I will salvage something from the Advent and Christmas sermons of St. Robert Bellarmine, which I announced just the other day will not be out this year, due to focusing on his other works. What follows is his sermon from the first Sunday of Advent, posted today to give place to the celebration of St. Andrew yesterday (as well as that I would rather not post on Sunday). NB: When he says briefly in the first line, that is to be taken in a 16th century sense of “brief”.
Sermon on the Epistle for the First Sunday of Advent
Given at the university of Louvain, 1571 (to the students)
Concio II (Opera Omnia)
St. Robert Bellarmine,
Doctor of the Church
Translated by Ryan Grant (see creative commons license for all questions about copying and citing)
Now is the hour we rise from sleep: now indeed, our salvation is nearer than when we believed. -Rom. XIII.
We will briefly explicate this beginning of today’s Epistle, by the Lord’s help: that which, in fact, is lead into one end according to the sense of the Apostle, but is adduced to another end by the Church; to be sure it has been proposed and also fittingly established. But what was proposed by Bl. Paul when he wrote, “Now is the hour we rise from sleep: now indeed, our salvation is nearer than when we believed”? The blessed Apostle wrote to the Romans, and also wished to wake them from the sleep of sin and from negligence, but he uses two arguments to carry this out, the second of which is from a due season; the other was taken up from the proximity of the end. How, indeed, if we should wish to wake someone, wouldn’t we say to him, “Hey you! Wake up!, it is time. For the dawn appears.” But what if he should be such a man from that lot which does not care much whether dawn should appear, but rather gladly sleeps until noon, then wouldn’t we say to him: “Hey you! Get up! The time is at hand to carry out a great business – namely lunch.” The Apostle Paul first exhorts the Romans in the same manner, that they should rise, because it is the hour of rising, for “Night has passed, and moreover, day approaches.” Therefore, because the time of that great meal, which is made in heaven, is near,: “Now indeed, is our salvation nearer, than when we believed.
We will explain now the individual words. It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. Why is sleep called “of sin”? What is sleep? What is “of sin”? It is in these vices, O students, that there is a certain very elegant translation: sleep, thus, is nothing other than a short death, where it deprives all senses, and all powers of the living, when it neither senses, nor sees, nor hears, nor is it moved: and, at length, if it should be roused, sense, see, hear or move, then indeed we know without a doubt he sleeps. And then he wakes up, when he exercises his functions of sense, his eyes see, his ears hear: reason is in control, intelligence rules, the will moves. Yea, indeed the spiritual senses and movement of our soul are faith and charity. By faith we sense, by charity we are moved: faith teaches what must be done, what must be loved, what is to be relinquished, what is to be expected, what is to be scorned, what is to be glorified, what is to be feared, what is to be desired. But Charity moves, in order that we might do what is to be done, that we might love what is to be loved, that we might relinquish what is to be relinquished, that we might expect what must be expected, that we might scorn what much be scorned, glorify what is to be glorified, fear what is to be feared, that we might long for what must be longed for.
Therefore, who lives and who is awake? None other than a pious and good Catholic, one who does not have his powers of sense and movement bound, or rendered insensible, but free and unencumbered. One who is stable in faith, steadfast in religion, burning in charity, one who is never inactive, never idle, never quarrelsome, rather as a burning spark dashes in the thicket, and sets alight only some small portion, and only that causes the tallow to burn and be ablaze with the love of heavenly goods. These are awake, O students, who at any time, so inflame the thicket with perseverance against the pride of the wise, with divine love, and a desire for heavenly goods that, by this burning, they prepare punishment for demons, a light to men and joy and delight to angels. These are awake.
But who are those that are sleeping then? In the first place, all the heathen, and heretics who lack faith, and do not have the true sense of God and His truth. These reckon themselves to be awake, but they sleep. They dispute about the faith, about Christ our God, about the Sacraments; they reckon themselves to be in the light, to have open eyes, and they do not realize that all these things which they speak are fictions and dreams. What? Do they seem to you to be awake, who say infants cannot be baptized until they believe in act, and have the use of reason, that the human nature of Christ is everywhere, that the divinity of Christ is stretched out and dead on the cross; that Christ despaired, and even was damned, that God was not on a tree, that a stone is not in a stone, that iron is not in iron; or that God does not require good works? I ask whether they are awake or asleep who say the Apostle Peter never went to Rome (that I may omit their other fantasies) when all histories, all the Fathers, all writers, and the very place of his martyrdom, his bonds, his jail, his tomb, his seat in which he sat, the altar in which he sacrificed, and so many other monuments and trophies contest and even raise their voice against them?
