Several years ago we used a book for a Lenten Study here at the church that urged contemporary Christians to invite previous pilgrims on the way to be our faithful companions (“com” – with; “pan” – bread). A companion is someone with whom we break bread on the journey of faith. We are nourished by what they have to share with us. British Theologian Alistair McGrath calls it “spiritual hitchhiking.” We let someone who has been down the road before us pick us up and ride along with for a stretch while he or she shares with us what they’ve learned before sending us on our way again. So committed was C.S. Lewis to giving voices from the past a say in the present moment that he said that “it is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between..”
One of the recommended companions from the past in that Lenten study book was John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381). A Flemish mystic from the 14th century whose influence was great on some of the writers and teachers who had a direct impact on the thinking of the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), the thrust of John of Ruysbroeck’s message was that “internal spiritual reflection was more important than ritual in deepening the spiritual life.” What’s going on inside of us matters more spiritually than what’s going on outside of us. It’s not enough to be outwardly in the church by ritual, one must also be inwardly in Christ by faith. To this end, John of Ruysbroeck wrote about what he called “the three comings of Christ.”
John of Ruysbroeck began his book “The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage” with this reference to Scripture –
BEHOLD, THE BRIDEGROOM COMETH, GO YE OUT TO MEET HIM (MATTHEW 25:6). These words were written by St Matthew the Evangelist, and Christ spoke them to His disciples and to all other men in the parable of the virgins. This Bridegroom is Christ, and human nature is the bride which God has made in His own image and after His likeness.
And then he explained –
Now, by saying: THE BRIDEGROOM COMETH…Christ, our Bridegroom… implies two tenses, the past and the present; and yet here it denotes the future too. And that is why we shall consider three comings of our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
o In the first coming He became man, for man’s sake, out of love.
o The second coming takes place daily, often and many times, in every loving heart, with new graces and with new gifts, as each is able to receive them.
o The third coming we shall see as the coming in the Judgment, or at the hour of death.
John of Ruysbroeck was not the only, or even the first teacher of the Christian Faith to talk about the three comings of Christ. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 -1153) in an Advent sermon he preached to his monastic community explained –
We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty… Because this (middle) coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.
Because the middle coming of Christ is the interior one – the one that takes place in the heart – it is the main focus of the teachers of the spiritual life. As someone has said, “Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but unless and until He is born in my heart, it really doesn’t matter.” And while I would want to pick a bone or two with that statement, I certainly appreciate what it’s trying to say. Christianity, while rooted firmly in history, is not just about history. It’s also about the heart. As Reformed theologians like to say, what Jesus Christ did for us objectively on the plane of history has got to be subjectively applied to each one of our hearts inwardly through the Holy Spirit. And that brings us back around to John of Ruysbroeck.
I appreciate the imagery he creates with his description of the middle coming of Christ –
THE second coming of Christ our Bridegroom takes place every day within good men; often and many times, with new graces and gifts, in all those who make themselves ready for it, each according to his power. We would not speak here of a man’s first conversion, nor of the first grace which was given to him when he turned from sin to the virtues. But we would speak of an increase of new gifts and new virtues from day to day, and of the present coming of Christ our Bridegroom which takes place daily within our souls.
…when the sun sends its beams and its radiance into a deep valley between two high mountains, and, standing in the zenith, can yet shine upon the bottom and ground of the
valley, then three things happen: the valley becomes full of light by reflection from the mountains, and it receives more heat, and becomes more fruitful, than the plain and level country. And so likewise, when a good man takes his stand upon his own littleness, in the most lowly part of himself, and confesses and knows that he has nothing, and is nothing, and can nothing, of himself, neither stand still nor go on, and when he sees how often he fails in virtues and good works: then he confesses his poverty and his helplessness, then he makes a valley of humility. And when he is thus humble, and needy, and knows his own need; he lays his distress, and complains of it, before the bounty and the mercy of God. And so he marks the sublimity of God and his own lowliness; and thus he becomes a deep valley. And Christ is a Sun of righteousness and also of mercy, Who stands in the highest part of the firmament, that is, on the right hand of the Father, and from thence He shines into the bottom of the humble heart; for Christ is always moved by helplessness, whenever a man complains of it and lays it before Him with humility. Then there arise two mountains, that is, two desires; one to serve God and praise Him with reverence, the other to attain noble virtues. Those two mountains are higher than the heavens, for these longings touch God without intermediary, and crave His ungrudging generosity. And then that generosity cannot withhold itself, it must flow forth; for then the soul is made ready to receive, and to hold, more gifts. These are the wherefore, and the way of the new coming with new virtues. Then, this valley, the humble heart, receives three things: it becomes more radiant and enlightened by grace, it becomes more ardent in charity, and it becomes more fruitful in perfect virtues and in good works. And thus you have the why, the way, and the work of this coming.
It is the purpose of Advent to help make this experience possible for each Christian, and when it happens, everything changes. DBS+