5 Dec 2010
“‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” (Matt. 3:2) In the name …
Back in 2004 Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out in movie theaters and people all around the world were shocked and troubled by the graphic depiction of the crucifixion. I myself have never seen the movie and I probably never will. I know that crucifixion was brutal and savage. I don’t need to see it on the big screen in all its gory details to make that any more real for me. And besides I’m more concerned about why Jesus was willing to die rather than the mechanics of how He died. But nonetheless the movie brought into sharp focus for many others the fact that we had sanitized the cross. It was no longer a scandal. It was just a fact. People who had seen crosses all of their lives cried at the movies because for the first time Jesus’ death became real for them.
Now why talk about Good Friday when we’re in the middle of Advent and getting ready for the joy of Christmas? Because we’ve done much the same thing to the idea of repentance. We’ve sanitized it, and repentance is at the heart of Advent. It’s how we prepare for the coming of Christ. Repentance introduces to us John the Baptist, one of Advent’s main characters. John says to us today: “‘Repent’” and then he says, “‘“Prepare the way of the Lord.”’” The two are linked together, but we have tamed down repentance to the point where John the Baptist wouldn’t even know what we’re talking about any more, and in this way our preparations for Christmas will come up short.
We’ve sanitized repentance, and just like with the cross, we need to make it real again. We associate repentance with Confession, but repentance really means something much more than this. The word itself means change. When we talk about Confession, we usually think along the lines of how many times we’ve sinned. We admit our sins to ourselves and we confess them to God. This is a good place for repentance to begin, but it’s not good enough to end there. That’s because repentance isn’t only, or even primarily, about turning away from sin. Repentance is about change, and it is supposed to speak to us about turning toward God. And because of this, repentance isn’t only for the ones who have fallen in the faith. Repentance is especially meant for those who believe and who hear the calling to believe even more deeply.
It is at this point that John the Baptist comes into our Advent picture. The believers of his day were coming out to the wilderness to hear his words. These weren’t sinners. These were a dissatisfied people. These were people who were seeking more from their faith. And the first time we hear the word repent from John’s mouth, the first time we hear the word in the New Testament, is not in the context of sin, but of seeking a renewed faith. John preaches, “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!” It is the closeness of God that becomes the motivation for repentance. This is the exact opposite of imagining that repentance is only about sin and sinners. Repentance is intended to reach out and inspire believers who feel a call to change their lives and to come closer to God in their faith.
This calling of repentance, this call for change, can be a rude awakening and even an awkward encounter. The people of John’s day protested that they were the children of Abraham. They’ve already accepted the call. They’re not the ones who need to change. But John is unimpressed by their protests. “God is able to raise-up children of Abraham from these stones,” he says to them. Instead, give evidence that you believe. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” are his words. Again, repentance isn’t only about Confession. It’s about change. But we’ve sanitized repentance so that it no longer challenges us. We’ve taken the sting and the rudeness out of John and his words. We’ve tried to make repentance tame and John polite, and we can do that no more honestly than we can bring under control John’s words: “You brood of vipers,” he yells, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John speaks differently, lives differently, eats and dresses differently. John personifies the challenge of repentance that we all need to change. Repentance is meant to shake us up when we get satisfied, to awaken us to new possibilities, to startle us with what can be, what should be.
And how do we know that we have become complacent, that we’ve sanitized repentance, that we’ve made John polite, because of Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet of God. He gives voice to the revelations of what God intends and what God promises. He’s not telling us fairy-tales of some never-never land. He’s not writing Christmas cartoons for television. Isaiah is revealing how things should be, how God promises they will be. Righteousness will prevail in the world, says Isaiah. The poor and the weak will be treated with justice. Fundamental change will take hold. Peace will not be the pause between wars; it will define us. “The wolf will dwell with the lamb,” says the prophet-poet, “The leopard lie down with the goat. The lion eat straw like the ox. The child shall put her hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the sea.” This is the stuff of repentance. This is the change that we are being called towards. This is God’s reality that we are asked to believe in.
And how is John introduced to us? As the one “spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.” John’s message of repentance is linked with Isaiah’s promise of peace and harmony. This is what it means when both John and Isaiah say, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Complacency is when we’ve given up all hope for the kingdom of God and settled for what we have now. But Advent is the blessed opportunity to change. Hope is almost a physical presence at this time of the year. So now is the chance to make repentance real again. May we pray that the unsanitized repentance take hold of us in this season of hope so that we may prepare ourselves and our world for the coming of Christ, for the advent of Christ. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo