For the Cistercian Fathers the mystery of the Incarnation – that the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, took flesh and was born in time, walked among men and women on this earth, and sought us out to lead us back to the fullness of the Father’s love through his passion, death and resurrection – is the central mystery of faith, from which all others flow and to which all others – even to a great extent the reality of Christ’s resurrection – are in some way subordinate. It comes, then, as no surprise that this fascination with the mystery of the Incarnation is linked seamlessly with Cistercian devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. And they are lavish in their praise of her! She is ‘our loveliest virgin’ and ‘queen of heaven and mistress of angels’ (Aelred of Rievaulx); the Mother who is ‘wholly a miracle she who extraordinarily and unprecedentedly is mother and virgin’ (Guerric of Igny); who contrasts and counters Eve, ‘who bore a child, being corrupt, Mary brought forth, being incorrupt. Eve in pain, Mary in health. Eve in the “old man”, Mary in the new. Eve brought forth a slave, Mary a Lord. Eve a guilty one, Mary a righteous one. Eve a sinner, Mary One who justifies from sin’ (Amadeus of Lausanne); and lest it be mistaken or believed that the Cistercian Fathers taught otherwise,
Beyond all doubt the Mother of the Lord was holy before she was born… This unique privilege of sanctity whereby she was enabled to live her whole life without sin is surely appropriate for the Queen of virgins who – in giving birth to him who destroyed sin and death – obtained for all the reward of life and justice. Her birth was holy, then, because great sanctity from the womb made it holy(Bernard of Clairvaux)
To allow us to enter into this time of Advent waiting and expectation, when we know what to expect but can never be fully prepared to receive what is promised, we wish to offer a few longer excerpts from our Cistercian Fathers to focus meditation and prayer. In all that they write and teach the Cistercian masters have something to pass on, something which nudges us to greater reflection and thought, and always, hopefully, to some moment of further personal conversion, a cooperation with Christ’s grace and a desire to come closer to him and be conformed to him. With them we contemplate the unthinkable and think on the ineffable: God becomes man, so that man might become God. Mary stands at the centre of this mystery and she leads them, and us, into its beating heart.
In his still celebrated sermons in praise of the Virgin Mary – the so-called Missus Est sermons, preached on the text in Luke’s Gospel: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26 et seq) – St Bernard gives us ample nourishment to satisfy our Advent hunger. The sermons themselves are in typical Bernard style, beautifully wrought, precisely planned, and overflowing with imagery. Needless to say, the homilies highlight a myriad of aspects in Mary’s role in the drama of the annunciation moment and dialogue, and the suspense which Bernard creates within that timeless salvific intervention makes us, watching, listening and reading, hold our breath!
You have heard that you will conceive and bear a son. You have heard that it will be by the Holy Spirit and not by man. The angel is waiting for your reply. It is time for him to return to the One who sent him. We, too, are waiting for this merciful word, my Lady. We who are miserably weighed down under a sentence of condemnation. The price of our salvation is being offered to you. If you consent, we shall immediately be set free. In the eternal Word of God we all have been made and look, we are dying. In your brief reply we shall be restored and so brought back to life.
Give your answer quickly, my Virgin. My Lady, say this word which earth and hell and heaven itself are waiting for. The very King and Lord of all, who has so desired your beauty, is waiting anxiously for your answer and assent, by which he proposes to save the world. Him, whom you pleased by your silence, you will now please even more by your word.
Is this not what you have been waiting for, what you have been weeping for and sighing after, day and night, in your prayers? What then? Are you the one who was promised or must we look for another? No, it is you and no one else. You, I say, are the one we were promised, you are the one we were expecting, you are the one we have longed for. You are she in whom and by whom God our king himself before all ages decided to work out our salvation in the midst of the earth. Why hope from another for what is now being offered to you? Why expect from another woman what will soon be shown forth through you, if only you will consent and say the word?
So, answer the angel quickly or rather, through the angel, answer God. Only say the word and receive the Word. Give yours and conceive God’s. Breathe one fleeting word and embrace the everlasting Word. Why do you delay? Why be afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith, your lips to consent, and your womb to your Creator. Behold, the long-desired of all nations is standing at the door and knocking. Get up, run, open! Get up by faith, run by prayer, open by consent!
Behold, she says, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.(St Bernard, Homily Four in Praise of the Virgin Mary)
Bernard brings us into the very room, a sacred space, in which the angel and the Virgin are engaged in this most intimate of revelations – the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit! He makes us no longer spectators but parties to the drama, and together we beg the Virgin to accept this word – this Word! – by which all history will be changed, and we with it. It is as if all time stops – Bernard conjures before us the whole history of salvation, stretching back to Adam and his refusal to make God’s will his own, and sweeping up through patriarchs and prophets, the entire Old Testament preparation for the Messiah’s coming and the coming of the Messianic age. All of these figures, who looked forward in hope and trusting in the covenant God’s promises, stand as it were in this very scene, looking at the Virgin now, watching, waiting, as she ponders and prays, and all urge her to answer the Almighty.
We too are in this scene – our own little histories are a part of this great history, not just by our participation in Adam’s fall but by our sure and certain hope. We live this moment of the Virgin’s consent – her word conceiving His Word – each year and see the fruitfulness of her Yes in the Son’s yes to his Father. And now, with this coming, we stand waiting for the next coming, the final coming, when all will be made new.
