During Advent, our king sleeps.
Cradled in Mary’s womb, the king of the cosmos lies hidden in the darkness. His slumber foreshadows that deep sleep of Holy Saturday of which the ancient homily says,
Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
Distant though they might seem, the two events closely mirror each other. In the Incarnation, Christ descends from heaven to earth. In the Passion, he descends to Hades. One is the darkness of the womb. The other is the darkness of the tomb. Each sleep leads to new life. Out of the womb of Mary came God made flesh. Out of the tomb came the Life and the Resurrection.
In coming to earth, God became one of us in every way — except sin, as the Council of Chalcedon declared (quoting Hebrews 4:15). On the cross and in the tomb, Christ shared in the fullness of the human experience. On the cross, this sharing went all the way to death, leading to the separation of His body from His soul. In the womb of Mary, Christ experienced this fullness from the beginning—all the way from birth itself.
But His sleep in her womb signifies the deeper sleep into which all of humanity had fallen—and out of which He rouses us. As Ephesians 5:14 puts it,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light”
(quoting Isaiah 61:1).
This is the special life-giving light of which John 1 speaks:
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it (vv. 4-5).
During Advent, we wait in the darkness for this light. And, just as we are called to unite ourselves to Christ on the cross, so also must we draw near to Him in the womb of Mary. As the twentieth century American poet and Carmelite nun Jessica Powers wrote,
I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place,
With hope’s expectance of nativity.
I knew for long she carried me and fed me,
Guarded and loved me, though I could not see,
But only now, with inward jubilee,
I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:
Someone is hidden in this dark with me.
Powers touches upon the deep truth behind our modern struggle with God’s seeming absence. The Christian answer to this dilemma is that God came to us in the most profound way possible: as one of us. And yet, within the Incarnation, God’s hiddenness persists. Christ was born, lived, and died on this earth. He rose from death only to ascend to heaven.
Christ came to console us in our exile from God and yet we remain sojourners. He has gone to ‘prepare a place for us’ above while we remain in ‘this earthly tent’ below.
But as Catholics we know that Christ also remains with us — in the Eucharist, in the confessional, and in our hearts. Yes, God is hidden, but He is not hidden from us. He is hidden with us — even within us. How wonderful it is that even in our experience of God being hidden from us that God still finds a way to be present to us.
Advent then is a time to encounter this God who is hidden yet near to us. This paradox is behind the sort of dual existence that we live during this season. We are to remain watchful while the king sleeps. But we are also to draw near to Him as He sleeps that He might awaken us from our spiritual slumber.
It can be scary to enter into the darkness, perhaps even terrifying. But we do so knowing that the thrill of a new life that we can see only dimly awaits us. In the old Anima Christi prayer we ask Christ to hide us ‘within thy wounds.’ Perhaps this Advent we should also say this prayer to Mary: ‘Within thy womb, with Christ, hide us.’ May we embrace this present darkness, then, in order to discover the light hidden within it.
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