But it is not only heretics and the heathen who sleep, but even many Catholics. For the Apostle Paul was writing not to the heathen Romans, but to Christians, when he said: “Now is the hour to rise from sleep.” Therefore, the Lutherans seriously err when, among other things, they fantasize that there is no sin apart from infidelity; even supposing that the Apostle rouses the very ones from sleep, whose faith in the same Epistle he had extolled with the highest praises. They sleep, therefore, all men the dream of riches, as the Psalmist sings. All drunk men are sleeping, whom Joel awoke saying: “Awake you drunkards and weep.” All the unchaste sleep, and all those, whose god is their stomach, whom in this epistle Paul threatens: “do not be given to gluttony, and drunkenness, do not be unchaste in your beds.” All these are asleep, and they themselves suffer also wondrous fictions. Meanwhile they have one foot in the tomb, and reckon that they are about to live more years than Mathusalah had lived. Meanwhile they appear to themselves as kings and princes, they abound in riches, they relish pleasures, although in fact they are pitiable and miserable, poor, blind and naked. Meanwhile haughtiness is extolled, they reckon themselves to sit above the clouds, while they crawl as worms over the earth. Didn’t, perhaps, Caligula and Domitian, will themselves to be considered immortal, and yet were taken from the sight of men by the slightest stroke of the sword? Don’t men sleep today, who gather riches sufficient for a thousand years, and will die tomorrow, or by chance at this very moment? Look to the ages which have gone by, and the men who were before us, weren’t nearly all deluded by such visions? A hundred years ago the world was full with men, just as today, and then also they contended for kingdoms and provinces, some for land and possessions, some for benefices, others for women. One built a house, another planted a vineyard. Thereupon, they were all so seriously encumbered in their business, that nearly all appeared to be awake, but nevertheless today nothing of theirs survives, and those cares, those anxieties, those outcries, those contentions have been silenced today. Where are so many powerful emperors, so many vain philosophers, so many very eloquent speakers of lies, whose arrogance, pride and excitement the world did not grab hold of? They all dreamt their dream, and they discovered nothing in their hands. It was therefore just a dream.
The end of the night of this age will come in the same way, in which we are in; furthermore it comes daily, now to this one, now to that one; and then men understand, clearly in death, that they truly do not have anything, but dreamt riches, pleasures and honors. Then they look up, and discover nothing in their hands, apart from the debt of many grave sins. Then, at length, they realize that they have been deluded, and for all eternity, they are not going to dream punishments and tortures, but truly awake they are going to endure them, and they are going to compensate for the pleasure of a very brief dream by being awake eternally, and with punishments that never end. Wherefore we rightly say with the Apostle to all those who so sleep: “Now is the hour we rise from sleep.” At last, awake before it is too late, you have slept more than enough. Therefore, this is the proposition on sleep.
Now on the hour. “The hour is” he says, “for us to rise from sleep.” When indeed is the hour of rising? The morning hour, sunrise, dawn: “For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk are drunk by night.” What is the morning hour? The time of grace. Accordingly before the coming of Christ, “darkness covered the world, and a fog the people,” as Isaiah says; even the Jews themselves, although they had been enlightened by the prophetic lights, like certain stars, nevertheless they remained in the shadow of figures and waiting for the coming light. Accordingly all things were given to them in a figure and the law itself only governed by the shadow of future goods. But the Christ having arisen, and with the gospel of grace shining, “Night passed, but day approached.” Therefore, dawn and the morning sun, even the time of rising has arrived. Dawn is almost the middle between the darkness of night and the light of noon. It is not as dark as night, nor is it as bright as noon. Thus, it is also the time of grace, and the means of the gospel among the darkness of infidelity, and of sinners, and the light of vision, and of the glory of blessed God. Infidelity is night: the vision of God is noon; Christian faith the dawn. The infidels see almost nothing; the blessed in heaven see all things, and very lucidly. We recognize on one side, and we prophecy on one side, and we divine. To the extent that from dawn the light always grows towards noon, and the darkness is diminished, so in like manner Christians always walk, and rise from virtue into virtue, from light into the light, from fervor into fervor, until they shall come to the noon-day sun, where they discover perfect and perpetual light. Conversely, stupid men walk backward in the manner of crabs1, from the dawn towards the middle of the night. Dawn shines upon them when they are baptized, and become Christians; but when they begin to make a journey through the road of sins and especially heresy and the things of this world, they are always more and more wrapped up in darkness, until they fall into Gehenna, where the night is most dark and perpetual. Hence Solomon says in the Proverbs: “The road of the Just is as a shining light proceeding, and it grows unto the perfect day: the road of the wicked is dark, they know not where they shall be ruined.
