Advent Reflections
by President Glenn Arbery

12.7.21: “The Witness of a Teacher”

Today is the Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, whom I remember most vividly from the account given by St. Augustine in his Confessions. When Augustine moved from Carthage to Milan before his conversion, Augustine found Ambrose fascinating; for the first time, his Manichean scorn of the Bible began to evaporate when he heard Ambrose explain the spiritual meanings of the Scriptures. One passage in the Confessions even records Augustine’s fascination with the fact Ambrose read silently: “when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.”  This practice was a matter of considerable speculation for Augustine and his friends —Was he saving his voice? — and their astonishment has given rise (as one might imagine) to scholarly essays about reading practices in antiquity.

Legend has it that a swarm of bees settled on the face on the infant Ambrose in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey as a sign of his future. Perhaps that is the reason he is the patron of beekeepers—or perhaps it’s also because of a passage in his treatise “Concerning Virgins,” which includes extensive commentary on the imagery of the Song of Songs. The passage in question is 4:11: “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride;/milk and honey are under your tongue./The fragrance of your garments/is like the fragrance of Lebanon.” Ambrose exhorts virgins, “Let, then, your work be as it were a honeycomb, for virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent.”

In the Catholic tradition, there’s something like a proportion at work in the great intellectual saints: as St. Ambrose is to St. Augustine, so St. Albertus Magnus is to St. Thomas Aquinas (or maybe Amb:Aug::Alb:Aqu). It’s difficult to imagine St. Augustine coming into the Church as he did without St. Ambrose, who was also a guide to Augustine’s mother, St. Monica. Worthy as he is in his own right as a Doctor of the Church, part of the greatness of Ambrose lies in his effect as a teacher — even when he was just reading to himself. How could he know how important this convert from North Africa would be? So it is with the witness of teachers. Their words have effects they can never calculate, and their example teaches even more powerfully than their words. The best ones never even suspect what God will make of them.

12.6.21: “Those with a Journey to Make”

At the regularly scheduled meetings that I have with the College’s chaplains, I often ask if there’s something I should be reading. This past week, Fr. David Anderson suggested a book by John Saward called Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christian Mystery. He said it was one of his favorite books for the Christmas season. As it happens, the first sentence of Saward’s introduction is this: “In the liturgy of His Church, the eternal Word incarnate works wonders with the calendar.” This opening sentence struck me so strongly because last week I had begun thinking of an Advent project, which was to offer a short reflection on the first reading of each day’s Scriptures at Mass as they come up on the calendar. In this season, the first readings anticipate the Incarnation and the Second Coming.

In today’s reading from Isaiah 35:1-10, several things strike me. First is the address to “the desert and the parched land” and the “steppe,” which are promised a respite from their sterility and dryness. Apart from its penitential meanings, the desert naturally symbolizes physical sterility and a state of spiritual dryness, so it is particularly consoling to read that these places “will bloom with abundant flowers,/and rejoice with joyful song.” Also in this passage are petitions to strengthen feeble hands or week knees or hearts that are frightened. “Be strong, fear not!” the passage insists. (I am particularly sensitive to prayers to “make firm the knees that are weak” after my wife’s knee replacement surgery.) This passage also seems to anticipate the miracles of the Gospels, the cures of blindness, deafness, lameness, or muteness. Through God’s intervention, our sterility and dryness will be remedied, our weaknesses turned to strengths, and our disabilities corrected.

What’s particularly striking as the passage goes on, however, is insistence that “a highway will be there called the holy way.” Why need there be a highway? Perhaps we too easily forget the difficulties of ancient travel. (I have just begun reading again Francis Parkman’s book The Oregon Trail, published in 1849, which vividly reveals the difficulty of the westward journey.) We are asked to imagine again the desert or the steppe and to think of this highway through it. The passage goes on to explain that the highway “is for those with a journey to make,/and on it the redeemed will walk./Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return/and enter Zion singing.” On this highway, there will be no one unclean, no fools, no beasts of prey that menace us as the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf menace the pilgrim Dante when he first tries to emerge from the dark wood.

Who can read the passage without speculating about this journey that we are called upon to make? Is anyone exempt? The way that we follow is the way of redemption and ransom, cleared of its hindrances. We will enter Zion singing. Zion means Jerusalem, and Jerusalem restored and reconstituted is the City of God. The promise here is huge and mysterious. What have we actually understood about the Incarnation? What do we think we know about this journey we have to make?