“Every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight; and the rough ways plain. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The final lines of today’s Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent will strike some as familiar, for it is of course used in the opening minutes of Handel’s Messiah. Great as that work is, the insights of St. Alphonsus Ligouri shed more light upon the text, in the manner which he has done for these past Sundays of Advent. Our saint uses the final line of the Gospel as the launch pad for the final Sunday meditation before the birth of the Infant King in a few days time.
He first points to the unfathomable depths of love with Christ has for us, a love so great that He extends His salvation to all who come, seeking to follow Him in the way of perfection. It is a love which moved Christ to come to earth in abject poverty, deigning to be born in the humble surroundings of a stable, with cattle and sheep as his stable companions. Whilst the Mother of God and her chaste spouse St. Joseph, kneel in adoration before the Son of God, he who would persecute this little Child enjoys the earthly splendour and magnificence of a throne and palace.
The little Child, who in just a few days time will be lying in the manger in swaddling clothes, is also the same Redeemer who will be lifted up on the cross in bloody torments and death. Thus says St. Alphonsus: “He has come, and to show the immense love which this God bears us, he has given himself entirely to us, by abandoning himself to all the pains of this life, and afterwards to the scourges, to the thorns, and to all the sorrows and insults which he suffered in his passion, and by offering himself to die, abandoned by all, on the infamous tree of the cross.”
Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) Yes, this passage is particularly linked to the final line of today’s Gospel printed above. The salvation of God, which all men shall see, is found through the salvific action of Christ’s death upon the cross - that act of love which no man hath made before nor since. Ligouri does not point too much to the cross, so as to focus attention more on Calvary than the Nativity, for that meditation is more properly made during Lent. However, he directs his listeners to the deep and crucial link which one must understand in order to more fully appreciate the love of Christ. For the love which moved Him to be born amongst cattle, rejected by the world and persecuted by kings, is the same love which drew our Saviour to the cross.
“O Christian, should a doubt ever enter your mind that Jesus Christ loves you, raise your eyes and look at him hanging on the cross..So great was the love which inflamed the enamoured heart of Jesus, that he not only wished to die for our redemption, but during his whole life he sighed ardently for the day on which he should suffer death for the love of us.” This is a profound and sombre thought with which to carry us into the last few days of Advent. Even as He lay in the manger, in that pastoral scene so beautifully captured by artists through the centuries, Christ looked and even longed for the cross, so that He might draw all men into the depths of love which He offers.
No doubt He looked at His Blessed Mother, on her knees before her Son and Lord, knowing the piercing sorrow which His death must cause her and the part which she must play in it also. Doubtless He saw the chaos and disruption which would unfold upon creation at the moment of His death, whilst still surrounded by hosts of angels hailing the new born King at the moment of His glorious yet silent entrance into the world.
In light of this reflection, St. Alphonsus calls us to return a similar love to Christ. He talks of the greatness of our obligation to Him and reminds us that “God wishes nothing else from us than to be loved.” “Meditation is the blessed furnace in which the holy fire of divine love is kindled. Make mental prayer every day, meditate on the passion of Jesus Christ, and doubt not but you too shall burn with this blessed flame.”
It is true that one cannot give back to Christ the love which He has given, for we are imperfect and sinful. But Ligouri counsels that through the daily practice of meditation, particularly on the passion of Christ, one can make great steps in advancing in the love of God and imitating the holy love which burned like a fire within the heart of Christ. It is a particularly useful practice to take up in the final days before Christmas, almost as a renewed effort at making a proper and holy Advent. The saint is well aware of the many graces which the Christ Child bestows at Christmas on those who come before Him in adoration, and makes judicious use of this timing to exhort his listeners to take up the practice of daily meditation. He urges us to “correspond to the love of God” so that we might be as perfectly prepared as possible for the coming of the Infant King.
The stable is connected to Golgotha, the manger to the cross: the Infant King and our bloodied Redeemer are one and the same, God Incarnate. Thus Ligouri advises that one meditate upon the mystery of the passion and death of Christ.
“I conclude, my most beloved brethren, by recommending you henceforth to meditate every day on the passion of Jesus Christ. I shall be content, if you daily devote to this meditation a quarter of an hour. Let each at least procure a crucifix, let him keep it in his room, and from time to time give a glance at it, saying: ‘Ah! my Jesus, thou hast died for me, and I do not love thee.’ Had a person suffered for a friend injuries, buffets, and prisons, he would be greatly pleased to find that they were remembered and spoken of with gratitude. But he should be greatly displeased if the friend for whom they had been borne, were unwilling to think or hear of his sufferings. Thus frequent meditation on his passion is very pleasing to our Redeemer; but the neglect of it greatly provokes his displeasure.”
“Oh! how great will be the consolation which we shall receive in our last moments from the sorrows and death of Jesus Christ, if, during life, we shall have frequently meditated on them with love! Let us not wait till others, at the hour of death, place in our hands the crucifix; let us not wait till they remind us of all that Jesus Christ suffered for us. Let us, during life, embrace Jesus Christ crucified; let us keep ourselves always united to him, that we may live and die with him. He who practises devotion to the passion of our Lord, cannot but be devoted to the dolour’s of Mary, the remembrance of which will be to us a source of great consolation at the hour of death, how profitable and sweet the meditation of Jesus on the cross! Oh! how happy the death of him who dies in the embraces of Jesus crucified, accepting death with cheerfulness for the love of that God who has died for the love of us!”