Devotional: Advent Life – Upside Down and Backwards

Mother Phyllis

I was reading an article from the periodical, Celebration, the other day, and was astounded with the following tidbit of information that I never knew before, but that perfectly symbolizes the deeper meaning of the Annunciation story. And the tidbit is this: In Fra Angelico’s beautiful painting of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel fills the left side of the canvas, while Mary takes up the right side. In the space between the Angel and Mary, are the words spoken by the angel and Mary’s response. That doesn’t seem too overwhelming, but what if I told you that Mary’s “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy word is written upside-down and backwards! Mind-blowing, isn’t it? In that little detail of the painting, Fra Angelico expresses the world and life altering experience Mary had. And yet, she said Yes. She didn’t ask for further details, she didn’t ask for anything for herself, she didn’t ask how she was to answer the pointed questions regarding her pregnancy, she didn’t ask if she could think about it—she simply and wholeheartedly said yes to all of it, the unknown, the mystery, in which she was being asked to participate.

Of course, we might counter—she was the blessed Mother, she had been born without original sin, of course she said Yes! But the thing to keep in mind was that the young woman facing the angel had her own free will—she was not some kind of mindless, albeit holy robot. The gospel account said the words of the angel troubled her, but she trusted the angel and even more the God who had sent Gabriel to her. Her yes meant that her life in many ways would no longer be her own. Upside-down and backwards became her life, yet she embraced it all. How brave, how humble Mary was and is! We are often told of Mary that she pondered all things in her heart and this was the first of many really big things for her to make peace with. Without her “Yes,” there is no incarnation, without her “yes,” God the son would have to find another way to enter this world to save and transform it. Mary didn’t know at the beginning just what her yes would cost her and she didn’t know what her own part in our salvation would be. That would be revealed in time. The important thing for us to remember on this day is that Mary said yes for all of us. Mary said Come, Lord Jesus for the very first time.

We’ve talked about Advent as being a time of waiting for the Lord who comes to each of us every day. We have in Mary an example of saying yes, of opening herself to the mission God entrusted to her. May we ask Mary this day and every day to intercede for us, so that our Yes may be as unequivocal as hers, even if our lives, too, goes upside down and backwards.

Rev. Phyllis McHugh

St. Thomas More ANCC (Elkins Park, PA)


Bishop’s Advent Message: Be “Woke”!

Bishop George Lucey, FCM

“I can’t believe Thanksgiving is here already!” “It can’t be December already!”

How many times have we heard or spoken these statements that express our wonder at how time seems to move so quickly.

In her wisdom, the Church, the Incarnate Body of Christ, has provided us every year with the season of Advent, a time to slow down and prepare ourselves for the great mystery of God’s love enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ. Advent, the season of moving towards light, requires, as Mark admonishes us, to “be watchful, be alert!”, so that in the hustle and bustle of our lives we don’t miss Christ in our midst.

The Church provides us with the season of Advent as a time to be attentive to the call to be awake, so that we might more consciously enter into the contemplation and meaning of the mystery of the coming of Christ in history, the in-breaking of Jesus in our daily lives, and the anticipation of his coming again at the end of time.

Advent is a time of waiting, a time to enter into the mystery of a liminal period of the already but not-yet. It is a time to stop our frantic attempts at trying to keep up with everything in this fast-paced world, so that we, like Christ, might enter into the vulnerability of our humanity. Advent-waiting has the potential of helping us to let God be God in our lives and catch a glimpse of ourselves in the child born in Bethlehem, full of trust in the arms of his Mother.

Advent is a time for us to contemplate how the coming of Christ at Christmas depends on us and how we give witness to our belief in the value of waiting for the God who gives shape to our existence. Our waiting during Advent is graced with the time to ask ourselves what gives meaning and substance to our lives, how have our encounters with God’s love shaped our actions and our choices.

We might see Advent as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to moving toward this God who is always moving toward us. We might remember during Advent that we have to do our part to bring Christ’s love into the world. We are reminded by Meister Eckhart, OP, “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity… But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.”

