Repentance is not a journey through sorrow; it is a journey from it.
This Sunday, as we prepare to hear the voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness, we will say some powerful words about the purpose of repentance:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.This season of Advent is about getting ready for the coming of Christ--both the birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and also his return on the last day. As I preached yesterday, both are opportunities for joy. Yet, in order to receive them with joy, we must forsake our sins. That is the prophet's warning: the Lord is coming, and we must get ready by repenting.
This theology of repentance is reflected in the proper preface for the Eucharistic prayer during Advent:
As we are redeemed from sin and death--bought and freed--we find ourselves able to embrace the appearing of the Son with joy and not shame or fear. This vision of repentance is not a journey into pain, struggle, and misery. It is a journey from those things and into joy.Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing. (BCP, 378)
I don't think the Christian community is doing a good job of inviting people to repent. If repentance is a turning around and the product of our repentance is being set free from shame and fear and being filled with joy, we are not asking people to put on sackcloth and ashes. Instead, we are asking people to leave a life of dissatisfaction in order to accept a life of meaning. Maybe it is two ways of saying the same thing, but I hear a big difference between "Repent or the devil will get you!" and "Repent and embrace a life of true joy!"
Still, change is hard, and repentance involves change. Even if it is a self-destructive practice, my tendency is to maintain the patterns I have rather than break free from them and embrace new ones. In many cases, that process of breaking free is too difficult for me to accomplish. I need help. But, in all cases, painful though it may be, the invitation to repentance is an invitation to joy.
I think people are hungry for a life that is free from guilt, shame, and fear. I think people are desperate to replace the cheap carbs of a pointless life with the real sustenance of abiding joy. The gospel message of repentance offers that transformation. Repentance is not scary; it's a relief. May we stop trying to "scare the hell" out of people and, instead, offer them the hope of a joy-filled life.