One of the long-standing debates among clergy and scholars is whether or not Advent is a penitential season or not – a mini-Lent, if you will.[i] There are arguments both ways, some saying absolutely yes; to prepare our hearts for the birth of Christ, our job is certainly to repent of our sinfulness. Others who disagree with Advent being a season of penitence argue the season is more about joyful expectation and anticipation, and is distinct from the penitential season of Lent. Meanwhile others argue that the both Lent and Advent are for both penitence and joy.
I am not sure I have made up my mind about these debates. What I can tell you is that in the decluttering of my heart in preparation for the Christ Child, and in listening to the lesson appointed each Sunday, I know I am, and the world around me is, in need of some repentance. As case after case pours in of sexual harassment and abuse, I am aware of how far we have drifted from the ways in which Christ longs for us to treat one another. From the ways that we eviscerate one another online, or talk behind our neighbor’s backs, I know that we have lost a groundedness in Christ Jesus’ message of love. From the ways in which we have stormed away from the communion table, I feel how deeply broken we are as a world. I play a part in not correcting those sins, and sometimes actively participating in them.
And so, this Advent, my preparation feels a bit like a journey. The first step is going to involve a bit of grief – for every woman or man who felt shamed or silenced by a society who would not affirm that they are created in the image of God, and should never suffer bodily violation; for the loss of an ability to see shades of gray instead of seeing black and white; for the hateful things we say and do to one another. The second step is going to be some real repentance – not just naming the grief, but claiming my role in the degradation of others. And then, hopefully, by the time we get to Christmas Eve, I expect to arrive at the manger, not with an armful of gifts, but the open arms of humility, repentance, and renewal. I may not have words, but I long for the evening when I can bow in front of the Christ Child, rejoicing in the gift of love, forgiveness, and transformation that Jesus is for all of us. Whether that means this Advent is a season of penitence or not, I am not sure. All I know is this year, I am grateful for the journey.