Repentance in the Wilderness

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent. Jer 33:14-16; Ps 24; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28.34-36

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent. So what do today's readings tell us about how to prepare for the coming of Christ, both for celebrating his First Coming or in anticipation of his Second Coming?

Well, one insight concerns the place of preparation. Scripture emphasises that the ministry of John the Baptist took place in a wilderness or desert, a few days' walk away from the towns and fertile land near the coast of Judea. Similarly, the prophet Baruch, in the First Reading, refers to the Sons of Israel who are in exile 'in the East', in other words, starting from Jerusalem, the exiles are in the same direction as John the Baptist, towards the wilderness beyond the Jordan. Now Scripture draws a contrast between paradise and wilderness. Scripture describes human beings first losing God, or, more accurately, hiding from God in a garden, the Garden of Eden. In other words, human beings first lose God in paradise. By contrast, Scripture describes Moses and many others, including the whole people of Israel, finding God in a wilderness. Indeed, the only time in Scripture when human beings find God in a garden is after the crucifixion, when the Resurrected Jesus Christ walks in the morning sunlight in the garden of his burial. Scripture implies that, while our final hope is to enjoy God in paradise, following the Resurrection, most of our spiritual growth takes place in a kind of wilderness, what would appear to be an unpromising place to find everlasting life. The wilderness, it seems, is often the place where evil is defeated and the clutter of mundane activities is stripped away, enabling us to be in communion with God. So one of the first lessons of today's readings is the importance of the wilderness or desert.

A second lesson about preparing for the coming of Christ is repentance. The Gospel tells us that John preached, "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," and today's First Reading represents this repentance symbolically in terms of flattening mountains and filling in valleys, making level ground for the return to Jerusalem. Now repentance oftens seems to be something distasteful from a distance, something that one would rather avoid. In its lived experience, however, repentance is often, in fact, rather joyful, as the parable of the Prodigal Son tells us. Furthermore, John tells us repentance is the right way to prepare to receive Christ, a lesson which is incorporated today in the structure of the Mass. Mass begins with asking God for forgiveness and culminates with John's words of witness, just before Communion, "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Similarly, John's lesson of repentance is also incorporated into the teaching that we should go to Confession, if we have committed grave sin, prior to receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. So the second lesson of today's readings is the importance of repentance to prepare to receive Christ, to enjoy Communion with God.

So what practical lessons might we draw for ourselves this Advent? Epsom is not, after all, a wilderness and repentance is rather unfashionable, so how can we apply the lessons of today's readings? I would like to suggest two answers. First, with regard to a wilderness, I think that we can and should, in a spiritual way, create a kind of 'desert' in our lives. For example, apart from the sacraments, I have learnt from experience that the single most important activity for any Christian is daily prayer, an activity which is like entering a kind of 'desert' insofar as we put aside the bustle and activities of daily life and attend, for a time, just to God and the things of God. Furthermore, the best time for prayer is often first thing in the morning, before the working activities of the day begin. Although time for prayer is apparently an investment or sacrifice of our personal time, prayer never, in practice, detracts from our working activities. A day that begins with prayer will also tend to be fruitful, as Jesus promises, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:33). So daily prayer, in solitude and mentally stepping outside the flow of mundane activities, is one way in which we can put the lesson of the wilderness to good use. Other good practices are to keep Sunday special - as a day of rest, recreation and prayer - and to try to simplify our lives by stripping away unnecessary burdens, including unnecessary possessions.

Another second and final lesson I would like to suggest from today's readings is the importance of going to Confession this Advent. In the Gospel, John preaches a baptism of repentance and is able to recognise Christ when he comes. Similarly, Confession is a wonderful gift for cleansing our souls, enabling us also to recognise God more clearly in our daily lives. One can think of the soul as being like glass that becomes dirty over time, and eventually fails to let in any light. Confession is a way of cleaning the glass and liberating the soul. Now, I am well aware that many people have lost the habit of Confession, so I encourage you not to be afraid. The priest in Confession will give guidance, rejoices when someone repents from sin and, being a sinner, himself goes to Confession regularly. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the great spiritual benefits of Confession and I encourage you to return to this sacrament.

So, in summary, let us try to clear a little more space in our lives for God, especially in daily prayer. Let us also make use of the wonderful opportunities we have been given to repent of sin and to be well prepared for the Day when Christ Jesus comes.

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