Christmas celebrates the in-breaking of God’s love into our history, and Advent is the period of waiting and preparation that allows us to experience the Christ event with hearts and spirits renewed. Our hopeful waiting during Advent is a graced opportunity to open ourselves to the transforming and transfiguring love present in the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word made Flesh, invites us into celebrating the Word of God enfleshed in our lives.

Advent, this season of moving toward, is an opportunity to prepare ourselves for what it might mean to be watchful and alert for the signs of the Kingdom in our midst. It’s a time to make our experience of Christmas more meaningful.

There is a term in the popular culture, “woke”, defined by the Urban Dictionary as: “being aware. Knowing what’s going on in the community.”

Mark’s call to be watchful and alert might be our call to be “woke” to what it means to proclaim and live the reality of the Incarnation. To be “woke” might be the first movement of the Holy Spirit calling us to attentiveness so that we might pay attention to the coming of Christ in our world and in our communities. Our longing for the coming of Christ during Advent, Karl Rahner, SJ, reminds us, culminates in our Advent prayers of “Come, Lord Jesus!” God has answered our prayers, and now our cry to Come, Lord Jesus has to be met with our willingness to live the reality of the Christ present in our world.

Most Reverend George R. Lucey, FCM, Presiding Bishop

St. Francis of Assisi ANCC (Glen Ridge, NJ)


The Great O’s

Almost everyone is familiar with the carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” But what you may not know is that the song is based on a beautiful series of ancient prayers called the O Antiphons—or, less formally, the Great O’s—that Christians around the world sing on the final week in Advent.

I recommend them to you as a wonderful way to prepare for Christmas, the holy Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Sung between December 17 and 23, they all celebrate the coming of the incarnate God. (Because Christmas begins at sundown on December 24, Christmas Eve isn’t counted as part of Advent; hence the O Antiphons end on the 23rd, not the 24th.)

An antiphon is a phrase that’s said or sung before and after a psalm or canticle. There are antiphons specific to each of the church seasons. Their purpose is to capture the various spiritual timbres and messages of the seasons. Solemnly penitential antiphons that are appropriately sung during Lent, for example, would be out of place in the celebratory season of Epiphany.

The O Antiphons can be sung at any time during Advent’s final week. Because they’re easily memorizable, I tend to whisper them throughout the day to keep myself mindful of the coming of the Messiah. But strictly speaking, they typically precede and follow Evening Prayer’s recitation of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary recorded in Luke’s gospel (1:46-55) that proclaims the liberating message of God’s mercy and justice.

The O Antiphons are so-named because all 7 of them begin with the word “O,” immediately followed by one of the titles for the Messiah recorded by the prophet Isaiah. Running from first to last, the messianic titles celebrated in the antiphons are “Wisdom,” “Ruler of Israel,” “Root of Jesse,” “Key of David,” “Rising Dawn,” “King of the Gentiles,” and “Emmanuel.”

Just to give you a feel for the O Antiphons’ beauty, here’s both the English and the Latin versions of the 3rd one, which is sung on December 19.

“O Root of Jesse’s stem, sign of God’s love for all his people: come to save us without delay!”

 “O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare!”

Each of the O Antiphons has the same structure: a proclamation of one of the Messiah’s titles, brief praise, and a short petitionary prayer that’s prefaced by the word “come” (Latin: “veni”). You can positively feel the quiver of anticipation in the antiphons’ longing for the arrival of the Messiah, the Emmanuel who revitalizes creation with wisdom, power, love, liberation, justice, and salvation, and who shows us what it means to be fully human.

When we sing the O Antiphons, we participate in a centuries-old tradition. It’s not clear when they were first used, but the early 6th century philosopher Boethius alludes to them. Two centuries later, with the practice of Gregorian chant catching on in prayer and liturgy, the O Antiphons appear to have become staples in the many monasteries that were beginning to dot Europe.

