by Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB
Some years ago, a Buddhist monk was a guest here at the monastery. Although he had grown up in a mainline Protestant family, he had never become very familiar with Christian worship. After a couple of days taking part in our Liturgy of the Hours, he remarked, “You sure do have a lot of ‘forever and evers’ in your prayers.”
I have to admit I had never really noticed how frequently we said “forever and ever,” but I certainly do now. As we bring the season of Advent to a close, we seem to be saying forever more than ever. In today’s liturgy, for example, “forever” or a synonym like “everlasting,” has already occurred 18 times: twice in the penitential rite, again at the conclusion of the opening prayer, twice in the first reading, nine times in the responsorial psalm, twice in the second reading, and twice in the Gospel. “Forever and ever” or equivalents will occur 15 more times in today’s liturgy, and then will be alluded to once more for good measure in our concluding hymn, when we sing, “And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say, ‘Most highly favored lady.'”
Why this insistence on what is everlasting, and why is it so pronounced as we draw near to the celebration of Christmas?
For an answer, we can look to the book of Isaiah, the prophet who speaks so clearly and consistently of our need for healing and God’s promise of a future Messiah.
As the prophets of the Jewish people reflected on a world that was always subject to the ravages of time, a world that was always passing away and a people that repeatedly fell away, they became more and more convinced that it was only through trust in an unchanging, all powerful, and all merciful God that they would find the strength not only to survive, but to prosper.
For example, at Morning Prayer on Thursday, our canticle was taken from chapter 40 of Isaiah:
The Lord is the everlasting God,
He does not faint or grow weary;
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles.
The reading that day was from chapter 51 of Isaiah:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
Isaiah is not engaging in wishful thinking. He is talking about what the people of Israel experienced over and over and what they counted on for the future. To exist in time means wearing out and dying. We wear out; the world will wear out. But when we turn to the everlasting God, who does not faint or grow weary, our strength is renewed, our hearts take courage, we can soar like eagles.
The experience of being renewed, reborn, though faith in God was expressed by early Christian theologians as “deification.” That expression found its way into the prologue of the Rule where Benedict speaks of opening our eyes to the deifying light of God. That deifying light shines forth in the child of Mary in whom we are given a share in the divine life, a life that time cannot touch, a life that does not wear out.
Pope Leo the Great put it beautifully in his first Christmas homily, which he preached in the year 440, “Acknowledge, O Christian, the dignity that is yours! You have been made a partaker of the divine nature…wrested from the powers of darkness, you are now translated into the Light and the Kingdom of God.”
That kingdom, as the archangel Gabriel tells Mary, is a kingdom that will have no end, a kingdom that will last forever and ever.
Fr. William Skudlark, OSB, is a monk of Saint John’s Abbey who is active in eastern-western interfaith monastic dialogue.
Featured image: The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mosaic from the Clyde Adoration Chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.