Advent and Repentance

(This is Neil). In last week’s Gospel, we heard about John the Baptist’s proclamation of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). John tells the crowds that they must manfest “good fruits as evidence of your repentance” (Lk 3:8). The obvious question, then, is “What shall we do?” As we heard this past Sunday, John provides very practical answers to the crowds (they must share clothing and food), tax collectors (they must collect only what is proscribed), and soldiers (they must refrain from extortion, false accusations, and grumbling about their wages).

What shall we do?

If it is fair to give a 1,000 word excerpt as something of an answer to this important question, I’d like to leave you with part of Wendy Wright’s The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming. Professor Wright teaches at Creighton and is a scholar of Salesian spirituality. As such, she is rather attentive to many of our fantasies and misconceptions concerning repentance:

It is all too easy for us to live out stereotypes of a Godly life. In our churches, we see prayerful, committed people that we admire, and so we want to be like them (or what we think they are). Or we take to heart what some spiritual author has said about the Christian life and its pitfalls, and so we want to direct our paths to avoid failing in the designated traps. But those traps may or may not be the ones we should be wary of, and those admirable church elders may or may not be living lives we are personally called to by God.

There is no such thing as generic holiness, no such abstract reality as the Christian life. There is only a concrete life that has intersected with the power of the Word and the transformative action of grace. The real mystery of our incarnated faith is that the divine comes to live in our particularity, to change us, yes, but always within the confines of our specificity – our own stories, our own limitations, our own needs, our own desires. Thus, to begin the process of making straight the paths, we must be rooted in our own truths. What personally constitutes a God-directed life, either inner or outer, is not necessarily self-evident. Each of us must make an individual discernment, allowing the words of Scripture, the witness of our faith communities, and our own diligent consciences to tease us into risky self-disclosure. What our looking reveals may surprise us.

Christian commentators have for centuries been attempting, within the contexts of their own cultural horizons, to describe the repentance with which the Baptist challenges us. Three of the Advent sermons delivered in 1620 by Francis de Sales, author of the widely read inspirational book, Introduction to the Devout Life, have been preserved for us. The sermons, from the second, third, and fourth weeks, each deal with the figure of the camel-hair-clad, locust-eating John. The last Sunday’s talk addresses repentance directly. Francis de Sales expands on the gospel text by focusing on the interior qualities of our season self-reflection:

St. John gives some particulars in today’s Gospel. Make straight the way of the Lord, fill up the valleys, lower the mountains and hills. They, as well as the ditches and valleys, trouble travelers. Make straight the paths. Those that twist and turn fatigue the pilgrim greatly. Our life too contains many hills, valleys, and tortuous ways which can be put right only by penitence. Penitence fills up the valleys, lays low the mountains, make straight and smoothes the ways. Do penance, says St. John; lower those mountains of pride, fill up those valleys, those ditches of lukewarmness and tepidity.

The valleys which the glorious St. John wants us to fill up are none other than fear which, when it is excessive, leads to discouragement at the sight of our sins. Fill up the valleys; that is, fill your heart with confidence and hope because salvation is near at hand [Lk. 21:28; Rom. 13:11]. The sight of our great faults brings with it a certain horror and shock, a certain fear and terror which unnerves the heart and often leads it to discouragement. These are the ditches and valleys that must be filled up for Our Lord’s coming.

The Counter-reformation bishop names some of the inner habits that clutter the highways of our hearts and keep them from being paths that can lead us home to God. He asks the questions: Have we loved well or not? How have we refused or neglected the law of love? What are the overarching motions of our hearts that bar us from responding to the two great commandments of love of God and neighbor? Francis de Sales singles out pride, lukewarmness, fear, and discouragement as inner dispositions needing our attention at this time of year.

But there are other heart habits that the Christian tradition does not so clearly name for us that merit our Advent consideration. There may be other ways of coming to the season that tradition has not yet articulated for us. And I am not sure that the modern world even understands the true spirit of repentance to which that tradition tries to direct us. Repentance is not necessarily the gloomy and self-loathing practice it is sometimes made out to be. To repent is not to be confirmed in what that little voice within keeps whispering: that you are no good, that everything bad that happens to you is your own fault, that if only others knew what you were really like, they would cease to care for or be interested in you. No. True repentance begins with the felt knowledge that we are loved by God. We are children of God. If we cannot find ourselves there then perhaps our preparation might consist of the prayer that we might know ourselves as beloved, that the divine lover might reach down into our self-hatred, created perhaps by the lovelessness we learned as children or through our culture, and touch us.

Even if we have a glimpse of the way God loves us, the invitation of Advent is to look beyond stereotypes of the repentant or the perfect person to discern there the freedom of the children of God to which we are all called. Then we must take a fresh look at what keeps each of us, uniquely, from that freedom. For women, I think, the task is made subtly difficult because the Christian tradition does not always define “sin” is ways that resonate with women’s experience. Whereas tradition would hold up pride and the lust to power as treacherous pitfalls in the quest for virtue, many women might be seen to be unfree (sinful) in their lack of self-definition, in their tendency to want to please others at the expense of self-integrity, in their enabling or codependent behavior. To define a healthy self that can be in a mutual relationship, to be courageous enough to reverence self even though not everyone will approve, to confront abusive or destructive patterns of interaction – these are not signs of pride or the desire for power. They are signs of knowing one’s belovedness. What one repents of in these instances must be defined in a fresh way, as must the act of repentance itself. Repentance consists not so much in flagellating ourselves over our “failures” as in courageously and painstakingly reorienting our priorities, unlearning old patterns, turning our faces, like the sunflower, toward the dawning of the light of God.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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