Hope, Rest, and Renewal in Christ

Memorial of Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church; Second Wednesday of Advent: Isaiah 40:25-31, Matthew 11:28-30.

What soothing words of hope and security we find in today’s readings! With so many trials and difficulties in our lives, this reminder couldn’t come at a better time. As we prepare and wait for the Lord this Advent, we wait like adoring adults gazing at the Christ child in the manger as well as frightened children in need of a Savior to carry us to the finish line. Christ is of course both of these – incarnate in ultimate fragility and yet the most powerful being in the universe. Today, we remember this second aspect: the fact that he is God, able to bear our burdens with us and renew our vigor. Appropriately, we also celebrate St. Ambrose, a towering Doctor of the Church from the 4th century who also acts as a force of solidity and strength in our faith.

St Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, Anthony van Dyck (1619-1620) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. Talk about a figure of strength and moral fortitude! In 390 AD, St. Ambrose wouldn’t let Emperor Theodosius into the Milan Cathedral to receive communion until he made a public show of penance for the Roman troops’ Massacre at Thessalonica. While there is evidence of this exchange in letters between Ambrose and Theodosius, as well as Theodosius’s eventual presence for Mass at Christmas, the scene above probably didn’t happen this way, although it makes for great artistic fodder.

I love how Isaiah asks us incredulously in today’s reading, “Do you not know or have you not heard?” as if his listeners were ignorant of the God of Abraham and Moses. In breathless earnestness he proceeds to tell us, “The LORD is the eternal God, creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint nor grow weary.” Clearly, he thought we needed a reminder (then and now). And he immediately transitions from describing God’s attributes to describing what He does for us: “He gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound.” This is a crucial point: our God is a selfless God who gives endlessly to His People. He is no pagan god who toys with his people and expects sacrifice in exchange for favors. Isaiah points out that it is simply hope, not even sacrifice or ritual, that engages God in this transfer of vigor to His People: “They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings.” This is extraordinary, especially in comparison to the world’s other religions. Isaiah is reminding us of the intensely personal nature of our relationship with God. He knows us so well that the very act of hope – wherein we align our thoughts and our will toward Him as the ultimate One who can help us – is enough for Him to work in and through us. Hope, in this instance, is a form of prayer where we give God our allegiance and in humility tell Him that He is the only true source of aid. Ours is a God who cares so much for every single one of the countless people He has created that He enters their minds and hearts to have communion with them.

Jesus gives voice to this wish of the Father: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” How extraordinary! What mere Messiah figure speaks like this? What mere holy man? These words don’t come across as braggadocio, or as hollow promises. This is the voice of God, sharing His desire for all of His People to come to Him. 

Taking a closer look, though, there is a seeming paradox in these words of comfort. While he promises everyone who comes to him rest, he also states that he is waiting with a yoke for them. Which is it, rest or work? Can they exist together? He promises to teach them, but notes that he is meek and humble of heart so they can rest in his teachings. Which is it, active learning or rest? These are exactly the tensions that find their harmony in Christ. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” This is the key – the yoke is uncompromising love. Love itself is easy and light, it does give you rest and regeneration. Yet living in a state of grace is also work and takes training to achieve. All of our moral teachings and commandments stem from love as God defines it. Constant prayer is a fundamental aspect of living a life of love. Extending mercy and forgiveness to everyone in your life is the way of love. To stand up and put on this yoke every day takes dedication, as our brothers and sisters in monasteries and convents attest. 

detail from Jesus and Peter on the Water, Gustave Brion (1863) | Image from gallery19c.com.

All of the sudden, the yoke seems hard. And, without Christ and the Holy Spirit active in our lives, it might be. These things would become a chore, but God makes them a joy. This is the promise of renewed vigor and rest. Think of how your soul soars when you help someone in need without a thought of recompense. Or of how a time of intense prayer gives you a new perspective on your day-to-day life. God is with us, all the time. All we have to do is open ourselves to Him.

And no one says it more clearly than Saint Ambrose, who we honor today. Here is a concise exposition he wrote on this very subject:

Open wide your door to the one who comes. Open your soul, throw open the depths of your heart to see the riches of simplicity, the treasures of peace, the sweetness of grace. Open your heart and run to meet the Sun of eternal light that illuminates all men. . . . Blessed is he, therefore, at whose door Christ comes knocking. Faith is the door of the soul, and if it is strong then it fortifies the whole house. Through this door Christ enters. . . . Open to him, therefore: he wishes to come in, the Bridegroom wishes to find you keeping watch. (from Commentary on Psalm 118).

St. Ambrose reminds us that faith is the door through which Christ enters. He is waiting at the door of everyone’s soul, but if faith is shriveled, if it is nonexistent, there is no way to greet Christ and find refuge in him. It is almost too obvious to point out, but this is why faith is so important. It is why Satan tries so hard to erode our faith in God, and perhaps it is why God makes Himself invisible to our senses, so that we strengthen our faith like a muscle. We must pray to God to continually strengthen our faith, especially in times when we doubt a Church teaching or even God’s presence in our lives.

May Saint Ambrose intercede for us today as we celebrate Advent, prepared and waiting for the Sun of eternal light to shine on us all.

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