Arranged in their final sequence by Benedictine monks during the Middle Ages, the first letters of the Latin titles of the Messiah in each of the O Antiphons, when read backwards, make an acrostic: “Ero cras,” or “Tomorrow I will be there.” So, as more than one commentator has observed, the O Antiphons are at one and the same time a prayer—“Come!”—and, acrostically, an answer: “I will!”

All of us are painfully aware of how hectic, noisy, and deflationary our consumerist culture can make the Christmas season, and we long to recapture its simple and holy joy, gratitude, and wonderment. Calming the spirit by praying the O Antiphons is one very good way of doing that. This coming week, say them, chant them, or sing them, by yourself or with family and friends. Let their beauty prepare you for the birth of God.






Gleanings: Hope & the Silent Word

“Gleanings” offers spiritual reflections from some of the Christian tradition’s most insightful and beloved authors. The selections in this issue are from the 2oth-century Cistercian Thomas Merton and the 13th-century Dominican Meister Eckharrt

Selections from Thomas Merton’s “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”

The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy. Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent…

In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer…We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message. But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.

(From Merton’s Meditations on Liturgy)


Meister Eckhart, “Where God Enters”


“What good is it for me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and my culture and my times?”

Here in time we make holiday because the eternal birth which God the father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature. Saint Augustine says this birth is always happening. But if it does not happen in me, what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me.

We intend therefore to speak of this birth as taking place in us, as being consummated in the virtuous soul, for it is in the perfect soul that God speaks his word. What I shall say is true only of the devout man, of him who has walked and is still walking in the way of God, not of the natural undisciplined man who is entirely remote from and unconscious of this birth.

There is a saying of the wise man, “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then leapt there down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.” This sermon is about this word.

Concerning it three things are to be noted. The first is where in the soul God the father speaks his Word, where she is receptive of this act, where this birth occurs. The second, has to do with man’s conduct in relation to this act, this interior speaking, this birth. The third point will deal with the profit, and how great it is, that accrues form this birth.

Note in the first place that in what I am about to say I intend to use natural proofs that you yourselves can grasp, for though I put more faith in the scriptures than myself, nevertheless it is easier and better for you to learn by arguments that can be verified.

First we will take the words, “In the midst of the silence there was spoken in me a secret word.” But, sir, where is the silence and where the place in which the word is spoken?

To begin with, it is spoken in the purest, noblest ground, yes, in the very center of the soul. That is mid-silence, for no creature ever entered there, nor any image, nor has the soul there either activity of understanding, therefore she is not aware of any image either of herself or any creature. Whatever the soul effects, she effects with her powers. When she understands, she understands with her intellect. When she remembers, she does so with her memory. When she loves, she does so with her will. She works then with her powers and not with her essence.

Now every exterior act is linked with some means. The power of seeing is brought into play only through the eyes; elsewhere she can neither do nor bestow such a thing as seeing. And so with all the other senses; their operations are always effected through some means or other. But there is no activity in the essence of the soul; the faculties she works with emanate from the ground of the essence, but in her actual ground there is mid-silence; here alone is a rest and habitation for this birth, this act, wherein God the father speaks his word, for she is intrinsically receptive of nothing but the divine essence, without means. Here God enters the soul with his all, not merely with a part. God enters the ground of the soul.

None can touch the ground of the soul but God. No creature is admitted into her ground, it must stop outside in her powers. There it sees the image whereby it has been drawn in and found shelter. For when the soul’s powers contact a creature, they set out to make of the creature an image and likeness which they absorb. By it they know the creature. Creatures cannot enter the soul, nor can the soul know anything about a creature whose image she has not willingly taken into herself. She approaches creatures through their present images, an image being a thing that the soul creates with her powers. Be it a stone, a rose, a person, or anything else she wants to know about, she gets out the image of it which she has already taken in and thus is able to unite herself with it. But an image received in this way must of necessity enter from without through the senses. Consequently, there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself. The soul, says the philosopher, can neither create nor absorb an image of herself. So she has nothing to know herself by. Images all enter through the senses, hence she can have no image of herself. She knows other things but not herself. Of nothing does she know so little as herself, owing to this arrangement.

