By Bryan Owen
Advent is one of the richest and most complex seasons of the Church year. Like the shifting colors and patterns in a kaleidoscope, there are many themes woven into this short season.
The list could go on and on.
In the midst of that tapestry of Advent themes, we prepare for the coming of Christ. We prepare for the Christ who comes as a baby lying in a manger, the Christ who comes through the Word and sacraments of the Church, the Christ who comes among us in sometimes surprising persons (particularly the poor and the needy), and the Christ who will come again to fulfill God’s will for all of creation.
That fulfillment hasn’t happened. And we haven’t arrived at Christmas. The child hasn’t been born. It’s not time to celebrate. And the healing, restorative judgment of Jesus Christ has yet to set all things right. We still live in a broken world filled with pain and suffering.
Advent doesn’t try to make it all better or pretend that everything is okay just as it is. Instead, Advent leaves us right there in the midst of it all, living as we do between the first and the second coming of Christ.
Little wonder that even before Thanksgiving Day our culture starts putting the pedal to the metal in full pursuit of festivity. It’s so much easier to gear into holiday party mode than it is to sit still in the darkness of uncertainty, filled with the longings and the unfulfilled hopes of Advent. Many of us find it hard to sit still like that, or to take time for quiet reflection and self-examination. It can be hard to wait patiently in the darkness for the light of the celebration to come in God’s appointed time.
That may be the deepest challenge of Advent, for it reminds us that we are not in control. We don’t call the shots. The party doesn’t begin when we want it to. God’s plan unfolds in his way and time, not ours.
When many of us would rather move on to the baby Jesus, Advent insists that we must first deal with the wild and fiery John the Baptist. We meet him “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to the Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways (Luke 3:3). And by putting John the Baptist front and center during the season of Advent, the Church insists that we too must do the work of repentance. We too must “forsake our sins” if we are to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” the one who comes to judge, to heal, and to make all things new (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 211).
Repentance may not be the word that comes most readily to our minds during the holiday season, but it is the word that best captures what the gospel says our Advent time of preparation should be all about.
The verb repent means to return or turn back. In the Old Testament, repentance means “both a personal turning away from sin and Israel’s corporate turning away from idolatry” (Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone [Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 314). Repentance often has connotations of return from exile, which echoes the powerful story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.
So from a biblical perspective, repentance carries good connotations. It’s all about forsaking idolatry and embracing liberation, freedom, and homecoming.
Repentance is a threefold action. First, we honestly face the reality of our lives, acknowledging where and how we’ve missed the mark of God’s holiness by falling into sin. We then confess our sins. We acknowledge that our sins separate us from the path of life and cast us into a state of spiritual exile. And we admit that we are powerless to change ourselves. And finally, we return to God, acknowledging that only he can free us from whatever binds us. And we accept his forgiveness and his grace to amend our lives.
Repentance is a life-affirming practice and a lifelong process. It’s about transformation. It’s about coming home. It’s about returning again and again to where we truly belong, to where we are known and loved and cared for by God.
As we practice repentance, we see that just as John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets confronted the Israelites, Advent confronts us to forsake the sin of idolatry.
An idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives, anything else that we rely on for happiness and security. An idol can be a material object, like a house or money. It can be a person, like a spouse, a teacher, or a leader. It can be a career. Anything that takes the place of God in our lives by promising a happiness and security it cannot deliver — that’s an idol.
Just as we clear out space in our homes to put up decorations, we have to clear out space in our hearts to make room for Christ, space often occupied by the idols we substitute for God. And yet we long for freedom from our sin. We long to know the life that only the Lord of life can give us.
Tapping into our longing for freedom and new life, Advent proclaims the twilight of all idols. The sun is setting on everything we substitute for God’s love and justice. During Advent, darkness envelops everything we thought we knew about ourselves and about God. Something new and unexpected, and something so wonderful mere words cannot describe it, beckons on the horizon of the future.
It’s the promise that the dawn from on high shall break upon us, shining on everyone who dwells in darkness and the shadow of death, filling the world with the life-giving warmth of God’s forgiveness and love, and guiding our feet into the way of peace. It’s the promise that God will dwell among us and that we shall be his people. It’s the promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
But in the meantime, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we wait. We wait for the final liberation of all things from bondage to death and decay and the inauguration of a new creation. We wait for the light of Christ to come and fill the world with glorious splendor. And we prepare to receive that light in joy by repenting of the sins that bind us to the darkness so that we may live as children of light.
It’s this waiting for God and the fulfillment his promises can give that makes observing Advent so challenging. We long for God’s light and new life, and we want it now. It’s so tempting to jump the gun by substituting our fabricated festivals for the true Nativity of our Lord.
We need patience. We need restraint. We need to trust God.
Christ is coming. But Christ won’t come when we tell him to. The celebration won’t start just because we’re ready to get on with it.
But if we do the work of repentance, if we forsake our sins and the idols that displace God from the center of our lives, and if we ask for God’s help to exercise patience and restraint, then when the light finally shines in the darkness it will truly be the birth of new life and the dawning of new hope. Christ will be born anew in our hearts, dispelling the darkness of our fears, healing the wounds inflicted by loss and grief, reassuring us that God lives in and among us as our Father and our friend, and casting aside any shadow of doubt that we are destined for the joys of eternal life in a new creation with those we love but see no longer.
And that is worth waiting for!