Advent – A Franciscan Perspective
The great Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B. (beatified in the year 2000) in his classic book Christ in His Mysteries, beautifully describes Advent, the time which preceeds Christ’s Nativity, as the “Divine Preparation.” While it is a liturgical season which speaks of what is “to come” – ad-venire, hence the final coming of Christ, it is also a remembering (or better, a reliving) of that longing of the people of God for the first coming of Christ so as to more adequately appraise and celebrate Christmas.
Bl. Marmion writes:
All God’s blessings that come down upon us have their source in the election that He made of our souls, throughout eternity, to make them “holy and unspotted in His sight” (Eph 1:4). In this divine decree so full of love is contained our adoptive predestination as children of God and all the favours thereto attached.
St. Paul says that it was through the grace of Jesus Christ, sent by God in the fulness of time, that this adoption was granted to us: At ubi venit plenitudo temporis, misit Deus Filium suum factum ex muliere… ut adoptionem filiorum reciperimus (Gal 4:4-5)
In these lines we clearly see that our predestination is bound up in the predestination of Christ’s Sacred Humanity to grace and glory; we see that “all God’s blessings” (and not just the Redemption) “have their source in the election He made of our souls, throughout eternity.” When reading this those who hold the absolute primacy of Christ, namely that Christ’s coming was willed by God absolutely, quite apart from any consideration of sin, nod their heads in agreement. For St. Francis and the Franciscan school Christmas is the “Feast of feasts” and has a twofold beauty: the coming of Christ the King, head of the Church and the coming of our Redeemer.
Bl. Marmion, as will be seen, is a strict thomist when it comes to the Incarnation, viz. the sole reason for the Incarnation is our Redemption from sin. And for this reason the celebration of Christmas is subordinated to the Passion and lacks that double aspect of joy which is so evident to the scotistic doctrine that Christ’s coming is not occasioned by sin, that His holy birth in the stable of Bethlehem is not just a remedy for man’s wickedness, but is the summum opus Dei, the greatest of God’s works.
Abbot Marmion continues:
God’s eternal design of sending His own Son into the world […] is the masterpiece of His wisdom and love.
This is what the Franciscan position would state. That is, the Masterpiece of God’s wisdom and love was the “sending of His own Son into the world,” namely the Incarnation. Because of sin He comes also as Redeemer and this Masterpiece of His wisdom and love comes under the limelight of mercy and redemption; but this Masterpiece was not conditioned by sin, rather it was willed quite apart from any consideration of sin. As the Church will sing on Dec. 17th:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Yes, Divine Wisdom coming forth from God orders and disposes all things mightily and sweetly. This is what Bl. John Dun Scotus terms ordinatissime volens – most ordered willing. First, God wills the Incarnation of Christ His Masterpiece as the King of the universe, then He creates all things in Him and for Him. Because of man’s sin, we see that God already has the perfect remedy: His Son come in the flesh will come not only as King, but as Redeemer. Hence the coming of Our Lord has this twofold beauty: first, He comes as King of creation – the head of the Church and the One who will recapitulate all things in Himself for the glory of God, the One who will give us the grace of divine adoption as children of God [see this graph]; second, because of sin He comes as Redeemer to seek and save what was lost and reconcile it with the Father through the priestly offering of His Precious Blood on the altar of the Cross [see this second graph].
In the last quote I used of Abbot Marmion I dropped out some of Marmion’s words to draw out the fuller, Franciscan perspective of Christ’s coming. Those who embrace the thomistic position regarding the Incarnation, namely ‘no sin, no Incarnation,’ see the coming of Messias in a much narrower light – even if that light is divine in its brilliance and beauty. Marmion’s full quote reads:
God’s eternal design of sending His own Son into the world to redeem the human race, broken and bruised by sin, and of restoring to it the children’s inheritance and heavenly beatitude, this is the masterpiece of His wisdom and love. The views of God are not our views; all His thoughts are higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth; but it is especially in the work of the Incarnation and Redemption that the sublimity and greatness of the Divine ways shine forth. This work is so high, so closely united to the very life of the Most Holy Trinity, that it remained throughout long ages hidden in the depths of the divine secrets: Sacramentum absconditum a saeculis in Deo (Eph 3:9).
I have discussed this “mystery” at length elsewhere, but here I would like to draw out a point that underscores that the Messias which Adam and Eve, which all of their children and creation itself, and which, in a particular way, the chosen people through the Patriarchs and Prophets were awaiting was not coming first and foremost as Redeemer, but as King. He is the Redeemer King – and His Kingship does not depend on man’s need for Redemption. Our first parents knew of the coming of Christ; so in this sense His coming was not a ‘secret.’ But what is often overlooked is that, according to Tradition, Adam knew of the coming of Christ before the fall. We are familiar with Adam’s foreknowledge of the “Woman” and “her Seed” (Gn 3:15) coming to crush the head of the serpent; but it would seem that very few are acquainted with Adam’s foreknowledge of the Christ before the promise of the Redemption through the Woman and her Offspring. The standard approach, which Marmion articulates so elequently, is this:
You know that it was just after the sin of our first parents, in the very cradle of the already rebellious human race, that God began to reveal the mystery of the Incarnation. Adam and Eve, prostrate before the Creator, in the shame and despair of their fall, dare not raise their eyes to heaven. And behold, even before pronouncing the sentence of their banishment from the terrestrial paradise, God speaks to them the first words of forgiveness and hope… This is what is called the “Protogospel,” the first word of salvation. It is the first promise of redemption, the dawn of divine mercy.
The Mystery of the Incarnation as Revealed to Adam Before the Fall
Yes, before the fall God revealed to Adam the mystery of the Incarnation. I was actually introduced to this Tradition by St. Thomas Aquinas ( Summa II-II, Q.2, art.7 – “I answer that..”; Summa III, Q.1, art.3 – Objection 5). Note that he never debates the Tradition, but upholds it and seeks to defend his position while maintaining this Tradition…