Therefore, since it should already be morning, and dawn, it is justly said, “It is the hour now for us to rise from sleep. Now indeed our salvation is nearer than when we believed.” This is the other reason, which certainly is not explained in one and the same sense by the Holy Fathers and doctors of the Church. Yet, the best of all senses appears to me to be that, “Now our salvation is nearer than when we believed,” this is, now after the coming of Christ, we do not stand far from from the glory of the kingdom of heaven, unless we stand far from death. Heaven indeed has been unsealed by the cross of Christ as though by some mighty key. Thus when we die, if nothing remains to be purged, we immediately fly out into heaven. But, when we first believed Christ was coming in the times of the patriarchs and prophets, we had been far away from perfect salvation; for all and even the most holy, each one descended to hell, and there some waited a hundred years, some a thousand, some even more. And this should not disturb anyone, because the Apostle did not say when they believed, but when we believed. Furthermore it is a manner of speaking as though the teachers of this university should say, today we shall flourish more than in the beginning, when we began to have schools.
There is indeed a natural argument from the approach of the end. Moreover, the Apostle had known all men are awake, and as though to take up new spirits, when they realize the end approaches. In journeys this is especially evident, in that when a place is near, we hasten to it, not only are men roused and refreshed, and burn with an unbelievable desire of arriving to that place quickly; but even horses by a certain instinct of nature, although tired and fatigued, begin to run. Not only beasts, but even inanimate objects, as wood and stones are moved so much more quickly, by how much they are nearer their natural places. Hence, therefore, the Apostle takes up a natural argument. “It is the hour”, he says, “now for us to rise from sleep.” For now we are nearer to beatitude, than our Fathers were. We are almost touching upon the goal and prize, a little while after which we will be crowned. God is at the point of setting an end to the race and to labors. You have the sense of the Apostles. Now let us consider the sense of the Church.
The Catholic Church is our mother, she looks upon nothing other, when she proposes today these words of the Apostle to us, than the approaching day of the birth of the Lord. “It is the hour”, he says, “now for us to rise from sleep: now indeed our salvation is nearer than when we believed.” Indeed Christ was born once from the Virgin Mary, and is not going to be born again: but, nevertheless, the fruit and also that greatest benefit, his very rising brought to the world always remains; and each year, chiefly on that day, in which its memory is carried out with religious devotion, it is conferred upon those men, in whose hearts Christ is born. But he is born in all those, whom being prepared and awake he troubles. Just as when he was born in Bethlehem in the time of the emperor Augustus, only those, who were keeping watch by night over their flock, merited to have the message of such great joy. And as a new star arose in Persia, those alone saw it, who were awake at that time; so altogether, when the day of the Lord’s birth had come, only they reached the great fruit, those who had shaken off the sleep of sinners, and began to be awake in good works. Therefore rightly, the Church advises us today, saying “The hour is now for us to rise from sleep.”
Well indeed, O excellent students, no less is this age, the age wherein the hour is before us to rise from sleep. How much the approach of the Lord’s birth is the time of grace, according to the sense of the Apostle and according to the sense of the Church, whether we are to consider the goods and assistance of this time, or the diverse and multiple evils and hindrances, on every side we will hear that voice resound, “The hour is now for us to rise from sleep.” In the first place, let us begin from assistance: The world, the flesh and the demons themselves, those vile enemies of the human race, were never so insufficient that they couldn’t harm us, as in this manner.
a) The world. Indeed, formerly and especially in the first ages, it deceived many, since it was new and beautiful, and men lived for a long time, and could enjoy its delights for a long time, and what is most important, they had not yet learned the extent of its deceits. But presently it has grown old, and its deceits and lies are known to all, and men as long as they are born, reluctantly die; who among us has not learned from experience, what friendship of the world has done to so very many miserable men, even in now? How it will have carried many to the highest summit of glory and honors, that thence with a greater fury it might cast them off headlong? How few should be able to be counted, who in fact secured the fruit of their labor and sweat in rest and tranquility for a long time? Certainly very few. But who, thereafter, could often recount, after the greatest and innumerable labors, or in the halls of princes, or in banks, or in tribunals, or in the most terrible and dangerous wars, nothing other than exile, losses, ignominy, and death itself, I tell you they are so many that they exceed all reckoning of numbers. Therefore who should not easily condemn the world at this time, obviously the inveterate seed of wicked days, the servant of the cunning, cruel, which surrounds so many, and makes them miserable on earth and more miserable in Gehenna with its charms, and flattery, and lead them to eternal ruin, destroyed the living and the dead?
b) The Flesh. Thereupon, hasn’t the flesh also already grown old, and rouses by the freezing ardor of concupiscence smaller and fewer motions than it excited beforehand when the flesh was vigorous? Human flesh was formerly, at the beginning of the birth of the world just after the sin of the first man, like an indomitable colt, who when he first had cast aside the halter, and the bonds by which he was held, had broken out. Therefore, then it was flourishing, vigorous, wild, insane and excited deprave motions and harmful desires. But what did God do? He sent a great and general flood, that by a multitude of waters, if he might not almost extinguish, certainly he would diminish these flames of the human furnace. And there is no doubt, that after the flood the flesh was weaker and more feeble. Thereupon, in certain ages, he always diminished something of the resources, and of the fire; and now at length by means of water of Baptism its flames are cooled, that it might not be difficult, with the assistance of God’s grace, to subdue it by means of fasting and prayers, that it should not impede the resolution of virginity, nor the perpetual service of God.
