Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Is Advent Penitential?

Last week we left this question hanging.  I’m guessing one very good reason Mother Church arranged it so, is that this idea of preparing for the Lord’s coming by repentance and penance is in the Bible.
      Last week’s gospel was about how God sent John the Baptist to preach repentance in preparation for Christ’s public ministry. In Luke the quote from Isaiah is longer: ”Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
In our day of cars and paved roads, this passage might be a little lost on us. If we think about it, we can understand somewhat why a straight road without hills is preferable, especially if we’re prone to carsickness. But imagine traveling by horseback or chariot or perhaps a primitive kind of carriage. It would take a long time, and the more hills and curves, the longer and more tiring the trip. And even though the roads built by the Romans were far better than any dirt road, without maintenance even they could get pretty bumpy.
The call of John the Baptist is a call to each of us. The Lord, our King, wishes to come to us. We want His road to be pleasant and easy. Working to make this road straight and smooth honors him, and also makes his coming swifter, for he has a direct path to our hearts.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross say we are all called to contemplation—that the experience of enjoying the presence of God is possible for each of us—but what may keep it from happening is the clutter of other things in our hearts: sins and worries and attachments to anything but Him. Recall Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell among thorns: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Teresa and John advise that we have to let go of all that to have God. The point of penance is to detach us from these things. That’s where straightening our crooked paths and smoothing out our rough ways comes in—that is, cutting out the sins and the faults.
Lowering the mountains and filling the valleys is also crucial. We need to look at ourselves to see where there’s too much of us: Is there too much of me in my conversations? Is there too much of my preferences in family or group decisions? Is my pride too great to allow me to apologize? Is there too much self-indulgence in my enjoyment of food, drink, TV, the Internet, reading or any otherwise licit good?
And where I am absent, where do I fail to extend myself? Is there too little of my attention to my children’s or spouse’s or co-worker’s conversation? Or to their needs or wishes? Is too little of my mind given to thinking of others, or too little of my time spent in helping them? Is there too little of my life given to God? When I do pray, do I give Him too little opportunity to talk to me, or do I do all the talking?
     Years ago, in choir, my friend Suzanne and I both had trouble adjusting to the gender-corrected version of the "Prayer of St. Francis". We'd start to sing the old line "it is in giving to all men..." but hearing others sing begin the new words "of ourselves" we'd correct ourselves after the word "to", so we'd end up singing, "it is in giving to ourselves that we receive." Now while an advertising agency might jump on this, it's hardly what St. Francis had in mind. But it ties back into the mountain-valley image. Where am I giving to myself instead of giving of myself?
We need to cut down our hills and mountains—our pride and other areas where self looms large—and instead fill up our valleys—our personal deficiencies, the areas where our love is shallow. We need to dig into the mountain of self and turn to fill in our valley of shallow love. For example, we can cut off a negative comment or thought and instead say something positive or pray for the person we find annoying. Or we can cut down on some self-indulgence and instead spend our time and energy doing something for someone else.
      But why Advent? Why not all year round? It’s not that we should only work on this during the Church’s official seasons of penance. Rather, there are so many incredible mysteries of God to ponder and so many ramifications on our own lives that it’s hard to keep them all in mind all the time, so Mother Church sets aside certain times of the year to highlight the most important ones. The fact that Almighty God became a human—and a poor, helpless infant one at that—deserves its own season of celebration and contemplation. And that time of feasting deserves a time of fasting to prepare for it. And don’t we clean the house when we’re expecting guests, especially an important one? Penitence is cleaning up our souls.
We don’t live in Palestine two millennia ago, so we can’t participate as directly in the tangible, visible coming of Christ. But He’s coming again. We don’t know when the Second Coming will occur—it could happen during our lifetime; it could happen another two millennia later. But He will come for each one of us at the end of our own lives—and that could happen any day, any moment. So yes, we should be preparing for that coming all year round, all our lives long.
      But it’s hard to remember that all the time. So the Church reminds us periodically, and that’s what Advent is all about.

For more on penitence, see my article "Mortification for Moderns," recently published in Voices

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