The Troubled Origins of the Advent Season
An economy in deep crisis, traditional moral values crumbling, a constant threat of violence and terror, young men dying in war. Such was life in sixth century Italy. The unsettling parallels with our own time offer us, interestingly enough, a unique opportunity to appreciate and understand as never before the season of Advent. This traditional time before Christmas evolved over many years in Gaul and especially in Rome during the fifth and sixth centuries, one of the most chaotic periods in the history of Europe. It is hard to exaggerate the breakdown that was occurring at that time.
The decaying Roman Empire was collapsing under its own weight and being beset by the barbarian invasions. In 410 the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome, and ion 455 the Vandals invaded the city, persuaded by Pope Leo the Great not to put it to the torch.
In 476 the last Roman Emperor was deposed, and the seat of imperial power was transferred from Rome to Constantinople, leaving Europe with no effective army to combat the invaders from the north who were pillaging at will. While people lived in constant fear of barbarian raids, fear of physical violence was only one of their many worries. The great Roman institutions of government that had provided stability for centuries had collapsed. Because of the marauding invaders, transportation and commerce had come to a halt, causing a complete breakdown of the economic system. There was a growing social imbalance as the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. All the familiar landmarks of civilization were shifting, and the fabric of society was coming undone. Traditional moral values were disappearing under the onslaught. Even the church itself was being torn apart by the Arian heresy which pitted bishop against bishop and pope against emperor.
In the midst of this chaos, surprisingly enough, the church created a new liturgical season. By the time of Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604) advent had taken on its present form.
The troubled historical origins of the first advent are of more than mere historical interest to us today whose own times are marked by social and economic upheaval. This historical perspective offers us the opportunity to put ourselves in the place of our fathers and mothers in the faith who first celebrated advent in Rome, to pray in solidarity with them, and perhaps to draw the same comfort and strength from the season as they did.
The Messages of Advent
For those who first celebrated Advent it was a time of preparation for the feast of Christmas. The readings and orations emphasized Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem five centuries before. The idea that God had already acted decisively to save the world must have been a welcome message for people whose own world was coming apart, and who lived with a sense of impending doom.
By the seventh century a second theme appeared as well: preparing for the second, final coming of Christ in glory at the end of time. The readings and orations which acknowledged that the Kingdom of God is not yet complete, and that there is still much work to be done to bring it to completion would have reminded Christians put their troubles into a wider perspective which reached far beyond the upheavals in seventh century Europe, to include God's mysterious plan for the whole world from the creation until the end of time.
It is easy to imagine what the Christians of sixth century Rome would have heard when they listened to the words of the prophet Isaiah. His messianic prophecies of a coming age of peace and prosperity were not only the perfect readings for the newly created season of Advent, they were a message of encouragement to people whose world which was plunging into darkness. The now familiar advent prophecies can offer us in our troubled times that same sense of hope in the future, a sureness that God will fulfill his promises.
At the same time as the church chose the readings from Isaiah and the other prophets, she also called in another messenger for troubled times: on the second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist. His words are now central to our advent theology: "Prepare the way for the Lord" and "Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand!" John still appears every advent season with his familiar call for metanoia, repentance, literally a change of heart.
The Fathers of the Church such as Leo the Great have left us many sermons on this change of heart, sermons intended for their congregations living in the chaos of the time. It is worthwhile to reflect on what this change of heart might look like in our troubled times. God willing we can do just that during the coming weeks of Advent.
Let's all pray for one another that this will be a special time of grace for all of us.
..... ..........O come, Emmanuel!