Rorate Caeli

Lacordaire in Advent: The Messiah

Ecce servus meus, suscipiam eum; electus meus, complacuit sibi in illo anima mea: dedi spiritum meum super eum: iudicium gentibus proferet. (Matins, First Reading, Tuesday in the Fourth Week in Advent. "Behold my servant, I will uphold him: my elect, my soul delighteth in him: I have given my spirit upon him, he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles." Is., xlii, 1)


At the approach of decadence and captivity — seven hundred years, however, before Jesus Christ — the Messianic idea assumed in Isaiah a clearness and an abundance of expression which it is impossible to render to you, since I should weary you by the number and length of the passages I should have to cite. It is he who sees the Messiah springing from the race of Jesse, the father of David, and who at the same time describes, as if from Calvary or the Vatican, the glory of the sufferings and triumphs of Jesus Christ. "Arise, arise, put on thy strength, O Sion; put on the garments of thy glory, O Jerusalem, the city of the holy One: for henceforth the uncircumcised and unclean shall no more pass through thee." " How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, and that preacheth peace: of him that showeth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign!'" "The Lord hath prepared his holy arm in the sight of all the Gentiles, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God." "Behold my servant shall understand, he shall be exalted and extolled, and he shall be exceeding high. As many have been astonished at thee so shall his visage be inglorious among men, and his form among the sons of men. He shall sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouth at him: for they to whom it was not told of him have seen, and they that heard not have beheld." 

And, immediately afterwards, Isaiah begins the description of the sufferings and ignominies of Calvary, which he completes in twelve consecutive verses. Then he continues resuming his hymns of triumph: "He that hath made thee shall rule over thee, the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the holy One of Israel, shall be called the God of all the earth."

But it is at Babylon, during the captivity, six hundred years before Jesus Christ, that the Messianic idea becomes invested with a form which attains to mathematical clearness and precision. Must I recall to you the prophecy of Daniel? Listen then to it: "Seventy weeks are shortened upon thy people, and upon the holy city, that transgression may be finished, and sin may have an end, and everlasting justice may be brought, and vision and prophecy may be fulfilled, and the Saint of saints be anointed. Know thou therefore and take notice that from the going forth of the word to build up Jerusalem again unto Christ the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks: and the street shall be built again, and the walls in the straitness of times. And after sixty-two weeks Christ shall be slain: and the people that shall deny him shall not be his. And a people with their leader that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary: and the end thereof shall be waste, and after the end of the war the appointed desolation. And he shall confirm the covenant with many, in one week: and in the half of the week the victim and the sacrifice shall fail: and there shall be in the temple the abomination of desolation: and the desolation shall continue even to the consummation, and to the end." [Dan. ix. 34-27.]

I do not stop, gentlemen, to examine the striking features of this discourse, which resembles less a vision of the future than a narration of the past. The course of my subject bears me on and brings me to the foot of the second temple, to hear, five hundred years before Jesus Christ, those last words of the prophet Aggeus: "Yet one little while, and I will move the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land, and I will move all nations: and the Desired of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts. ... Great shall be the glory of this last house more than of the first, and in this place will I give peace." [Agg. ii. 7-10.]

What continuity, gentlemen, through so many eventful centuries! What fidelity to one and the same idea from so many men separated by ages! But the Messianic idea was not even confined to the special tradition of the Jewish people; it passed over Jordan, the Euphrates, the Indus, the Mediterranean, all the oceans, and, borne upon the invisible wings of Providence, it penetrated all the most diverse and most distant nations, to create among them a uniform hope and a universal remembrance. Confucius, at the eastern extremity of Asia, spoke of a saint who, he said, was the true saint, and who would appear in the West. Virgil, translating into verse the oracles of the Cumaean Sibyl, announced to the Augustan age the coming of a mysterious child, a son of Jupiter, destined to banish from the world the vestiges of iniquity, and to commence an order of things as great as new. Tacitus, on the reign of Vespasian, thus expresses himself: "It was a widely-spread belief that, according to ancient sacerdotal writings, at that very epoch, the East should prevail, and that men coming from Judaea should seize the government of things." The rationalists of the eighteenth century, constrained by evidence, have often avowed that unanimity of the Messianic expectation. Voltaire said: "From time immemorial it was a maxim among the Indians and the Chinese that the sage would come from the West; Europe, on the contrary, declared that the sage would come from the East."

Gentlemen, when God works, there is nothing to be done against him. The proportions of the work of Christ in the times which preceded him are yet more striking than all the divine proportions of his life and his afterlife. For, in the end, when a man lives, he is a power, he has an action; it is possible to conceive that certain circumstances may have favored a man of rare genius, and have given him great ascendancy over his contemporaries Even after death there remain friends, disciples, the remembrance of an existence which was real, and consequently a surviving means of action. But what are we able to do upon that which precedes us, upon the past? Who among us, however eminent he maybe, is able to make an ancestor for himself? Who among us, desiring to found a doctrine, is able to create for himself an avant-garde of generations already faithful to a teaching which had not yet been heard? Who among us will present his doctrinal ancestry to the world, if he be not truly the son of a doctrine anterior to himself? Ah! the past is a land closed against us; the past is not even a place wherein God can act, unless he act there beforehand and by way of preparation. Had Jesus Christ been like one of us, fallen without a providential pre-existence between the past and the future, he would in vain have demanded from history accomplished and closed a pedestal which would bear him back twenty centuries beyond his cradle. Instead of this, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, a whole people, the human race itself, came to meet and salute him in the arms of the aged Simeon, exclaiming in the name of all the past, of which he is the last representative: "Now lettest thou thy servant depart, O Lord, according to thy word, in peace. Because mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." 

We have reached the summit, gentlemen; Jesus Christ appears before us as the moving principle of the past as well as of the future, the soul of the times which preceded him as well as of the times which follow him. He appears before us in his ancestry, upheld by the Jewish people, the most important social and religious monument of ancient times; and in his posterity, upheld by the Catholic Church, the greatest social and religious work of modern times. He appears before us, holding in his left hand the Old Testament, the greatest book of the times which preceded him, and in his right hand the Gospel, the greatest book of the times which come after him. And yet, so preceded, and so followed, he is still greater in himself than his ancestors and his posterity, than the patriarchs and the prophets, than the apostles and the martyrs. Supported by all that is most illustrious before and after him, his personal physiognomy still stands out from this sublime scene, and, by outshining that which seemed above all, reveals to us the God who has neither model nor equal. 

Therefore, in presence of this triple sign of divinity — before, during, and afterwards — in ancestry, in posterity, and even during life, let us stand up, gentlemen, let us all stand up together, whoever we may be, believers and unbelievers. Let us stand up, believers, with feelings of respect, admiration, faith, love, for a God who has revealed himself to us with so much evidence, and who has chosen us among men to be the depositaries of that splendid manifestation of his truth! And you who do not believe, stand up also, but with fear and trembling, as men who are but as nothing with their power and their reasoning, before facts which fill all ages, and which are in themselves so full of the power and majesty of God!

Henri-Dominique Lacordaire
Conférences de Notre-Dame de Paris (1846)
41e conférence: De la préexistence de Jésus-Christ

[Recess till Christmastide]