Ad te levavi animam meam…
“To You Lord I have lifted up my soul…”. These words, which we prayed in today’s Introit, and which start us off on this Season of Advent—the immediate preparation for Christmas—have a touch of “holy irony” about them, an irony which will be completely manifest on Christmas Morning. We are instructed to “lift up our soul” to God, to Him Who alone is omnipotent, all-knowing, perfect, the Creator of the universe—we are told to lift up our soul to Him, and yet we will find Him only by looking in the opposite direction, downwards, by lowering our eyes, not just down to this world, but down to the dirt, to the filthy stable in which the Word Incarnate wished to be born.
Whereas last week we celebrated Christ’s majesty and glory, as King of the Universe, now during Advent, we prepare ourselves for His coming, not riding on the clouds in power and might, but lying in a manger in poverty and, dare we say, helplessness. The Church gives us no more than four weeks to prepare for this coming, four weeks, you might say, to go looking for the Savior of the World. And Sacred Scripture, in its Christmas narrative, shows us how we are to do this, how we are to make our way to Christmas morning.
Such a poor humble arrival, as was Christ’s, can only be met by the poor and humble. The shepherds were simple men, lowly men, who made their living by watching over animals. They were generally poor. They led a humble life. They had a fear of God—as the Gospel of St. Luke tells us, when “the brightness of God shone around them, they feared with a great fear.” And, seeing that the shepherd is one of God’s favorite images in which He depicts Himself, we can guess that they were on the whole good men. They lifted up their souls to God when greeted by the angel, and then humbly sought out and soon found the Christ Child, the Good Shepherd of their souls.
The three Magi, though not monetarily poor, though invested with great power, gifted with excellent knowledge, were humble enough to come down from their thrones and ivory towers to seek out the King of Kings, Wisdom Itself. They traveled across a foreign land, and, far from exalting themselves, even threw themselves down on a cold stable floor and lifted their hearts and offered their gifts and adoration to the Prince of Peace. Herod, on the other hand, never could find the Divine Infant, perhaps because he was too high on his own throne to see such a lowly Child.
This need to both lift up one’s soul and lower oneself in order to find Christ was once expressed even more concretely in the Church’s liturgy years ago: when the stational Church for the First and Fourth Sundays of Advent, as well as for Christmas Night and Christ Morning were all at the Church of St. Mary Majors, where is kept a sizeable relic of the praesepium, the crib of our Lord. With a little imagination one can picture an early Medieval pope, dressed in full papal regalia, flocked by papal attendants, cardinals, bishops, etc. going down to the crypt where that relic is kept, taking off his miter, and humbly offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—like those who descended into that cave in Bethlehem on the first Christmas Morning to visit the Savior.
And so that seems to be the simple message of Advent: to lift up your hearts and lower yourself in order to find Christ. And if you’re having a little trouble falling to your knees, just ask God to help; He is usually pretty quick to knock us down a few notches when we need it. And don’t let that discourage you. He only strikes you down in order to raise you up to Himself. So let us “cross over to Bethlehem” in imitation of the shepherds and Magi, that we, like them, might find Christ: Who is both God and Man, Judge and Savior, powerful king and humble child.