Now you must know that inwardly the soul is free from means and images; that is why God can freely unite with her without form or image. You cannot but attribute to God without measure whatever power you attribute to a master. The wiser and more powerful the master, the more immediately is his work effected and the simpler it is. Man requires many instruments for his external works; much preparation is needed before he can bring them forth as he has imagined them. The sun and moon, whose work is to give light, in their mastership perform this very swiftly: the instant their radiance is poured forth, all the ends of the earth are filled with light. More exalted are the angels, who need fewer means for their works and have fewer images. The highest Seraph has but a single image. He seizes as a unity all that his inferiors regard as manifold. Now God needs no image and has no image: without image, likeness, or means does God work in the soul, in her ground wherein no image ever entered other than himself with his own essence. This no creature can do.

How does God the father give birth to his son in the soul? Like creatures, in image and likeness? No, by my faith, but just as he gives him birth in eternity and not otherwise.

Well, but how does he give him birth there?

See, God the father has perfect insight into himself, profound and thorough knowledge of himself by means of himself, not by means of any image. And thus God the father gives birth to his son in the very oneness of the divine nature. Thus it is, and in no other way, that God the father gives birth to his son in the ground and essence of the soul, and thus he unites himself with her. Were any image present, there would be no real union, and in real union lies true bliss.

Now you may say: “But there is nothing innate in the soul but images.” No, not so! If that were true, the soul would never be happy, but God made every creature to enjoy perfect happiness, otherwise God would not be the highest happiness and final goal, whereas it is his will and nature to be the alpha and omega of all. No creature can be happiness. And here indeed can just as little be perfection, for perfection (perfect virtue, that is to say) results from perfection of life. Therefore you truly must sojourn and dwell in your essence, in your ground, and there God shall mix you with his essence without the medium of any image. No image represents and signifies itself: it stands for that of which it is the image. Now seeing that you have no image other than what is outside you, therefore it is impossible for you to be beatified by any image whatsoever.

The second point is, what must a person do to deserve and procure this birth that it may come to pass and be consummated in him? Is it better for him to do his part toward it, to imagine and think about God, or should he keep still in peace and quiet so that God can act in him while he merely waits on God’s operation? Of course, I am referring to those whose act is only for the good and perfect, those who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of virtue that it emanates from them naturally, without their seeking. They live a worthy life and have within them the lofty teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such are permitted to know that the very best and utmost of attainment in this life is to remain still and let God act and speak in you. When the powers have all been withdrawn from their bodily forms and functions, then this word is spoken. Thus he says: “In the midst of the silence the secret word was spoken to me.”

The more completely you are able to draw in your faculties and forget those things and their images which you have taken in — the more, that is to say, you forget the creature — the nearer you are to this and the more susceptible you are to it. If only you could suddenly be altogether unaware of things, could you but pass into oblivion of your own existence as Saint Paul did when he said: “Whether in the body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows!” Here the Spirit had so entirely absorbed the faculties that it had forgotten the body: memory no longer functioned, nor understanding, nor the senses, nor even those powers whose duty it is to govern and grace the body; vital warmth and energy were arrested so that the body remained intact throughout the three days during which he neither ate nor drank. It was the same with Moses when he fasted forty days on the mount and was none the worse for it: on the last day he was as strong as on the first.

Thus a person must abscond from his senses, invert his faculties, and lapse into oblivion of things and of himself. About which the philosopher addressed the soul: “Withdraw from the restlessness of external activities!” And again: “Flee away and hide from the turmoil of outward occupations and inward thoughts, for they create nothing but discord!” If God is to speak his word in the soul, she must be at rest and at peace; then he speaks in his soul his word and himself: not an image but himself. Dionysius says: “God has no image or likeness of himself, seeing that he is intrinsically all good, truth, and being.” God performs all his works in himself and outside himself simultaneously. Do not fondly imagine that God, when he created the heavens and the earth and all creatures, made one thing one day and another the next.