Typically, Bernard gives us memorable triplets, that we ourselves can repeat and ponder: Believe, give praise and receive! Open your heart to faith, your lips to consent, and your womb to your Creator. Get up by faith, run by prayer, open by consent! These are not simply words for the Virgin Mary to hear but for us to hear, accept and act upon. Bernard gives us Advent action in all of those verbs: how faith leads to consent of God’s will in our lives and the Word being conceived in our own hearts (wombs – the innermost and most intimate place of encounter and fruitfulness – new life from the very moment of God’s intervention and graced presence).
Dare we imagine what our fate would have been had the Virgin refused? And yet she was free to do so – there was no compulsion here! Mary enjoyed that exquisite freedom which is utterly the mark of the person created in the image and likeness of God, and so her yes is a yes born of the complete and utterly loving exercise of her own free choice and will. In one sense she could always refuse; in another, she could never refuse, since love of her Creator could only ever be expressed in her loving acceptance of his will for her and for all humankind.
For the Cistercian Fathers, the intimacy enjoyed between Mary and Jesus, Mother and Child, Virgin and Christ, is in itself a symbol of the divine love for humankind. Through it, God blesses not just the Virgin, but all – humankind and creation – which falls beneath his gaze.
His coming forth is from the days of eternity. But at the end of ages his coming forth is from the womb of the woman who encompassed him. If the Lord wrought something new upon the earth still the fragrance of this wonderful news filled the heavens. A woman will encompass a man as a crown encompasses the head. For the head of the Church is Christ.(Gilbert of Hoyland, Sermon 21 on the Song of Songs)
When Jesus left his Mother’s body in which he had been cherished and nourished he left behind him a blessing. He sanctified her womb when he entered it; he filled it when he dwelt within it; and then, when he bade it farewell he consecrated it and strengthened it with his full blessing. That blessing overflowed on outward things but without losing its first grace which it continually poured into her.
Jesus came forth from his mother so as to bless her virginal eyes as well by showing her his face. He came forth to sanctify her mouth with the beautiful kiss of his own mouth to make blessed her breasts by pressing his lips to them, to consecrate her hands, her lap, her knees, every part of her, by the infinite sweetness of his sacred body as she held him to her.(John of Ford, Sermon 70 on the Song of Songs)
Always the Fathers are keen to point up Jesus’s sacred humanity, that he really does take flesh, and takes it from the Virgin’s flesh, as John of Ford has in the passage just given For the Cistercians, the veneration of Christ’s humanity as sacrament, sign and mystery of the presence of the Divinity is never far from their consideration – every aspect of the human existence of Christ becomes an object of meditation, allowing the person to remember, through Christ himself, all of God’s salvific interventions over the entire course of salvation history. And Mary, who, maintain the Fathers, remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of her Son, of course, by her participation, is integrated into all that her Son is and does.
For this cause was the Word made flesh, that by the flesh it might draw the flesh, and that joining flesh to flesh by the bond of charity it might bring back the wandering sheep to the invisible things of God and to the invisible omnipotent Father. With this midwife hand, therefore, Mary not only felt no pain but remained a virgin, even in giving birth. She is the door concerning which we read in the book of Ezekiel: that door will remain closed for the prince and through it the prince will go forth.
Through this door Christ, prince of the kings of the earth, has indeed issued and just as in entering he did not open it, so in leaving he did not unclose it. He passed through in peace, and his path was not seen. But if you marvel that God was born while Mary’s womb remained closed and sealed with her virginal purity, marvel also that though the door of the sepulchre was closed and sealed, he returned to the upper world and when the doors were locked came into his disciples.(Amadeus of Lausanne, Praises of the Virgin Mary Homily 4)
Amadeus follows the reflection of other authors beautifully here – the womb of the Blessed Virgin, closed, secret, and the source of the Christ’s human life, becomes a figure and foreshadowing of that other womb, Christ’s burial tomb, secret, dark, silent, and closed, which will become the place of new birth, the gateway into an eternal life in God, through the Son’s resurrection!
But above all the Cistercians emphasize the wonder that must be the context for meditating on the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation. Perhaps that is the single greatest loss in our modern society: the ability, desire, willingness to wonder at God’s mighty works! When the word “awesome” is so frequently dropped into speech and robbed of its true value we need to remind ourselves that experiencing awe is properly a response to the felt presence of God – and the Gospel, and indeed all of Sacred Scripture, returns again and again to this overwhelming, overpowering, mystery of the God who wants to be known by man.
O most sweet Child, good Jesus, how great is the abundance of your sweetness which you have hidden for those who fear you, which you bring to its fullness in those who trust you. You have shown so much of it to those who do not yet know you. What incomparable sweetness and loving kindness, that I should see the God who made me himself made a child for my sake; that the God of all majesty and glory should become not only like me in true bodily form but show himself even wretched and, as it were, devoid of all strength in the weakness of his infancy. Truly you are the Child-God, my Champion and my God. You are all that is sweet and desirable, yet your soft tender body makes you even more sweet to me. Indeed it is this which makes you so easily comprehensible to the senses and feelings of children who are still not fit to receive you as solid food.
So for us now it is sweet to think and to think again of this Child-God, sweet and utterly delicious; more, for him to be in us is a most effective remedy for curing and sweetening our rancour of soul, bitterness of speech and harshness of manners. For I cannot believe that where there is awareness and remembrance of his divine sweetness room can be found for anger or sadness, but every trace of anger and bitterness and every other source of evil will be taken from us
(Guerric of Igny, First Sermon for Christmas)