c) The Demons. What now will we say about the devil? Who doesn’t know that he was overthrown by the power of Christ, made weak, to groan under the feet of Christians, and can conquer no one, unless they will it? Listen to the great Anthony on the cunning and craftiness of the diabolic powers: “Believe me”, he says, “I am experienced, Satan is rightly frightened by vigils of the living, prayers, fasting, voluntary poverty, contempt for the vanity of glory, humility, mercy, domination of anger, and especially a pure heart for the love of Christ. The foul snake knows, from the command of the Lord that he lies under the footprints of the just: the Sign of the Cross, and faith in the Lord, is an unconquerable wall.”
But truly not only is the unpaved fire of concupiscence in this time of the world uncovered as fallacious, even the resources of the devil are broken and weakened, but the grace of God is even more abundant, a greater light, more plentiful example; the fountains of the Savior are open, the rain of the sacraments pours down from the Lord’s cross; the onrush of the river makes glad the city of God. Never have we had so many books, so many salutary documents, such a light of knowledge, so many means of salvation, as what we have presently. The examples of the saints are nearly innumerable; There is plainly no one, who does not have in heaven one whom he can propose to himself to imitate. Men, women, princes, private men, priests, laity, monks, seculars, maidens, spouses, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, carpenters, farmers, everyone of every race, sex, condition, should easily find from so great a number of the blessed, who reign with Christ, whose footprints they should be able to follow, if they would desire it. It seems to me, the road of the kingdom of heaven is so spread out and so well-trodden, so signed in the blood of the Martyrs, so loaded with the footprints of the saints, so full of the rewards of the saints, which in various times on account of the remarkable victories have been erected that not only may that road be the most secure and certain, but even the most pleasant and joyful.
Therefore, O students, with a great spirit and the highest alacrity we will run through this road, to the goal for our reward: “Let us look upon the author of faith”, who after the veil has been lifted invites us, that the labors should be finished in short order, the kingdom of heaven approached. What is for us in this world, and in those roads, which lead to hell? Let us cast off the burdens and possessions which impede us, let us be rid for a little while, the thoughts of temporal things; 1570 years, from when we heard it said: “Little children, it is the last hour, and the beauty of this world passes by.” What therefore, now from the evaporating world, while threatening the fall and ultimate ruin, will we wait for? And these indeed are good, which excite us to rise and walk.
If ever there was a truth, now is the hour to rise from sleep; evils are so many and so grave, that we must in no way suffer to sleep any longer. Don’t you know “if a Pater Familias, should watch on every side when the thief comes, will he permit his house to be despoiled?” Woe unto me! Every place is full of heretics, as many thieves and robbers who go out to the world, who plot against fortunes, and soul and body! There have never been so many portents, so many monstrosities of heresies and sects. The well of the abyss is open, and again are called to mind the Arians, Sabelianists, Nestorians, Pelagians, Manicheans, and who at length can we not name? We see perishing before our eyes Gaul, Germany, Poland, Bohemia, England, Holland, Zeeland, Flanders, and still we are not awake? We see the burnings of nearby houses, we hear the daily slaughters, the sackings, and desecrations of churches, we fear the swellings and seditions and yet we are sleeping? The rod of the Lord’s fury is awake, and threatens pestilence, inundations, scarcity, and if this will come up short, believe me, even war and the Lord’s rod will not sleep until we will awake. Then indeed, the rod watches, when men sleep, and then sleeps, when men are awake. Therefore, O very good students, lest we be woken up too late, unless we recline more industriously in the business of salvation, unless we mend our ways, unless zeal for God’s honor also inflames us for the salvation of souls, rightly I preach to you, though we are Christians, faith will recede, it will seek better places, indeed the light will be extinguished, which is in you, “All décor has gone out from daughter Sion.” For when so many goods, such great things, such a multiplicity invites us, but the wicked things which surround us press on, even they challenge us to go out from the world, let us act virtuously from necessity, let us spurn the world, before we are spurned by the world: let us flee from the age, before the world should flee from us. Let us hasten to God, before we are snatched up by the devil. Thus Christ will cause us to be happy on earth and blessed in heaven, He who is blessed in ages of ages. Amen.
1 There is a pun St. Robert is employing here that is lost in English. Cancer, cancri (m) in Latin means a crab, and it is also the name of a constellation which is in the south sky at night, so as a result the word “cancer” also comes to mean “south”, so not only do stupid men walk backwards, they walk away from the south where the noon-day sun (Christ) is. -Translator’s note.
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