Advent can be overlooked. Perhaps, it is more correct to say that we are often looking in the wrong direction during this season. As the lights and tinsel adorn city streets, the true meaning of the Light that came into the world – one still too bright for many – is all too easily lost amidst these other ‘lights’ that, ultimately, cast only shadows. Forced, even at times desperate, ‘jollity’ of one sort or another, possesses nothing of the ‘glad tidings’ that await us all on Christmas night. One antidote to this is spiritual reading. To that end one would do well to pick up a copy of Bossuet’s Meditations for Advent.
Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was a 17th Century French cleric. He is remembered as a master orator, a memorable homilist, a brilliant stylist. Even reading him in translation, one catches something of the beauty of his language, the power of his image, the persuasiveness of his argument. He is worth discovering in English.
At first I was reluctant to read this slim volume. The Christmas story was one I thought I knew well already. I was wrong. Shortly after opening this book, the realisation dawned that I had in my hands something special as well as timely – not just eloquently written, but a work entirely suited to the season we are embarking upon.
Its brevity belies its depth. Meditations for Advent is a series of short chapters that reflect on a theme or a passage from Scripture, each with a connection to the Incarnation. There are many books of a similar hue. This one is different, however, because each chapter is a finely wrought work of art, combining Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers and the burning zeal of the author. As a result, it enlightens, edifies, exhorts. In short, and in a curious way, these writings ‘get under one’s skin’. Reading them on trains and waiting for trains, they begin to fill one’s mental space before gradually moving to the heart. These meditations invite reflection; demand prayer even as the book’s charm is soon transformed into practical resolution.
Bossuet was a scholar. That is clear from the opening pages, but he was not simply an intellectual. He combined his knowledge of Holy Scripture with a similarly thorough knowledge of the workings of the human heart and its desire for God. Within these pages a wealth of learning is displayed, but equally evident is an abundance of wisdom. When such a combination is present, as it is here, then the impact on the reader is pronounced.
In addition, as in the best writing, there is an element every reader relishes, namely surprise. Here there is nothing formulaic, nothing repetitive. The Scriptures throughout Advent can seem almost too familiar – both Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfilment – and yet Bossuet quotes them in the most unexpected ways to demonstrate profound truths. St Paul, in particular, is used, at times, in a remarkable way both to illustrate and illuminate. The Word does indeed take flesh in these pages reminding us that our religion is not one ‘of the book’ alone, but of the Word of God, Incarnate and living.
Bossuet’s approach is deceptively simple. Nevertheless, like a composer of an intricate piece of music, he constructs his meditations in such a way that it lends itself to the drama inherent in this retelling of Salvation history. The Patriarchs and Prophets are cited in ways that reveal the compelling nature of this unveiling. There is, of course, more than just history here. The intense mysticism of the various Old Testament figures – something often missed – is revealed in all its splendour. For example, David’s inner gazing to the future Messiah and his attempt to record what he saw is recognised throughout the Psalms, however obliquely. Reading these meditations, they turn the reader, rightly, back to contemplate such scriptural passages anew. Bossuet confirms in his writing what the early Church Fathers understood so clearly many centuries before, namely, that all in the Old Testament is pointing to what is to come in the New if only we have eyes to see, and the Light, one ever ancient and ever new, to guide us.
Bossuet is especially effective in the short, but thought provoking, meditation on the coming of the Magi. He links this mysterious event, as others have done before, to Old Testament prophecy but also, and here’s the thing, to an inner calling for each one of us, thereby effectively turning the light of the ‘star’ upon the reader:
‘The star that appeared to the Magi was the one Balaam had foreseen…The star of the Magi is thus an inspiration in the heart. Something unknown shines within you. You are in the darkness and among dissipations, or perhaps even the world’s corruptions: turn to the East, where the star rises…the Orient, where you will see arising like a star the love of virtue and truth. Go forward then; imitate the Magi…You leave that world itself, that world for which this new star, this chaste inspiration that burns your heart, begins to give you a secret distaste.’
As one can see, the force of the writing is not simply in its source material but in the spirit behind it. It is an appeal, as if Bossuet were talking directly to the reader. His writing, therefore, has an immediacy and challenge that make it never less than thought provoking. Take for example what he says about the poverty of Bethlehem: ‘
…all you are given is a sign in the manger in which he is lying, and the poor rags in which his frail infancy has been swaddled. That is to say, all you are given is a nature similar to your own and a poverty below your own. Which of us was born in a stable? Which of us, poor as we may be, gives his child a manger for a crib? …This is the mark by which we know him.’
Reading that, one starts to question the ‘cosy’ and often erroneous images of a softly lit ‘Yuletide’ – beloved of so much advertising at this time of year. That view of the world is one of comfort and ease, of food aplenty, of easy living and even easier consciences. After Bossuet, such images are seen for what they are: a temptation, one all around us, subtle and, therefore, all the more pernicious – the softly spoken but incessant ‘voices’ that whisper to take things easy, to relax and enjoy life, even to excess – for it is the ‘holidays’ after all. These are not the same voices as those that sang from the Heavens to wake poor shepherds living rough on the fringes of Bethlehem. The proclamation made on that night was an uncompromising inversion of this world’s values and the comfort and glamour it craves. It heralded another world, one with a Saviour now entering to take the lowest place, one below all of us, only so that he could raise us to a realm beyond anything we could ask or imagine.
One would do well to heed the call within these pages this Advent – to do so can only bear fruit in our lives. On finishing reading, there arose unexpectedly, just as the Star had for the Magi, and in spite of the ‘night’ all around, a fresh determination to set out again.
‘Go to Jerusalem; receive the light of the Church…leave behind…that place of your banishment that you take to be your home…accustomed to the life of the senses, pass now to another region…Learn to know Jerusalem, and the crèche of your Saviour, and the bread that he prepares for you in Bethlehem’.
Editor’s note: Meditations for Advent is available from Sophia Institute Press.