Repentance and Hope


Repentance and Hope

Published: 2nd January, 2024

The Second Sunday of Advent
10th December 2023
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Psalm 85:8-end
Mark 1:1-8

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Church of England these days is very reluctant to describe Advent as a penitential season.  But nevertheless that is what it is, as is fairly clear from the readings that we have heard this morning.

No-one quite knows the origins of Advent, but it is certainly very old.  It used sometimes to be known as St Martin’s Lent, because it started following the celebration of St Martin’s Day on 11th November.  Somewhere along the line it was shortened to the four weeks, give or take, that we are now used to.

It was originally a season of fasting, although that is very difficult to keep in our generation, when Christmas parties spill ever earlier into December and sometimes even into November.

Why is the Church of England reluctant to describe Advent as a penitential season?  The Church of England website informs us that the characteristic note of Advent is expectation, rather than penitence.  Advent is a time of hope and looking forward, rather than a time of looking back.  Repentance, we might think, by contrast is chiefly about looking back, a discipline of self-examination and being sorry for what we have done.

But I would argue that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian meaning of repentance.  Repentance, properly understood, is a hopeful and forward-looking exercise, and so Advent is properly understood as a penitential season.

I suppose there are many reasons why our Church has decided to downplay the penitential aspect of Advent.  It could be because penitence just isn’t a very popular idea.  It could be because the Church has internalized the crude secular critique of Christianity that makes us all self-loathing masochists.  It could be because through the generations the Church has tended to preach repentance unevenly, placing a burden of sin and shame on some sections of the population rather more than others, and betraying Jesus’ radical challenge to the rich and powerful.  But whatever the reason, I think it’s a great shame, because penitence is a wonderful gift entrusted to the Church for the good of humanity, and we shouldn’t be coy about it.

Repentance is profoundly hopeful for two reasons.

The first is that repentance implies a belief that change for the better is possible.  It is not possible to be repentant if you are fatalistic.  Being sorry for the wrongs we have done, and for the good we have failed to do, is a necessary first step in doing good and avoiding wrong in the future.  Repentance gives us the chance to learn from our mistakes and to grow.

The second is that repentance implies the possibility of forgiveness, both forgiveness from one another, and forgiveness from God.  The Church is a community of reconciliation: we pray forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We should be confident of finding forgiveness in one another, and we can be still more confident of finding forgiveness in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are reminded perhaps of the parable of the Prodigal Son: we are reminded of the Father who longs for our returning, who waits for us with open arms.

That hope that is concerned with the possibility of moral growth and progress is a hope for something better in this earthly life.  No one can doubt that this world is painfully disfigured by human sinfulness and its consequences: we see this from the dreadful events on our television screens through to the pain and division we find often even within our own families.  The hope of repentance is that if we seek to understand ourselves, if we seek to reflect on our thoughts and our words and our actions, and if we turn to God in genuine contrition, with the help of the Holy Spirit we can do better, and the world can be transformed one life at a time.

The hope that is connected with the possibility of reconciliation between people is also a hope for something better in this earthly life.  The cycles of oppression and victimhood, of blame and finger pointing, of injury and retribution, of self-righteousness and hate, these cycles can only be escaped through repentance and reconciliation.  The better we understand ourselves and our own faults and flaws, the better we understand the weaknesses of others, and reconciliation with those who have wronged us and those we have wronged becomes a possibility.

But the hope that is connected with the forgiveness of God is a hope that extends beyond this earthly life into the world to come.  St Peter writes that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home”.  Our search for repentance and for forgiveness from God is an expression of our hope in the life of the world to come.

So in our hearts’ imagination let us join the crowds going out to John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan.  Let us confess our sins before God and seek reconciliation with one another, and look in hope for the One who is still to come.  Let us join the repentant crowd not out of a morbid desire to wallow in a sense of sin and shame, but rather out of a profound sense of hope: the hope that God’s kingdom is breaking into the here and now in lives transformed, in sins forgiven, in hatreds set aside; and let us join them in the hope that the Lord is not slow but rather patient, and that He will come to disclose all things done on earth, and lead us to a new heaven and a new earth.  We enter into this penitential season in a spirit of hope and of expectation and of possibility and even of joy, as we await the One who came and has come and is to come, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.  Amen