Monday, November 28, 2016

The Path to the Lord is Repentance

There are lots of things that get a rise out of clergy at this time of year. First, many of us approach Advent the same way we approach Lent--as a season of preparation, waiting, and forestalling celebration until the goal is reached. Just as we would never say "Hallelujah!" or "Happy Easter!" in the middle of Holy Week, so, too, it is argued, we should never say "Merry Christmas!" until we get to the Feast of the Nativity on the night of December 24. I like waiting, but I like watching fastidious clergy throw hissy-fits over early celebrations of the season even more. Then, there's the esoteric debate about using blue or purple to celebrate the season. I prefer purple, but I prefer watching clergy get all bent out of shape about it even more. But there's one Advent debate that I didn't even know was a debate until I saw it unfold over the weekend, and this is one I'm not willing to watch from the sideline.

Advent is a penitential season. It may not have the same penitential emphasis as Lent. We may not bury the "Alleluias" like we do on Mardi Gras. We may not fast or give something up. But Advent is, without a doubt, a season of penitence. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't been paying attention to the readings, the prayers, the hymns, and the other liturgical elements that accompany this season.

My friend Scott Gunn, Episcopal priest, Forward Movement Czar, and Lent Madness Co-Director, posted on Facebook: "Thought about blogging the start of Advent, but I've said most of what I want to say about this penitential season of yearning and our need of Christ's light in previous years." That sounded innocent enough. But Scott's ministry and personality and deft use of social media have him widely connected throughout the church, and some in the church did not like the suggestion that Advent is a penitential season. A firestorm erupted. Some expressed surprise. Others asked what made Advent a season of penitence. Some rejected the notion that this pre-Christmas extravaganza should be at all somber. One commentator thoroughly lambasted the idea, arguing that only a woman could know what it means to prepare to give birth and, by implication, that only men would come up with the idea that Advent should be penitential. Then, traditionalists (men and women) let their thoughts be known, addressing pointedly the accusation that a penitential Advent has no sound basis in scripture or tradition.

Of course Advent is penitential! Have you heard what John the Baptist says? "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." There are four Sundays in Advent. In all three years of the liturgical cycle, Week One is about the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Week Four is about Mary and Joseph and their preparations for the birth of the baby Jesus. Weeks Two and Three are about John the Baptist. In one of those weeks, he calls on us to repent. In the other, he calls on us to recognize the sort of savior whom Jesus is, was, and will be. The collects for the first three Sundays all mention repentance, sin, or shedding the way of darkness. The collect for the fourth Sunday may not mention sin or repentance, but it mentions preparing ourselves to receive the savior--an act of preparation that I would argue is rooted in penitence. Over and over, the readings are about sin and repentance and God's anointed one coming to sort everything out. Each week, in the Eucharistic Prayer, we acknowledge to God that he "sent [his] beloved son to redeem us from sin and death" so that "we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing." Take a look at the proper prefaces for Lent. Neither of them is as explicitly about sin and repentance as Advent. Need I go on?

This Sunday, we will read Matthew 3:1-12. In the opening lines of the Gospel, we hear the clear connection between repentance and preparation for the coming of Christ: "In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."'" Matthew identifies John the Baptist as the one whom God sent to prepare the way of the Lord by making his paths straight. And what does John say? Repent.

Do you want to see Jesus? Repent. Do you want to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation? Repent. Do you want to prepare your heart for the coming of the Son of Man? Repent. Do you want to be a part of what God is doing in the world? Repent. As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I'll be doing some repenting of my own, and I'll be spending time thinking about what repentance really is. How is this good news? How is this appropriate for Advent? How is this necessary if we are to see the coming of Christ? What I won't be doing, however, is greeting the people coming out of church with a hardy "Merry Christmas" while wearing a blue stole. That's just ridiculous.

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