This Advent we will look at Advent sermons of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. They are concise in words and huge in thought, a model for priests to strive to emulate. Go here to view the first one and here to view the second.
“And the Lord spoke again to Achaz, saying: Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God, either unto the depth of hell, or unto the height above. And Achaz said: I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.”(Isa. vii. 10-12.)
WE have heard Isaiah persuading King Achaz to ask for a sign from the Lord, either in the depth of hell, or in the height above. We have heard the King’s answer ^ having the semblance of piety, but not its reality. On this account he deserved to be rejected by Him Who sees the heart, and to Whom the thoughts of men confess. “I will not ask, “he says, “and I will not tempt the Lord. “Achaz was puffed up with the pomp of the regal throne, and skilled in the cunning words of human wisdom. Isaias has therefore heard the words: “Go, tell that fox to ask for himself a sign from the Lord unto the depths of hell. “For the fox had a hole, but it was in hell, where, if he descended, he would find One Who would catch the wise in his cunning. Again: “Go,” says the Lord, “to that bird, and let him ask for a sign in the heights above,” for the bird hath his high nest; but though he ascend to heaven, he will there find Him Who “resisteth the proud,” and trampleth with might on the necks of the lofty and high-minded. Achaz refused to ask a sign of that sovereign power, or that incomprehensible depth. Wherefore the Lord Himself promised to the house of David a sign of goodness and charity, that those whom the exhibition of His power could not terrify, nor the manifestations of His wisdom subdue, might be allured by His exceeding love. In the words “depth of hell “may be not unfitly portrayed the charity “greater than which no man hath, “that Christ should at death descend even unto hell “for His friends. “And in this God would teach Achaz either to dread the majesty of Him Who reigns in the highest, or to embrace the charity of Him Who descends to the lowest. Grievous, therefore, alike to God and man is he who will neither think on majesty with fear nor meditate on charity with love. “Wherefore,” the Prophet says, “the Lord himself shall give you a sign.”(Isa. vii. 14.) – a sign resplendent alike with majesty and love. “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which is interpreted, ‘God with us.'” O Adam! flee not away, for God is with us! Fear not, O man, nor be afraid to hear His name; it is “God with us.” With us in the likeness of our nature; with us for our service and for our profit. For us He is come as one of us, passible like unto us.
It is said, “He will eat butter and honey”; as if to say, He shall be a little one, fed with infant’s food. “That he may know how to reject evil and choose good.” As in the case of the forbidden tree, the tree of transgression, so now we hear of an option between good and evil. But the choice of the second Adam is better than that of the first. Choosing the good, He refused the evil; not as He Who loved cursing, and it came upon Him; and He would not have blessing, and it was far from Him. (Ps. cviii. 18.) In the prophecy that He would eat butter and honey you may notice the choice of this little one. But may His grace support us, that what He grants us the power to understand He may likewise enable us to explain!
From milk we obtain two substances, butter and cheese. Butter is oily and moist; cheese, on the contrary, is hard. Our little one knew well how to choose when, eating the butter, He did not taste the cheese. Behold, therefore, how He chose the best; He assumed our nature free from all corruption of sin. Of sinners we read that their heart is curdled as milk; the purity of their nature is corrupted by the fermentation of malice and iniquity.
And now let us turn to the honey. Our bee feeds among lilies, and dwells in the flowery country of the angels. This bee flew to the city of Nazareth, which is, interpreted, a flower; He came to the sweet-smelling flower of perpetual virginity; He settled upon it, He clove to it. But bees, besides their sweet honey, have likewise their sharp sting. The Prophet that sang of the mercy and judgment of the Lord, knew that this bee had a sting as well as honey. (Ps. c. I.) Nevertheless, when He descended to us He brought honey only – that is, mercy, not judgment – so that to the disciples who wished to call down fire from heaven on the cities that would not receive Him, He answered: “The Son of Man is not come to judge the world, but to save it.” (St. John xii. 47.) Our bee had no sting in His mortal life; amid the extremity of insult He showed mercy, not judgment. Christ, then, may be symbolized both as a bee and as the flower springing from the rod. And, as we know, the rod is the Virgin Mother of God.
This flower, the Son of the Virgin, is “white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.” (Cant. v. 10.) It is the flower on which the angels desire to look, the flower whose perfume shall revive the dead, the flower, as He Himself declares, of the field, not of the garden. This flower grew and flourished in the field independent of all human culture; unsown by the hand of man, untilled by the spade, or fattened by moisture. So did the womb of Mary blossom. As a rich pasture it brought forth the flower of eternal beauty, whose freshness shall never fade nor see corruption, whose glory is to everlasting. O sublime virgin rod, that raisest thy holy head aloft, even to Him Who sitteth on the throne, even to the Lord of Majesty! And this is not wonderful, for thou hast planted thy roots deeply in the soil of humility. O truly celestial plant, than which none more precious, none more holy! O true tree of life, alone deemed worthy to bear the fruit of salvation! Thou art caught, O wicked serpent, caught in thy own cunning; thy falsity is laid bare. Two evils thou hadst imputed to thy Creator; thou hadst defamed Him by envy and by lying, but in both imputations thou art convicted a liar. He to whom thou hadst promised that he should not die did die, “and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.” (Ps. cxvi. 2.) And now answer, if thou canst, what tree God could forbid man, seeing He denied him not this chosen rod, this sublime fruit? For “he that spared not his own Son, how hath he not with him given us all things?” (Rom. viii. 32.)
It is now surely clear how the Virgin is the royal way by which the Saviour has drawn near to us, coming forth from her womb as a Bridegroom from His bridal chamber. Holding on, therefore, to this way, let us endeavour to ascend to Him by her, through Whom He descended to us; let us seek His grace through her by whom He came to succour our need.
O blessed finder of grace! Mother of life! Mother of salvation! may we through thee have access to thy Son, that through thee we may be received by Him Who through thee was given to us. May thy integrity and purity excuse before Him the stain of our corruption; may thy humility, so pleasing to God, obtain from Him the pardon of our vanity. May thy abundant charity cover the multitude of our iniquity, and thy glorious fruitfulness supply our indigence of merits. Our Lady, our Mediatrix, our Advocate, reconcile us to thy Son, commend us to thy Son, present us to thy Son. By the grace thou hast found, by the prerogative thou didst merit, by the mercy thou didst bring forth, obtain, O blessed one, that He Who vouchsafed to become partaker of our infirmity and misery, may, through thy intercession, make us partakers of His blessedness and glory, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, Who is God blessed above all for evermore. Amen.