Dom Benedict preached this sermon today on the II Sunday of Advent.
In the liturgy of Advent there are two outstanding, towering figures, aside from Our Lord himself. They are two human beings, a man and a woman. Advent, says von Balthasar, is like a “great gate through which [the Christian] passes to enter into some shrine. This gate is flanked by two figures guarding it; if we are Christians, they ask us why and with what intentions we are seeking admission.”
We see these two figures in the ancient icon which is called the “Deësis” (which means “prayer” or “supplication”): our Lord is in the middle, seated on his glorious throne, holding a splendidly bound book, his hand in a gesture of blessing.
On his right hand stands a Woman, “a vesture of gold (sings the Psalmist), wrought about with diverse colours.” Her head is bowed and her hands are outstretched to the Lord in humble supplication for all mankind. She cries out: “Master most gracious, Lord Jesus Christ, My Son and my God, incline your ear to me, for I pray for the world.”
Likewise, on his left hand stands a Man, with long wild hair and a long beard, clothed in rough clothing, his head likewise bowed and his hands raised in prayer to the Lord enthroned.
The Woman is Christ’s first and greatest Disciple, the New Eve, the Immaculate One who rightly foretells that all generations shall call her blessed. The Man is declared by Christ to be “the greatest born of women”, the last Prophet.
The Woman and the Man are the last great figures of the Old Covenant, and the first great figures of the New. Both, in their different ways, signal the end of the Old Law and the beginning of the New, the extension of God’s covenantal promises from one people to all nations of the world.
They accompanied his coming into the world of men, and now among innumerable Angels and Saints, they stand closest to the throne and closest to the Heart of the God-Man. They have an extraordinary power over this most sacred Heart; their hearts burn likewise for all of humanity, for which they ceaselessly pray and intercede until the end of the age.
The Man standing to the left of our Lord is, in other icons, often depicted as an Angel with great majestic wings. Why is this? It is because he is the Forerunner, the Messenger of the Word Incarnate. The word “angel”, from the Greek ἄγγελος, means “messenger”. “Behold”, says the Lord through the Prophet Malachi, “I send my Messenger, my Angel, before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.”
He is the Lord’s Angel in the flesh, an Angel because he is the Lord’s messenger and forerunner, who from his birth lives a life of angelic purity in the wilderness. He first prepares himself so that he may prepare others for the Coming of the Holy One of God.
The Woman to the Lord’s right is also closely associated with the Angelic Order. She is remembered in Tradition as the Queen and Sovereign of Angels. Through her glorious Assumption into heaven she is exalted far above the choirs of angelic powers, to become (as the Byzantine Liturgy sings) “more honourable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.”
The Man is associated with Angels even before his birth, which was announced to his father Zacharias by the Archangel Gabriel, standing by the altar of incense in the temple. The Woman is also closely associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who announces to her the virgin birth of a special Child, the Son of the Most High who will save his people from their sins.
The Woman and the Man also came into this world through miraculous births to aged, barren parents. Their births are foreshadowings of the miraculous Birth of the Son of God without human seed, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Their births are signs of the mighty intervention of God in history, the overruling of infirmity and fruitlessness, the renewal of all creation.
Both the Man and the Woman are born free of sin: the Woman exempted from all sin, original and actual from the first instant of her conception; the Man cleansed from all moral stain in the womb of his mother.
Both figures wait upon God and his salvation with penance and humility. The Man goes into the desert in order to become the Voice in the wilderness, crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The other, saying “Yes” to God, declares herself “the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy Word.”
Both are paragons of humility, of the essential and indispensable attitude of human beings before the majesty of God. Despite their exalted positions in the economy of salvation, the Man declares himself unworthy to even to come near to the sandals on the feet of the One to come: “He must increase and I must decrease.” The Woman, for her part, bowing low before God and accepting his inscrutable will, sings that he has “regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Both live early lives of hiddenness, of silence, of obscurity in preparation for bringing the Saviour into this world. Both the Man and the Woman are the prototypical Christians and more specifically the prototypical monastics: all monks and nuns, in some way, imitate their example and way of life. They live in obedience, in poverty, in chastity; they spend themselves in the praise of God, and they prepare themselves, and others, to receive the King of all into their hearts and minds.
Both the Man and the Woman are, in their own ways, martyrs of Christ. The one foretells, not saccharine-sweet promises of peace and prosperity, but the coming of the Judge who will cast fire upon the earth, whose winnowing fork is in his hand, who will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. The other, the Woman, is told that she, in accepting her role in salvation, will not have peace but exceeding sorrow: her own heart and soul will be pierced by a sword.
The Man, in his ultimate witness to the truth and righteousness of God against the wickedness of men, loses his physical life and is beheaded by an evil ruler. The Woman, for her part, is pierced inwardly and becomes a martyr, even the Queen of martyrs, at the place of execution of her Son, murdered through a conspiracy of the dark powers, both angelic and human, of this world.
The Man (if you have not already guessed) is the Forerunner and Prophet John the Baptist, sent to preach repentance of sins before the coming of our God and Lord Jesus Christ; the Woman, of course, is the Blessed Mother of God, Mary ever-Virgin, who in her virginal womb brings forth the same Christ.
This icon of Christ with Our Lady and John the Baptist, this Deesis, is not a depiction of some long lost historical event. It is an image of the Kingdom of Heaven as it exists now. Christ, in his glorified Humanity, is the Lord God, the King enthroned for ever, and he is forever accompanied by these two great figures.
Dear friends in Christ, let this Woman, the immaculate Mother of God, and this Man, the glorious Forerunner, be your spiritual guides, your models, and your powerful intercessors through the Advent journey to Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Let them prepare the way before you, let them show you how to wait for your Saviour, how to be sober and be vigilant, looking for his coming. Let John lead you to Christ the anointed One, as he once led men to the waters of baptism for the cleansing of sins. And let Mary show you, the blessed Fruit of her Womb: to whom be all honour and glory, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.