Approaching Advent as a Cistercian
By Fr. Jack Mattimore, S.J.
As a Jesuit priest, having shared in the life the Cistercian community at Mepkin for five months, I have relished these first days of Advent. I have become familiar with life here, but Advent provides a fresh start, one which is vibrant, invigorating, and notable in three ways: our heightened sense of vigilance, the heart-warming presence of Mary, and the beauty and power of God’s Word in Scripture, which speaks of hope and love, as we wait for the Lord.
During Advent all Christians are called to be vigilant and alert for the coming of the Lord. We remember and celebrate His first coming when He was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, but we also remind ourselves of His promise that He will return again in glory at an unexpected time. We need to be prepared. We cannot be caught by surprise, and so during these four weeks of Advent, the entire. Church waits, watches, and prays.
But Cistercians are waiting and watching each day of the year. Here at Mepkin we gather in church at 4:00 AM for Vigils, the first of seven times we pray together each day. As we enter into the silence of the night, we softly chant psalms and listen to God’s word in the Scripture and afterward share silent prayer together as we continue to watch and wait. In Advent, Vigils takes on an even more sharpened sense of hope and expectation that our God comes to save us. Our presence together in the Church attests to our belief that the darkness will end, the light of Christ will dawn upon us, and when it does, we will be awake and ready to greet Him.
The second source of vibrancy during Advent is the wonderful presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and our mother. Cistercians love Mary and commend themselves to her each time they gather for prayer. The season of Advent draws our loving attention to Mary’s role in the story of salvation. It was Mary’s yes to the angel Gabriel’s message that opened the way for the coming of the Lord into our world. Mary is the central figure of Advent and we look to her and ask her intercession with confidence in her love for us. Each night at Compline’s end, we sing to Mary in candlelight, asking her to show to us her Child Jesus.
The third extraordinary element of this Cistercian Advent has been the Scriptures, one of the greatest gifts we always have, but even more meaningful during this season of waiting and watching. The book of the prophet Isaiah, in particular, provides magnificent and moving inspiration during Advent. We hear it as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours together and celebrate the Eucharist, and as we each spend time privately inlectio divina. The actions and words of Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, as recorded in the Scriptures, provide us with inspiration and examples of faithfulness, for they are the ones who awaited the coming of the Lord more than others. They model for us what it is to trust and believe, to act and to move, to speak and to ponder, as we look for and await the coming of God to us in our lives.
All of this reminds us again that God continues to do everything God can in order to speak to us about love and longing, both God’s and ours. And all we need do is stay awake, listen, and let God’s word take root in our lives.