December 5, 2004
Church of the Holy Comforter, Vienna, VA
The Second Sunday of Advent
“Isaiah spoke of John when he said: He is a voice shouting in the wilderness; ‘Prepare a pathway for the Lord’s coming! Make a straight road for him” (Matthew 3:3, NLT).
I love the season of Advent, and I am sympathetic with those who try to make room in their busy lives to give this short season a semblance of recognition and practice. Advent has become something of a “Cinderella” season. It gets squeezed out of contemporary life by the big sisters of commercial and social activity that arrive long before the 25th of December. . Advent is supposed to be a season of focus and delayed gratification, of waiting in hope for Christ’s love to be born in us anew. So I was thrilled to hear President Bush mention the season of Advent in his remarks at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree this past Thursday evening. Here’s what he had to say:
The season of Advent is always the season of hope. We think of the patient hope of men and women across the centuries who listened to the words of the prophets and lived in joyful expectation. We think of the hope of Mary, who welcomed God's plan with great faith. We think of the hope of the Wise Men who set out on a long journey guided only by a slender promise traced in the stars. We are reminded of the hope that the grandest purposes of the Almighty can be found in the humblest places. . . .The old carol speaks of a "thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn." And every year at this time we feel the thrill of hope as we wait for Christmas Day.
The problem for many of us is that we rush too quickly to the manger before we even know why we are going in the first place. If we would slow down and listen to the way Advent is structured, we would notice that there are two, not one but two, Sundays focused on this powerful yet odd figure: John the Baptist. The message of these two Sundays is, listen first to what he has to say, and then perhaps you can think about Christmas.
Now to be sure, John the Baptist is something of a public relations nightmare. He is stern, he is reported to be abstemious, and he is apparently not sympathetic to his audience, calling them at the earliest opportunity a “brood of vipers.” Imagine sending season greeting cards featuring John the Baptist instead of Santa Claus on the cover, with Matthew’s text written underneath: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath to come?” And then on the inside it would read, “From our family to yours at this most special time of the year: Merry Christmas!” I guarantee such cards would capture the attention of those who receive them. That is, after all, I think the purpose of John the Baptist, and why he is featured on two of the four Sundays of Advent. Someone is trying to get our attention.
And once he has it, this is what he has to say: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” or as another translation has it, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here! (Matt. 3:2). He warned the religious leaders that being a descendant of Abraham is no guarantee of being in a right relationship with God. What counts is the person you are now and the person you are becoming. Is your life green and bearing fruit or is it deadwood, fast burning fuel for the fire?
John’s message, like the prophets that came before him, is a true diagnostic message. He says clearly that something is wrong. And if we feel that right now—if we are tired, angry or depressed, if we are falling short of what we believe is our best selves, if we are dissatisfied with our work or with our relationships, if we have directed some shame or fear or guilt toward ourselves—then we are just where John the Baptist wants us to be. We have a choice. We can with God’s help, move beyond where we are and repent.
John’s diagnostic message has reached me at a good time. As José mentioned in his sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, we’ve had our share of serious illnesses and deaths in recent months. And though I’ve been a priest for some 23 years, losing friends and companions in the faith does not get easier with time. It has been hard to observe the sorrow and aching emptiness of those who are left behind and to dry the tears of those who weep. Once again, I have been reminded of my own mortality, of the shortness and uncertainty of human life, of my need for God to make me whole, of making the most of my time. And so this year, I hear John’s call for repentance as a call to respond to that reminder in a constructive way.
If we hear it correctly, John’s call for repentance is in fact very good news, for it reminds us of our freedom and power to choose something different. Unfortunately in English, the word “repentance” has been trivialized. For many of us the first thing we think of is our introspective guilt. We immediately think repentance means feeling really sorry for what you have done or left undone, feeling really bad and disappointed about the person that you are. But what if the meaning of the word “repent” is not primarily about contrition, but about resolve—of taking steps to improve and to grow? The very etymology of the word for repentance in Greek implies this. The root meaning comes from two Greek words: meta – “beyond”; and nous – “mind.” Literally, metanoia means to move beyond our present mindset, beyond our present way of seeing things, in order to become more deeply the person God created us to be.
In an article I read recently, a young theologian out of the Chicago area named Fr. Robert Barron, offers a simple, yet profound, understanding of repentance. In his view, within each of us there are two souls, a little soul (a pusilla anima) and a great soul (a magna anima), similar to what Thomas Merton described as the false self and the true self. On any given day we tend to identify more with one or the other of these and we are a very different person depending upon which soul is reigning within us.
If I take my identity from my little soul I will inevitably feel disappointed and resentful. It is here, in the pusilla anima, where I am most often frustrated, uncertain, aware of my hurts, and unwilling to trust others.
But I also have within me a great soul. When I let it reign, I become a different person altogether. I am relating out of my great soul at those moments when I am moved by compassion, when I see that everyone around me matters to God and they should matter to me, when I want to give of myself without concern of cost, when I am grateful for what I have, when I am generous and patient, willing to trust, willing to serve. When John asks us to “repent,” to do metanoia, what he is asking is that we cease identifying ourselves with the little soul and instead choose to live out of our larger soul.
And it seems to me that this is the call of Advent and the way to prepare a highway for the coming of God in new and fresh ways in the coming celebration of Christmas. To move beyond our current mindset, to turn in a new direction, we might choose put ourselves places of quiet prayer and contemplation, where we can be still and know that God is God. Other spiritual practices such as study, physical exercise, volunteering to serve and support those around us, getting involved in issues of social justice, are all way we can move beyond our current mindset, beyond the small soul to the larger soul.
Wherever you find yourself on this second Sunday of Advent, remember that you have a choice, to go beyond your current way of seeing in order to experience the transformation and growth of your deepest and truest self in Christ. The next time your hear a prophet calling for repentance, no matter how odd or unusual that prophet may be, don’t think in terms of guilt, but in terms of resolve; think freedom, think transformation. It’s a mindset that will help you prepare in a highway in your heart for the coming of God. Amen.