. The light of the world had to leave the “unapproachable light” of glory in order to come to the “people who walk in darkness.” This is the Christ child, heralded by the heavenly host while he helplessly wails into the blackness and bleakness of our collective night.

And so, in many ways, it is for us. Each coming requires a leaving. Each step on our journey requires another step left behind. Otherwise, we are standing still, which is sometimes appropriate, but other times is a clinging to some secure season of life, using to our advantage some place or person or experience that should be left behind for a new coming. This is especially the case in our own advent, our coming into our true selves, which requires leaving behind the false self piece by piece, step by step.
St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Tiepolo

Dorothy Day famously summarized an important aspect of the teaching of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) with the words, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’”[1] Jesus came to deliver us from the broken, pitted road of sin and lies. But he also came to be the road to heaven—and not merely heaven when we die, but heaven all the way to heaven. So, just as the Way, Truth, and Life of heaven left to come and bring heaven to us, so we must leave more and more of our old selves to come to him, to grow up into his likeness. For the same mind must be in us that was in him who left…in him who came.

Catherine offers comfort and guidance for the journey into the cold, dark winter: “In the light of faith I gain wisdom in the wisdom of the Word your Son; in the light of faith I am strong, constant, persevering; in the light of faith I have hope: It does not let me faint along the way. This light teaches me the way, and without this light I would be walking in the dark.”[2] So, in faith, we leave behind the fires of the familiar in order to follow the light that came into the darkness—the light that proclaims, indwells, and empowers even us to be light in the world. As we light the candles of the season we should remember not only Christ’s coming, but also the leaving that was required for his coming. And we should follow him. There is enough heavenly light for the next step.

[1] Dorothy Day, All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day (New York: Image, 2010), epigraph.
[2] Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Susan Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 365.

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