Fallen leaves

POST BY PGallagher

‘Even now as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven.’[1]  How do we learn to love the things of heaven?  We do so by practicing faith, hope and charity.  Our faith is in God.  We hope to be with him forever. His help sustains us.  I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received [2]. At his command, we love him and our brothers and sisters.   He sent his Son to us.  The Son has promised to return.  Loving the things of heaven is devotion to God who came to save us, who will return to bring us to himself and who is with us already through his Holy Spirit. God of hosts, turn again, we implore, look down from heaven and see [3].  The incarnation and the last judgement are together in our mind as we ask the Lord to break anew into our life and transform it.   The advent of the Son into human life has a first and a last moment.  Long ago, he was born in a stable at Bethlehem and one day he will come back to judge us and to present us to his Father.  We long for his help and pray for his presence.  He will keep you steady and without blame until the last day [4].  We meditate both on his second coming as judge and also on his first advent among us. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, described in the gospel, imitated and reproduced, since the beginning, in the diverse, holy lives of his saints, can pattern definitively our own existence.

How do ‘passing things’ teach us faith, hope and charity?  Our love of God, our hope of heaven and our service of others are put into practice in the world into which the creator has placed us.  We are the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand [5].  Although this world is passing away, it gives us scope for closeness to God.  He is far above it but he has also committed himself to it. Here, amid these transient things, we can be faithful.  ‘We walk amid passing things’ but we do so with One who so loved the world that he sent his only Son [6] into it.   God, by calling you, has joined you to his Son, Jesus, and God is faithful [7].  The maker of everything confers on us a glimpse of his own vision of his creation.  We are allowed to give thanks for the ‘passing things’ under the light of eternity.  The Lord contemplates a world which he has always wanted to save.  He will one day return to bring that salvation to completion. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with this own task [8].  What we have come to understand and to marvel at prompts us to turn again to our creator and rescuer.  We do so in faith, hoping for redemption and even holiness. We try to love after the divine pattern of generosity and self-sacrifice.

We can be more struck by the ‘passing’ character of things than by their power to provoke us to live in faith, hope and charity.  We would like focus devoutly on the God who returns and to whom we are returning.  However, we are mired in the ephemeral.  Inconstant ourselves, we are astonished by the constancy of our heavenly Father.  Easily distracted, we forget the teaching of his Son.  ‘Because you hid yourself, we transgressed: we had long been rebels against you’ [9].   Unreachable sometimes, we permit ourselves not to hear the counsel of the Holy Spirit who dwells reliably within us.  We have all withered like leaves and our sins blew us away like the wind [10].   Decayed and scattered, we begin this Advent hoping to be revived and to be re-focused.  The withered leaves are not without beauty.  They are a reminder of earlier glory. Now they are fallen.  Our fallen nature sometimes oppresses us.   We walk amid fallen leaves and can be moved to reflect bleakly on lost splendour.  Heaven can be forgotten.  ‘Without your grace we waste away / like flowers that wither and decay’[11].  The Lord comes to lift us up from our fallen-ness. He does so, however, only with our permission.  Having fallen, are we content to be raised up? ‘The leaves fall, fall as from far, / Like distant gardens withered in the heavens;/ They fall with slow and lingering descent’ [12]. Advent encourages us to believe that fallenness is not our whole story. We have been blown about, but Christ is coming to save us.  He retrieves and gather.  ‘But there is One who holds this falling / Infinitely softly in His hands’.[13]

During Advent we prepare for the coming of the promised One.  His arrival will be a return.  However, it is as if he were coming again for the first time. We prepare for him as God’s children have always understood that they must ready themselves for the saviour.  The Lord will arrive unforgettably.  In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory [14].  In the meantime, however, he approaches us with humility and discretion.  Until he actually reaches us there will be uncertainty about the moment and the manner.   His searching us out is decisive.  Nevertheless, he allows us to help him to find us by encouraging us to be on the alert.  We are watching out for him who has long watched over us.  Our walking ‘amid passing things’ is a vigilant waiting for his arrival.  The passing things help us to think of the one who made them.  The fallen leaves are strewn beneath our feet.  They carpet our path.  They could conceal the right way but, instead, they trace it out for us.  Grace walks purposefully on the road marked out by nature.  Faith, hope and loving charity do not cover up decay.  They inhabit our renewal. By practicing these virtues we make progress around and above the wreckage of how we lived before   Christ rescues us from sin and death and enables us to retrieve ourselves from the ruin into which tend to fall.   The passing things, sifted to preserve the good, like a kind of compost, nourish the soil into which the Lord sows his saving Word.    

The ‘passing things’ are a dream. One day, we will wake up to a sturdier reality.  Advent is an encouragement to us to slough off fantasy and to embrace the truth.  Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come [15].   We are preparing for an arrival.  You are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed [16].  This revelation could happen at any moment.  If he comes unexpectedly he must not find you asleep.  And what I say to you I say to all: stay awake [17].  We are invited to be vigilant.  Preparation is underway for the coming of Jesus at the end of everything and also in the feasts soon to be celebrated.  Our vigilance allows us to welcome him now.  Advent is a presence not an absence.  The Lord is already with us in our preparing. The witness to Christ has indeed been strong among you, so that you will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for [18] him.  The Lord is at our door.  Christ is happening to us: he befalls us today.   His approach accommodates us even as it challenges.  We choose freely to turn our attention to Jesus. We turn away from much with which our life has until now been strewn.  The fallen leaves are gaudy and numerous. Our attention, however, is on another who is coming down to us. It is the Lord.

Fr Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]              The Roman Missal, First Sunday of Advent, from the Prayer after Communion

[2]              I Corinthians 1.4

[3]              Psalm (80) 79.14

[4]              1 Corinthians 1.8

[5]              Isaiah 64.8

[6]              John 3.16

[7]              1 Corinthians 1.9

[8]              Mark 13.34

[9]              Isaiah 64.5

[10]            Isaiah 64.6

[11]            ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cries’ lines 11-12, translation by John Chandler 1806-1876 of the

 hymn Jordanis oras praevia 1736 by Charles Coffin 1676-1749

[12]          Rainer Maria Rilke 1875-1926  ‘Herbst’ 1902 
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,/

als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;/ sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde. lines 1-3

[13]            Rilke, ‘Herbst’ Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen /

unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält. lines 8-9

[14]            Mark 13.24-26

[15]            Mark 13.33

[16]            1 Corinthians 1.7

[17]            Mark 13.37

[18]            1 Corinthians 1.7