I often get my ideas for these assignments with a quick round of “Advent Word Association.” Today, the first thought that came to mind was the poignant plea of the once and future king at the end of Camelot. Addressing the boy who will become Thomas Malory and pen the most memorable rendition of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur, the king implores:
Ask every person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Thus, with that plaintive tune in my head, the impermanence of human glory became the theme of my initial meditations on today’s word. Similarly, in Patton, the eponymous general said of Roman conquerors in his famous address to the Third Army: “A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
It turns out he was wrong—about the Roman conquerors, that is. Their slaves actually whispered “memento mori” (loosely translated as “remember that you will die”). The sentiment Patton attributed to Roman slaves was actually part of the papal coronation ceremony from 1409 to 1963. “Pater Sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” was pronounced three times during the procession of each newly elected Pope from St. Peter’s Basilica—“Holy Father, thus passes worldly glory.”
That same worldly glory is precisely the topic of the final allusion vying for attention in my crowded brain. In 1751, Thomas Gray published “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a meditation on the universality of death—for Milton and Cromwell as well as those “to fortune and to fame unknown”:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Although the vanity of human striving is obviously not the focus of Advent meditations, pondering the contrast with divine glory can be fruitful. Several tantalizing rabbit trails lured me as I began my research for this transition to our true subject. However, two themes stood out as I scrambled to make sense of the complexities embedded in the word glory.
The Online Etymology Dictionary provides hints of the rich origins of our understanding of the term from Hebrew and Greek translations to Latin roots. By 1200, when the word entered our language from Latin via French, it was already focused on the sense we contemplate today: “the splendor of God or Christ; praise offered to God, worship.” More revealing still is this summation from the editors:
The Christian senses are from the Latin word’s use in the Bible to translate Greek doxa (δόξα) “expectation” (Homer), later “an opinion, judgment,” and later still “opinion others have of one (good or bad), fame; glory,” which was used in Biblical writing to translate a Hebrew word which had a sense of “brightness, splendor, magnificence, majesty of outward appearance.” The religious use has colored that word’s meaning in most European tongues.
Clearly, the only way we have to understand glory is to turn to the scriptures. An understanding of the Hebrew roots of glory in Old Testament suffuses my own Advent meditations with both depth and continuity. The miracles of the Internet enabled me to discover that glory appears 23 times in the Pentateuch alone, and in most of them the word is used to express the ineffable presence of God himself: “The glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10); “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 24:7); “Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory’” (Exodus 33:18).Similarly, the several references in Numbers include the words “the glory of the Lord appeared.”
Notably, we cannot experience the Lord’s presence unaccompanied by an acknowledgment of his glory. It is that experience that characterizes most of the 49 occurrences of glory in the Psalms—as in 105:5, when the psalmist proclaims, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth.”
The way I read it, God’s glory cannot be distinguished from his presence, and we experience that presence most intimately by acknowledging his glory. But let us not lose sight of that Hebrew etymology, which hints to our clumsy perception some of the qualities of that presence—brightness, splendor, magnificence. And it is through the light of Christ, whose coming in glory we await during Advent, that the true miracle of the Gospel message occurs: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).