Advent offers us a season of both hopeful waiting and penitential renewal. We shop, share, celebrate, and we also take stock of where we've been this past year and what we resolve to do during the next year.
Scholar, author, and theologian Marcus Borg has recently blogged about the unfortunate emphasis on that penitence, that we should instead be focusing on the coming joy over the enduring sin. It caused me to nod in some agreement, but I couldn't get totally comfortable with his suggestion. Part of the Advent season to me is about retrospection, with a review of the past year, with prayers of a better year. It's hard to hope for future joy, justice, and peace without grasping all that isn't joyful, just, and peaceful today.
Then, a recent sermon by All Saints Pasadena priest Reverend +Janine Schenone was posted on her blog. It gave me something to hang my hat on, a way to see Advent in a way that's more comfortable with both the current way of looking at it and Borg's proposed viewpoint.
For penitence to me -- Advent, Lent, or otherwise -- isn't so much about guilt and sin as an opportunity for renewal. I gave up guilt decades ago during one Lent and have generally been good at recognizing and ducking it ever since. Guilt is backwards-focused. Renewal is backwards-informed and future-focused.
Let me be the first person in the room to say that I actually don't find the word "renewal" satisfying. It's awfully tough to make something new once again. Have you ever bought a refurbished car or eBay item? Not exactly accurate if they were trying to make it "new" once more. A renewal subscription isn't entirely accurate either. I want them to "extend" my subscription, recognizing my commitment to the service or product - for good points and bad - worthy of sticking with it for more time. I want my faith, like my subscriptions, to be extended with commitment, not just renewed.
Maybe I'm picky about the term, maybe I'm just a word connoisseur. In any case, renewal leaves me unsatisfied when talking about penitential seasons.
So instead, to a techie like myself, it seems more fitting to think of Advent as a time to recalculate like a GPS or phone app giving directions. I know where I am, and it's not where I want to be; I know that I should be in a different place. Recalculate that GPS, and we find our journey making a little more sense. Recalculating rather than renewing guides me away from the problems and that I've found myself in and towards my desired destinations, the places I want to go.
Reverend Schenone views Advent as:
...an opportunity to examine our relationships with others and with God–a time to ask, “Can we start over?” Advent doesn't require us to bathe ourselves in guilt. It doesn't require us to eliminate all the sin or bad things in our lives. That just isn't possible. Even Jesus did not eliminate all the evil in the world or heal all of the sick during his years of ministry. But while we are waiting for the birth of this Prince of Peace, we can accept the responsibility to be peacemakers–to be sources of reconciliation, even if in very small ways, in our lives.
We also can accept responsibility for our relationship with God. A sense of awe and wonder and humility around the coming appearance of the Infant Jesus does not require us to fear the judgment of an angry God. In response to those who oppose the idea of Advent as a season of penitence, David Bartlett writes about Advent, “Perhaps the church can give up judgment, but we cannot give up responsibility."This works for me. For example, in my previous post "Disposable Me - an Advent Reflection" about the older gentleman on the jet, I cannot correct all suffering and I shouldn't feel guilty about everything that I see around me. But I can accept responsibility for my initial thoughts and reactions, for actions and inactions, for focusing on my wants and needs reflexively, without consideration of others. I'm blessed with a fiance who is astonishingly gifted in seeing the world from other people's eyes. A season of penitence isn't merely renewing myself, then, so much as recalculating where I want to be and where I want to go. I want the freedom to be the person I was meant to be.
So our relationship with others and our relationship with God involves not making things new, at least to me. I want to learn from my mistakes and be guided by them. I don't want to repeat my errors. Instead, I want to recalculate and go from there. As Reverend Schenone said, "We can start over with God."
May the meditations of my heart, with the inspiration of the saints who guide me, grow ever more aligned with God this Advent season. I pray that our gracious God moves me to the place where I want to be, to blossom from the person that I was and am into the life-sharing spirit that I am intended to be.