Advent: The Mercy Promised to Our Fathers

“To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:72-73): it seems needful to say that God exercises his mercy upon us in memory of our fathers. To disabuse us of any confidence in our own justice, and to make us better understand that we are saved by grace, the holy priest Zechariah prefers to say that God performs his mercy toward our fathers who have pleased him rather than to their ungrateful children, that God saves us by his goodness and not according to our merits, that is, to satisfy his promise rather than to repay our works, which are so evil.

We must believe that the merits of the saints are graces from God. The grace that gives good works to us is given without our meriting it. When one is holy, one has merit. Yet, to be holy, there must first be a promise made from God’s pure goodness. The reward is indeed due to those who do good works; but the grace — which is not merited — precedes those good works and enables them to be done. Children of grace and of the promise, live in this faith: it is the new alliance that God has made with us, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” and so that he “who boasts, [boasts] of the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:29, 31).

According to “the oath which he swore to our father Abraham” — the mystery of these words cannot be bet­ter expressed than by the letter to the Hebrews. “When God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13). Thus it is written: “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord.” So Abraham, the apostle continues, “having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” For as men “swear by a greater than themselves,” and the oath by which they bring the omnipotence and truth of God into their engagement is “in all their disputes . . . final for confirmation,” so also “when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchange­able character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things [that is, God’s word and the oath that confirmed it], in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:16-18).

No commentary need be offered here; all we need do is listen to the words and let them penetrate us. Let us only take care that in attaching ourselves to the promise, we do not presume on it. God has promised the remission of sins to the penitent, but he has not promised unlimited patience to those who endlessly tax it.

Jesus Christ Promised to the Patriarchs

This article is from a chapter in Meditations for Advent. Click image to preview or order.

The whole human race allowed itself to be corrupted. In the words of Saint Paul: “In past generations [God] al­lowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). Each people wished to have its own god and to make it according to its fancy. The true God, who had made all things, became the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23) who, although “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27) by his works and his gifts, was far removed from our thoughts. A very great evil was triumphing and soon would have become universal. To prevent it, God raised up Abraham, in whom he wished to make a new people and to reunite the peoples of the world in God.

That is the sense of these words: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:1-3). Here then are two things: first, “I will make of you a great nation,” which will be the Hebrew people. But my benediction will not end here: I will bless, I will sanctify through you, all the families of the earth, who, participating in your grace as in your faith, will all together be one people that has re­turned to its Creator after so many centuries.

God alone, his own interpreter, has explained the words: “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves,” by these, “to your offspring” (Gen. 12:7). That is to say, as the apostle Saint Paul explains both learnedly and devoutly, “and to your offspring” in the sin­gular. There would have to be one fruit, one seed, one son to come forth from Abraham, in whom and by whom would be poured out over all the nations of the earth the benediction promised to them in Abraham. This fruit, this blessed seed, this son of Abraham, was the Christ. This was the very sacred seed promised to the woman at the beginning of our misery, by whom the head of the serpent would be crushed and his empire destroyed.

The same promise was repeated to Isaac and to Jacob. That is why in later days God wished to be known as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6). Yet God sanctifies all the peoples of the earth, not only the Jews who are of the flesh of these patriarchs, but also all the faithful who are the spiritual children of Abraham, who “follow the example of his faith,” as Saint Paul puts it (cf. Rom. 4:12). All of this was accomplished only by Jesus Christ, by whom alone the true God, hitherto forgotten by all the peoples of the world, was preached to the Gentiles. Thus were they brought back to him after so many centuries.

This is why all of the prophets point to the calling of the Gentiles as the definitive sign of the Christ, who would come to sanctify all the peoples. And here is that promise made to Abraham, who was thus the founder of our salvation in Christ.

Let us then enter into this divine alliance made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and let us be true children of the promise. Let us understand the whole power of these words: to be children of the promise is to be the children promised to Abraham. God promised us to this patriarch. If he promised us, then he also gave us. If he promised us, he also made us, for, as the apostle Saint Paul said, “He has the power to accomplish what he has promised” — not to predict, but to accomplish. We are, then, the race that he has made in a particular manner: children of the prom­ise, children of grace, children of the benediction, a new and special people that God has created to serve him. We are not merely to bear his name, but to be a true people, agreeable to God, zealous in good works, and, as children of mercy, chosen and beloved, loving God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, and extending our love to all nations and all peoples, as to those who are, like us, heirs to his promise. These are the riches hidden in these few words: “In you and in one of your race all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Bishop Bossuet’s Meditations for Adventwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

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Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) was a theologian and French bishop. With a great knowledge of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, he devoted himself to writing in a way that was approachable to every person. Though lionized by the great English converts such as Waugh, Belloc, and Knox, his writing has only recently been made available in English. His Meditations for Advent is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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