Not long ago, a friend, Scott Gunn, put up a blog post on the perennial discussion about blue or purple vestments for Advent. There are those who claim that one or the other is markedly superior for any variety of reasons. I am partial to purple myself for reasons I shall remark more upon momentarily.
What I was particularly struck by though was the stridency of those who were advocating for blue based on the notion that Advent is “not a penitential season.” This also carried over into another conversation I read about whether or not to say “Alleluia” during Advent which reminded me of other practices during Advent that are similar to Lent, such as suppressing the Gloria or saying the Litany in Procession.
The reaction from the non-penitential crowd was a bit ensaddening though as it gets to the heart of a theological issue in the Episcopal Church – what to do with penitence, sin, and guilt.
Of course, Advent is a season of anticipation – even joyful anticipation. Yet that anticipation is not of a random event – it is the anticipation of the coming of Christ among us. We hear, throughout Advent, that we are to be prepared – to not allow our lamps to run out of oil. Today we heard, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Next week we will hear, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” and that we must “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In Advent III we will hear, “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”
The message is fairly consistent, Advent is a time of self-examination for the Christ who comes does not simply come with flowers in hand – he comes to make new our hearts within us.
Yet for that new creation to take root in our lives, we must do a little careful preparation. This is the heart of repentance. Advent, as a penitential season, is one of careful reflection and making room for the Living One to find a place to dwell within us.
We are on pilgrimage in Advent as a people paradoxically as strong as we are weak for we are creatures of Body and Blood and Water. This journey is one we have made before and that we are making again and will make in the future. It is the never ending journey of our lives back to the baptismal font.
We make our way back home to those waters of new life where the pledge was first made to renounce the vain works of the Devil. John Macquarrie writes of Baptism, “Sin, or rather the conviction of sin, is the presupposition of baptism. We have a sense that all is not well with us.” The baptismal mystery is that we understand ourselves to be washed from sin in Baptism. Yet, we also recognize the reality of sin and temptation in our lived Christian experience.
That reality – that we sin – inhibits our ability to truly welcome the Christ who comes in the most unexpected ways. Penitence in Advent is not about lamenting and bewailing – it is about creating. It is the re-creation of space for Christ’s birth to find a place within us. As our lives are filled with the stuff of busy lives we find ourselves wandering ever further from the oasis of Font and the refreshment of Altar.
How do we hold onto that centered place in which we know ourselves at one with Christ, literally donning Christ at the font? This holy season of Advent is not about becoming perfect, but about walking toward the perfection that we were one with at the baptismal font.
Just as Mary’s yes to Christ made Divinity known in humanity – we are being called to say yes in ways that will enable those all around us to see Christ made Present in our very life and love. The process of Advent repentance is one in which we re-remember who God has made us to be and make room for the wholeness of Baptized Presence to well up in us anew even as we are tempted by pride to false self-sufficiency or by the toil of life to despairing nihilism.
Baptism is the sign by which we are to see, feel, and know our life as awash in divine promise. Repentance makes the unobservable and the easily avoided more concrete so that we also know the concrete reality of Grace.
As we repent and make our Communion, the Holy Spirit strips away those things which distance us from one another and from God. We begin anew the migration back to the baptismal font, that place where we are who we were meant to be when our deepest being was one with Christ. We ask now to again be indwelt by God.
The reality of the Incarnation means, necessarily, that we will fall short. The season of Advent offers not only a time to anticipate and rejoice but to do the hard work of making room, of creating space, and of finding our way back to the source of our wholeness and health.
The promise of the Incarnation is that humans are caught up in divine promise – that promise is not a gnostic one though nor without form or shape. An incarnated faith requires, from time to time, that we come to terms not only with the miracle and the promise but with the messiness and the pain so that we can even more fully find ourselves caught up in the joy of new birth.