In one of the chapters in Seasons of Celebration, Thomas Merton reflects upon “The Sacrament of Advent in the Spirituality of St. Bernard.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), from a noble family in the French province of Burgundy, became a monk at the monastery of Cîteaux, which had been established in 1098 with a mission to restore the Rule of St. Benedict. (He thus formed part of the original Cistercian order to which Merton belonged centuries later.) In a few years, Bernard moved to found a new house, Clairvaux Abbey, and his name has been associated with it ever since. Bernard was noted for his personal charisma, homilies, and literary gifts. His profound influence is seen in the fact that he personally saw to the establishment of sixty-five of the three hundred Cistercian monasteries founded during his thirty-eight years as abbot.
In his writings on Advent, Bernard emphasized that there are, in fact, three Advents to keep in mind.
St Bernard frequently returns to the idea of the “three Advents” of Christ. The first of these is the one in which He entered into the world, having received a Human Nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The third is the Advent which will bring Him into the world at the end of time to judge the living and the dead or rather, in the light of what has been said above, to make manifest the judgment which the indifferent have brought upon themselves by failure to receive His love and the salvation which the elect have accepted from the hands of His mercy. The first Advent is that in which He comes to seek and to save that which was lost. The third is that in which He comes to take us to Himself. The first is a promise and the third is its fulfillment. To meditate on these two Advents is to sleep between the arms of God with His left hand under our head and His right hand embracing us….
The three Advents of Christ are the fulfillment of the Pascha Christi. But so far we have only spoken explicitly of the first and third. The second is in a certain sense the most important for us. The “Second Advent” by which Christ is present in our souls now, depends on our present recognition of His pascha or transitus, the passage of Christ through our world, through our own lives.
Meditating on the past and future Advents, we learn to recognize the present Advent that is taking place at every moment of our own earthly life as wayfarers. We awaken to the fact that every moment of time is a moment of judgment, that Christ is passing by and that we are judged by our awareness of His passing. If we join Him and travel with Him to the Kingdom, the judgment becomes for us salvation. But if we neglect Him and let Him go by, our neglect is our condemnation! No wonder St Bernard would not have us ignorant of the Second Advent, the “medius Adventus,” the “time of visitation.”
Meditation on the first Advent gives us hope of the promise offered us. The remembrance of the third reminds us to fear lest by our fault we fail to receive the fulfillment of that promise. The second Advent, the present, set in between these two terms, is therefore necessarily a time of anguish, a time of conflict between fear and joy. But this is a salutary struggle! It ends in salvation and victory because it purifies our whole being. Nevertheless, the middle Advent is more a time of consolation than of suffering if we reflect that here too Christ really comes to us, really gives Himself to us so that we already possess our heaven in hope.