Advent, Week II, 2010
Addition by Subtraction
By Bishop David Reed
“Prepare the way of the Lord!” is one of the great themes of Advent, echoing John the Baptist, who is echoing the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 3:1-3; Isaiah 40:1-3). John pairs his message with another one: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That’s the first thing we hear Jesus say when he takes up his public ministry. So, preparing and repenting and the kingdom are linked together.
“Look busy! Jesus is coming!” reads a bumper sticker, and I like it (and wish I had one). But it’s only partly right because looking busy is not the problem for most of us. Busy-ness seems to be our way of life, and sometimes I feel like I’m defined more by my busy-ness than by the content of it. Keeping the days of Advent holy has to mean more than bulldozing through the season, hanging on until Christmas Day comes…and goes. This call to preparation is to something more blessed and enduring than taking on a few simple spiritual practices like lighting candles on a wreath and keeping a devotional booklet handy (good as those practices are) while, at the same time, squeezing even more things-to-do into our holiday calendars.
Advent preparation that makes a lasting difference is probably going to mean not addition, but subtraction. Or at least, subtraction before addition.
This season isn’t supposed to be a “little Lent,” a lesser penitential season — unless, God knows, that’s what we need to truly prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus. Unless, in our culture of frantic and exhausting excess, what we need, more or less, is more of less. Maybe we shouldn’t hurry too quickly past the hard word “repent” during Advent.
“Repent” means to turn around. I can scarcely notice the wondrous, breath-taking gift of the Christ Child if I’m turned the wrong way, if my eyes are blinded by the razzle-dazzle and my ears are deafened by the mandatory merriment. I can’t grasp the beauty of the Incarnation, can’t take hold of this Kingdom life if my hands are clamped around my Blackberry or computer mouse or credit card or TV remote. I might even need to let go of my pious judgments about your failure to let go of stuff.
The Holy Spirit has given the Church some grace-filled ways to turn around, pay attention to what matters, and prepare the way of the Lord. The art of showing up for worship is chief among them. Not simply so we can take shelter for an hour or so from the seasonal madness, but so we might be fed by Christ, strengthened and re-oriented, then turned around and sent out to live differently, for Christ’s sake.
Another gift we’ve been given is found in the Book of Common Prayer on pages 447-452. The Reconciliation of a Penitent is traditionally known as “Confession” and is traditionally avoided by most Episcopalians like the plague, or like the Great Litany. Most new (and many long-time) Episcopalians are surprised to learn it is “in there.” This sacramental rite is intended for use with a priest. But Advent is a good time to open it up and let it open us up to God’s pursuing and reconciling love.
Listen: who among us does this not describe? “Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of (Christ’s) righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.”
If God speaks to you through this language, consider using the brief Reconciliation liturgy during Advent, preferably with a priest, but if not then in your private prayers. But if you do, be serious, be honest and spend some time in self-examination prior to praying it. Make some notes: where is the hurt in your life, where is the anger and resentment and disappointment? Where’s the phoniness and pretension and fear? How have you turned away from God, failing to love him and others? What do you really want God to do for you?
This is not easy stuff. But rather than undoing the peace, hope and joy we all seek, such spiritual work strengthens and deepens it, enriching our Advent pilgrimage. Advent points us toward the Kingdom of heaven inaugurated and embodied in Jesus Christ. The old is passing away, the new has come. But the old creation doesn’t go without putting up a mighty fight. Keeping Advent, preparing the way of the Lord by repenting and re-turning to him, will not only have us eagerly celebrating with deepened wonder and joy when Christmas Day comes, but will also, by God’s grace, get us in shape to carry and embody the great Good News of his birth into the world.
The Rt. Rev. David Reed is bishop suffragan of the Diocese of West Texas. Respond to this message in the comments section below, or reach Bishop Reed at firstname.lastname@example.org.