The first words of the Gospel seem like the subtitle of a documentary on global warming or climate change: And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves (Lk 21:25). It’s hard not to imagine that people aren’t prepared for extraordinary events. An indeed, if we look around us, we’ll fine an acute interest in reading the “signs” of the times. Every natural event gets interpreted in terms of a global tragedy. We had a scorching summer. That’s a sign. We had a freezing summer. That’s a sign. An earthquake. That’s a sign. And so it seems, more than ever, we’re prepared for the end of the world.
However, our preoccupation with signs is not limited to this era. St. Gregory the Great, in the fifth century, spoke of signs of the times, saying that earthquakes and storms, and the many wars pointed towards to end times. Towards the end of the first millennium, they spoke of the end of the world. So, it seems that in every period of history, there were reasons to think that the world was about to end. Is it not time, perhaps, for the Church to change today’s Gospel—for the first Sunday of Advent—to something which demonstrates reality in a better way, a less superstitious way?
In fact, Christ himself tells us that we shouldn’t be looking for signs: An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign! (Mt 12:39). If we wanted, we could find a sign where we go. This morning, there are many people in Church; that’s a sign that my homily is really important. Or rather, today, the sun is shining; that’s a sign that I should go play football rather than go to Mass. Our liberation—promised by the prophets and confirmed by Jesus—cannot be seen in signs, because signs continually change. The Advent which we’re about to begin today must be much more profound than a reading of the signs. So, what is the true message of Advent, if not the signs?
The introit of today’s Mass, as well as the offertory which we’re about to sing, both provide the response. O my God, in thee I trust, let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. The response is that despite our daily spiritual battles, in which we always find errors, mistakes, and the same sins, we are called to hope in a Redeemer who will save us. The signs of destruction are repeated time and time again, but a material end of the world has not appeared. The true sign, says Christ, is that of Jonah, who goes beyond material destruction.
Bernanos says that greater than the seven capital vices is self-pity, when one despairs of his own capacity to be redeemed. That desperation, that shame impedes man from being truly joyful in the Christmas season because he no longer believes in the possibility that God can transcend his sins and save him. He is not able to even say with the Psalmist: Ad te levavi animam meam (To thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul). Our sins are like these wars, storms, earthquakes that return year after year. The temptation is to think that if these storms were to stop, then we could be saved. Advent must help us to avoid this Pelagianism. It is through the flesh that our Savior comes. And it is through the flesh that we will get saved. The moment in which we quit being ashamed of our mistakes and begin to hope fully in the Savior will be the moment when we hear the words: look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Lk 21:28).
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)