There is a tendency in some parts of the Church to avoid thinking of Advent as a season of penitence. In this second week of Advent, it is difficult to avoid the subject of penitence, or repentance, because John the Baptist has appeared. And this great prophet appears to be pretty annoyed. He wears a camel hair tunic and a leather belt, and he probably has honey and bits of wild locust in his beard. The first words he says are, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” His speech is very direct from the beginning. However, his words grow even harsher: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Brood of vipers–those are strong words.
He continues with his warning about the imminent judgment of God because he wants his audience to understand the tremendous power of God. Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John says that God is going to destroy evil ones and preserve good people. Some churches could use passages like these to cause fear in people. They might present God as an angry judge, and penitence consists of seeking God’s pardon with fear and trembling.
And then, there are other people who argue that this emphasis on penitence in Advent is spiritually harmful. They believe that Advent should be a time of hoping with joy, a time of waiting for the baby Jesus. The Biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes that to consider Advent a time of penitence is a kind of impoverishment of Advent. There is, he believes, too much emphasis on sin and repentance and not enough emphasis on subjects such as imminent liberation, light in darkness, joy over the birth of Christ, and so on.
I believe there is great value in considering Advent as a season of penitence. A rich and profound understanding of penitence is an important source of illumination and liberation and new life in our relationship with God. Let me explain what I mean. If we see penitence only as an awareness of being judged by an angry God, or a feeling of miserable regret, we may feel sadness or guilt or shame. Or we might feel inadequate, as if we could never live up to the high expectations of God.
There are other ways of thinking about penitence. One form is to reflect about our humility in the presence of God. John the Baptist does this when he says, “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” The prophet does not criticize himself. He simply is recognizing the greatness of God and his humble position in relation to God. He does not express shame, nor fear, nor blame. Instead, he expresses the need to assume responsibility for sin and our relationship to God.
Assuming responsibility is another way of thinking about penitence. I don’t mean to say “take the blame” for something. I mean to say that we accept responsibility for examining sin and resolutions that make for a better world. Even in very small matters, we are responsible for peace and reconciliation in our own lives.
I’m going to illustrate this need for responsibility and reconciliation with a story of a mother and daughter. Sometimes we parents have bad moments with our kids. When my daughter was in third grade, she began to complain about going to school. She would whine, and she would not get dressed. Every morning, she would sit in front of the TV and play with her dolls. I was a single mother, and so I had to get ready for work, and get my daughter ready for school, and wash dishes, and take out the garbage….So I was really annoyed because she was making us late for school, and I was going to be late for work.
One morning in particular, my daughter simply refused to get dressed. I said, “Get dressed!”
She said, “No!”
I said, “Get dressed right now!”
She said, “No, I want to play with my Barbies!”
I was so angry that I grabbed her new Barbie and threw it on the floor. And Barbie’s head broke off. My daughter started screaming.
We were both very late that morning.
I felt horrible. I felt like the worst mother in the world. And I was sure that my daughter felt horrible too. She got dressed, and I took her to school. When she got out of the car, I started to drive away. But she did not start to walk toward the school office, and I was afraid that she would run home after I left. So I backed up the car, and my daughter started running into the school.
After work, I took her to Toys R Us and bought her a new Barbie, and I apologized for throwing her doll and breaking it. That was only the beginning of the reconciliation. I also asked her why she suddenly didn’t want to go to school. Then she told me that some girls at her school had told her that there were ghosts in the bathrooms, and she was afraid to go anywhere near the bathrooms because of that.
Finally I understood her reluctance in the mornings. I talked to her about the importance of going to school. I explaining that I had a legal responsibility for taking her to school, and she had a responsibility to go. I had a responsibility to go to work. And we both were responsible for being honest with one another.
My daughter said that she understood. It was an important moment of reconciliation between us. I asked her, “Can we start over?” And she said yes. Over the years, whenever we have had a misunderstanding or argument, we ask each other, “Can we start over?”
When we have these moments of reconciliation, we experience illumination, a feeling of well-being, a sense of liberation. Advent is an invitation to all of these things: not only a season of penitence, nor only a season of light in obscurity, nor only an experience of liberation, but the possibility of all of these seasons. This possibility makes Advent a rich and deeply profound time.
Advent is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, and it’s an opportunity to examine our relationships with others and with God–a time to ask, “Can we start over?” Advent doesn’t require us to bathe ourselves in guilt. It doesn’t require us to eliminate all the sin or bad things in our lives. That just isn’t possible. Even Jesus did not eliminate all the evil in the world or heal all of the sick during his years of ministry. But while we are waiting for the birth of this Prince of Peace, we can accept the responsibility to be peacemakers–to be sources of reconciliation, even if in very small ways, in our lives.
We also can accept responsibility for our relationship with God. A sense of awe and wonder and humility around the coming appearance of the Infant Jesus does not require us to fear the judgment of an angry God. In response to those who oppose the idea of Advent as a season of penitence, David Bartlett writes about Advent, “Perhaps the church can give up judgment, but we cannot give up responsibility.”
In order to take responsibility, we need to take our time. My disastrous morning with my daughter happened because I was rushed. I did not have the time to sit down and talk to her. When I took the time to understand my daughter’s problem at school, I was able to make peace with her.
The same thing happens with our relationship with God. We need to take our time to listen to God, to talk with God, to reflect upon the things that are going well and the things that are not going so well in our relationship with God. We can yell at God! We can ask God’s forgiveness. We can even laugh with God.
We can start over with God.
God doesn’t wish us to live in sadness and guilt. Look at the effect of penitence on John the Baptist! He is passionate, courageous, without fear. He confronts the corrupt leaders of his community. At the same time, he is humble before God and Jesus Christ. It seems paradoxical, but true humility before God is a great source of power and strength and confidence. But it is not a power or strength or confidence that is based on our own egos or desires. It is an inner strength that comes from the revelation of our authentic selves in the brilliant light of God.
We discover that God truly desires a close relationship with us. The only thing that keeps us far from God is our own fear about what might happen if we get closer to God. What will happen if we complain to God, if we have a tantrum, if we make some huge mistake? What will happen if we submerge ourselves in the river with John the Baptist?
What will happen if we submerge ourselves into the river with Jesus Christ?
In a few weeks, these questions won’t matter. God is not going to wait for us to confront and dismiss our fears. God will come to us as a small child, vulnerable, and will ask us, “Can we start over?”
Let’s say yes.