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.
Shawn Strout said:
Do you think this aversion to penitence is somewhat generational? I grew up Baptist, and have been in the Episcopal Church 9 years now. So, obviously my formation is completely with the 1979 Prayer Book. I remember an older priest saying in a clergy gathering that he found the Eucharist to be dour at times. Initially this shocked me until I paid more attention to the 1928 Prayer Book, which was quite dour and very penitential. Could the aversion to penitence be a reaction against having grown up with a dour Prayer Book for some?
Or maybe it is the culture of entitlement creeping into the Church. There is such an overemphasis upon incarnationalism and original blessing that I wonder if we feel entitled to God’s constant blessing. I believe this perspective underlies some of the thought behind Communion without Baptism. I, and anyone, is entitled to receive communion with no need of repentance.
Thanks again. Please keep posting. You give encouragement to me.
Kris Stoever said:
What a lovely post, Robert.
I wonder, though, if this may not put too sharp a point on what may be a gentler season and a gentler question. (I think of Mary here.) It also seems to force a false choice on us. (Advent: Penitential Season or Not?) Of course Advent is penitential. Darkness falls. It is cold outside. The only greens to cheer us are provided by prickly pines, hollies, and spruces–evergreens. Yet the primary mood of the season seems more one of expectation (adventus) and preparation–both for Christ in his incarnation and again, of course, for his coming as judge. If there is austerity and meditation and penitence in the season, and I believe there is, much as you argue, then intentional simplicity may be the companion note to the primary mood of expectation. Simplicity also has value, this time of year, for being countercultural!
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Jason Haddox said:
“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.”
Indeed. I wonder how that is distinct (or is it?) from penitence in Lent or at other times of the year. And I ask that in response to both the original blog post and Shawn’s comment above. To what extent has “penitence” been popularly understood as more concerned with “lamenting and bewailing” than with metanoia and change of heart/mind/behavior?
Thank you for the post, in any case. Grace and peace!
Bill Carroll said:
Hard to avoid penitence if you look at the collects, or the readings.
Walter Knowles said:
And, of course, “advent is not penitential” is to ignore the Early/Celtic/Eastern Christian name for the season after 11 November. There are all sorts of changes on “Little Lent,” “Winter Lent,” “Saint Martin’s Lent,” or my favorite, “The Winter Pascha” which gets us through the sacrifices of John, Stephen, and the Holy Innocents before we get to Theophany (Epiphany).
Estelle Webb said:
Since joining the Episcopal Church many years ago I have had difficulty embracing the idea of Advent as a penitential season. You have explained it so clearly and eloquently. Thank you.
Barbara (bls) said:
To me, the truly amazing and wonderful thing about the Great Church Year is that it expresses dozens of different shades and gradations of any kind of spiritual attitude you’d care to name.
And that means that Lent penitence is different from Advent penitence; the latter is far more concerned with the Last Things and Final Judgement than the former. Besides that, Advent has the dual “First and Second Coming” theme; as in the collect, the first coming is “in great humility” and the second “in glorious majesty” – yet they are related, somehow. (Relating them is left as a exercise for the reader.)
Advent is cosmic in a way that Lent isn’t (until you get to Holy Week, of course!); Lent is about “going into the desert” in a way that Advent isn’t.
It’s all quite splendid, isn’t it?
Barbara (bls) said:
(Anyway, Advent isn’t only about penitence, either; it alludes to many things – hope, expectation, mystery-beyond-comprehension – and as Christmas approaches it completely changes character.
It’s just a beautifully rich and complex time, which is why I think so many of us love it so much…..)