1st Sunday of Advent: Our Savior expects to Find us Ready

In 589 Deacon Aigulf trekked home to Tours with relics he had collected in Rome. St. Gregory of Tours relates in his Historia Francorum that Aigulf saw with his own eyes the disasters that struck Rome that year. The Tiber rose to such a flood that buildings were washed away, ancient temples destroyed, and the Church’s food storehouses were lost. There was an invasion of snakes, some the size of logs, which were washed to the sea. In November a plague they called “inguinaria” (of the groin) struck. It killed Pope Pelagius I and a great many others. It was in these cataclysmic days that the people chose a certain Roman Deacon Gregory to be their new Bishop.

Deacon Gregory was from a Senatorial family. He had established many monasteries in and around Rome. He sold his house and all his belongings and gave to the poor, fasting so much that he could barely stand. Gregory begged not to be elected to high office, but he was overridden. Even the Emperor implored him to take the role. At that time, Gregory bade the people to sing psalms and beg God’s mercy for three days. As Aigulf’s eyewitness account runs:

Every three hours choirs of singers came to the church crying through the streets of the city “Kyrie eleison.” Our deacon who was there said that in the space of one hour while the people uttered cries of supplication to the Lord eighty fell to the ground and died. But the bishop did not cease to urge the people not to cease from prayer. It was from Gregory while he was still deacon that our deacon received the relics of the saints as we have said.

When Gregory was making ready to flee to a hiding place he was seized and brought by force to the church of the blessed apostle Peter and there he was consecrated to the duties of bishop and made pope of the city. Our deacon did not leave until Gregory returned from the port to become bishop, and he saw his ordination with his own eyes. (Historia Francorum X.1)

One year after those dire events in Rome, new Pope and future St. Gregory “the Great” (+604) was the only major figure standing who could deal with ongoing plagues, a series of destructive earthquakes that brought down cities, and an invasion of not-so-legal and not-so­-peaceful “immigrants” from the north. At end of November of 590, the beginning of Advent, Gregory preached a sermon about the very Gospel passage we still read today in the Vetus Ordo for the First Sunday of Advent.

Yes, the same Gospel passage from Luke 21:25-33 – about the signs of the time and Second Coming of Christ at the end – has been read in Roman Catholic churches since before the time of St. Gregory the Great. Year in and year out. In times dire and in times benign.

Gregory began his Advent sermon:

As our adorable Savior will expect at His coming to find us ready, He warns us of the terrors that will accompany the latter days in order to wean us from the love of this world; and He foretells the misery which will be the prelude to this inevitable time, so that, if we neglect in the quietness of this life to fear a God of compassion, the fearful spectacle of the approaching last judgment may impress us with a wholesome dread.

A short time before He had said: Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there shall be great earthquakes in divers places, and pestilences and famines (Luke 21:10, 11).

Now He added: And there shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations.

Of all these events we have seen many already fulfilled, and with fear and trembling we look for the near fulfilment of the rest.

As for the nations which are to rise up, one against the other, and the persecutions which are to be endured on earth, what we learn from the history of our own times, and what we have seen with our own eyes, makes a far deeper impression than what we read even in Holy Scripture. With regard to the earthquakes converting numberless cities into lamentable heaps of ruins, the accounts of them are not unknown to you, and reports of the like events reach us still from various parts of the world. Epidemics also continue to cause us the greatest sorrow and anxiety; and though we have not seen the signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, mentioned in Holy Scripture, we know, at least, that fiery weapons have appeared shining in the sky, and even blood, the foreboding of that blood which was to be shed in Italy by the invading barbarian hordes. As to the terrible roaring of the sea and of the waves, we have not yet heard it.

However, we do not doubt that this also will happen; for, the greater part of the prophecies of our Lord being fulfilled, this one will also see its fulfilment, the past being a guarantee for the future.

Thus St. Gregory the Great preached to his flock in the hard times they endured. He underscored that they were to prepare well for the Second Coming of the Lord especially by detaching from the things of this world.

With Advent we begin a new liturgical year. Because many centuries ago Advent was longer by two weeks, the themes of the End Times stressed at the end of the previous year are carried on into the new. Advent is as much about preparing for the Parousia (Greek for Latin adventus), the Second Coming of Christ, as it is a penitential season readying us to celebrate His First Coming into the light of the world at Christmas.

For centuries, together with the description Christ gives of His return and the signs that will go before it, Holy Mother Church has also given us a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans about how to prepare for our meeting with the Lord, at death or when He comes in glory.

Paul tells the Romans in 13:11-14 to “wake up!” in terms that more and more ironically – or is it prophetically – contradict “woke”, the contemporary distortion of “wake”. For Paul “the day”, (meaning the Parousia) is “coming soon” (Greek eggizo). In several of his letters Paul works with imagery of putting off (apotithēmi) what is old and “of the darkness” and putting on (endyō) the new, what is “of the light” and he expresses it in terms of armor. Writing to the Romans, Paul contrasts being in the light (in the Christian character) with “works of darkness” (in pagan wokeness).

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