In laetitia cordis vestri

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The painting of Saint John the Baptist (1513–1516) is by Leonardo da Vinci. The Holy Foreunner is youthful; his smile reveals a secret joy. The raised finger illustrates the incipit of the Introit: "People of Sion, behold!"

Second Sunday of Advent

People of Sion, Behold

People of Sion, behold the Lord shall come for the saving of the nations; and the Lord shall make heard the glory of his voice in the joy of your heart (Is 30: 19, 30). The first thing that struck me about today’s Mass is that the Introit is addressed not to God, as was last Sunday’s, but to us. Last Sunday we prayed, “To you, my God, I lift up my soul” (Ps 24). Today’s Introit is taken not from the Psalter but from the prophet Isaiah, and straightaway it engages us: “People of Sion, behold the Lord shall come for the saving of the nations” (Is 30:19).

Inhabitants of the City of God

Who is speaking in today’s Introit? The text is borrowed from the prophet Isaiah but the voice is that of “one crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3): John the Baptist. “People of Sion!” he thunders. We are the people of Sion, sons and daughters of the Church, inhabitants of the City of God. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “You have come to Mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, and the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22).

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Behold

Again, there is that little compelling little word, ecce, behold. It is one of Saint John the Baptist’s favorite words. He who saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), today says, “Behold, the Lord shall come!” Try to hear all that he puts into his behold: “Stand up straight, open wide your eyes! Look, and looking see! You cannot afford to be sleepy, unaware, or preoccupied with other things.” The Lord shall come and indeed is coming already for the saving of the nations. He comes to rescue. He comes to give peace. He comes to make whole all that is broken. He comes to assemble what has been scattered.

The Glory of His Voice

The Introit goes on to say: “and the Lord shall make heard the glory of His voice in the joy of your heart” (cf. Is 30:30). Clearly, this is John the Baptist. “The glory of His voice in the joy of your heart,” gives him away. You will remember that, speaking of himself, he said: “The friend of the bridegroom who stands and hears Him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full” (Jn 3:29). The voice of the Bridegroom is heard however in the heart. “He will not wrangle or cry aloud,” says Isaiah, “nor will any one hear His voice in the streets” (Is 42:2).

The Advent of the Beloved

Today’s Introit is a call to look and to listen for the advent of the Lord. Look, look with eyes open wide for salvation is on the way. Listen, listen with the ear of your heart and, already, you will hear Him. “The voice of my Beloved,” says the bride of the Canticle. “Behold, He comes” (Ct 2:8).

Impediments On the Way

The Collect also focuses on the advent of the Lord. “Almighty and merciful God, let no works of worldly impulse impede those who are hastening to meet your Son.” The image is of a multitude of people rushing out to greet the Lord at His coming. There are, nonetheless, obstacles in their way. The Latin text uses the word impediant. Our English words impede and impediment contains the Latin word for foot, pes. An impediment is something that trips us up, that ensnares our feet and causes us to stumble. The Collect recognizes that works driven by worldly concerns can trip us up and, effectively, get in the way of our coming to “the one thing necessary” (Lk 10:42). Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on” (Mt 6:25).

Let Go

To go to the Lord freely and without impediment is to go to Him free of anxiety. We can, all of us, be frightfully self-absorbed: my needs, my wants, my wishes, my space, my time, my things. Before one can go, one has to let go. Saint Clare of Assisi puts it this way: “With swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly” (Second Letter to Agnes of Prague).

Heavenly Wisdom

There is still more to the Collect. “Rather, may the teachings of heavenly wisdom makes us the companions of Him who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever.” The word heavenly, in this second part of the prayer, is in contrast with earthly in the first part. Be driven not by earthly compulsions, but by the teachings of heavenly wisdom! Heavenly wisdom, “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24) is foolishness in the eyes of the world. One driven by heavenly wisdom will necessarily take a course that the world cannot understand, a course that, at times, the world is unwilling even to tolerate.

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Looking and listening more closely we see and hear that this heavenly wisdom is the Word himself, made flesh, crucified, risen, ascended to the Father, and returning in glory. Wisdom is one of the Advent names of Christ. On December 17th the great cry will go up, “O Sapientia! O Wisdom, come to teach us the way of prudence.” By opening our hearts to the teachings of Wisdom we will become the companions of Wisdom, the consorts of Wisdom, not only in this life but also in the next.

Partakers

By ending with the word consortes, the Collect points to the mystery of the Eucharist. The Prayer After Communion, in some way completes the Collect. “We humbly beseech you, Lord, that by our partaking of this mystery you would teach us to weigh wisely the things of earth and to cling to those of heaven.” This is the way of prudence. This is the way of freedom. Run in this way and you will not stumble. “Weigh wisely the things of earth, cling to those of heaven,” and you will come, as Saint Clare says, “securely, joyfully, and swiftly” to Christ.

The Sacrament of our Joy

“Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high; and behold the joy that shall come to you from your God” (Bar 5:5; 4:36). The Communion Antiphon has to be sung and heard and savored in its right context. As the faithful advance in procession, drawing nearer step by step to the Body and Blood of Christ, the cry of the prophet Baruch goes up, “Behold the joy that shall come to you from your God” (Bar 4:36). The Eucharist is the sacrament of our joy. Everything announced and promised by the prophets is given and fulfilled, here and now, in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the Lord comes for the saving of the nations; it is the Eucharist that He makes us hear the glory of His voice in the joy of our hearts.

Practice Going Out to Meet Him

Every Communion procession is a figure of the nations going forth to meet Christ in the advent of His glory. For the moment, He comes, hidden beneath the sacramental veils, and speaking heart to heart. On that day He will come gloriously revealed and speaking in a voice that will fill the cosmos with glory. Practice going out to meet Him now, and on that day you will go out to meet Him with “swift pace, light step, and unswerving feet” (Second Letter of Saint Clare of Assisi to Agnes of Prague). Saint John the Forerunner will be there then as he is here now, to point out the way, saying again and again, “Behold!”

2 Comments

Yes, Father, how true that "ecce" is an oracular utterance of great import and when they translate it into "There is" rather than "Behold" it drives me crazy.

Nadine shared these fine insights on Da Vinci's John the Baptist. I believe she found them on the Louvre's site. Is that so, Nadine?

St. John the Baptist, the Herald, the Forerunner of Christ was also "He who came to the Light." Leonardo da Vinci conveyed this theme through the gesture of the index finger pointing heavenward and the spiraling body emerging into the light.
The "right distribution of light" is what gives the figure its sculptural volume, and what expresses the imperceptible transitions between background and form. Here is a masterful demonstration of sfumato "which blurs the contours in a light mist." Owing to the way in which light is used, the body seems to "turn" and the painter thus holds his own against any sculptor. Color is scarcely used at all: on the contrary, the work reaches even greater heights of perfection by avoiding the artifice of hues.
The face of St. John the Baptist with its gentle smile is androgynous, in accordance with a doctrine identifying the Forerunner as the New Adam, who was created with a dual nature. Leonardo's search for ideal beauty is also shown in his use of light. Since Plato, through the writings of St. Augustine, light had always been in the service of Beauty and Good.
Marsilio Ficino drew his ideas from both Plato and St. Augustine, and Leonardo da Vinci sought to translate them in his paintings.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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