All God did was: he willed and they were. God works without instrument and without image. And the freer you are from images, the more receptive you are to his interior operation, and the more introverted and oblivious you are, the closer you are to it. All things must be forsaken. God scorns to work among images.

Now you may say, “What is it that God does without images in the ground and essence?” That I am incapable of knowing, for my soul powers can receive only in images; they have to recognize and lay hold of each thing in its appropriate image: they cannot recognize a bird in the image of a man. Now since images all enter from without, this is concealed from my soul, which is most salutary for her. Not knowing makes her wonder and leads her to eager pursuit, for she knows clearly thatit is but knows not how nor what it is. No sooner does one know the reason of a thing than he tires of it and goes casting about for something new. Always clamoring to know, we are ever inconstant. The soul is constant only to this unknowing which keeps her pursuing.

The wise man said concerning this: “In the middle of the night when all things were in quiet silence, there was spoken to me a hidden word.” It came like a thief, by stealth. What does he mean by a word that was hidden? The nature of a word is to reveal what is hidden. It appeared before me, shining out with intent to reveal and giving me knowledge of God. Hence it is called a word. But what it was remained hidden from me. That was its stealthy coming “in a whispering stillness to reveal itself.” It is just because it is hidden that one is always and must be always after it. It appears and disappears; we are meant to yearn and sigh for it.

Saint Paul says we ought to pursue this until we spy it and not stop until we grasp it. When he returned after being caught up into the third heaven, where God was made known to him and where he beheld all things, he had forgotten nothing, but it was so deep down in his ground that his intellect could not reach it; it was veiled from him. He was therefore obliged to pursue it and search for it in himself, not outside himself. It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within. And being convinced of this, he said: “I am sure that neither death nor any affliction can separate me from what I find within me.”

There is a fine saying of one philosopher to another about this. He says: “I am aware of something in me which sparkles in my intelligence; I clearly perceive that it is something, but what I cannot grasp. Yet it seems if I could only seize it I should know its truth.” To which the other philosopher replied, “Follow it boldly! For if you can seize it, you will possess the sum total of all good and have eternal life!” It hides yet it shows. It comes, but after the manner of a thief, with intent to take and to steal all things from the soul. By emerging and showing itself somewhat, it purposes to decoy the soul and to draw it to itself, to rob it and take itself from it. As the prophet said: “Lord take from them their spirit and give them instead thy spirit.” This too the loving soul meant when she said, “My soul dissolved and melted away when Love spoke his word; when he entered I could not but fail.” And Christ signified it by his words: “Whosoever shall leave anything for my sake shall be paid an hundredfold, and whosoever will possess me must deny himself and all things, and whosoever will serve me must follow me nor go anymore after his own.”

Those who have written of the soul’s nobility have gone no further than their natural intelligence could carry them: they never entered her ground, so that much remained obscure and unknown to them. “I will sit in silence and hearken to what God speaks within me,” said the prophet. Into this retirement steals the word in the darkness of the night. Saint John says, “The light shines in the darkness; it came unto its own and as many as received it became in authority sons of God; to them was given power to become God’s sons.”

Notice the fruit and use of this mysterious word and of this darkness. In this gloom which is his own, the heavenly father’s son is not born alone: you too are born there a child of the same heavenly father and no other, and to you also he gives power. Call this if you will an ignorance, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than all knowing and understanding without it, for this outward ignorance lures and attracts you from all understood things and from yourself. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whosoever denies not himself and leaves not father and mother and is not estranged from all these, he is not worthy of me.” As though to say: he who abandons not creaturely externals can neither be conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does indeed give it to you.

May the God who has been born again as man assist us in this birth, continually helping us, weak men, to be born again in him as God.


(Eckhart’s Christmas Sermon)