Repentance is the heart that melts us ... so that we can start moving. Here's the step toward freedom.
Advent each year brings us into contact with St. John the Baptist. An astonishing occurrence took place when John the Baptist started preaching in the wilderness. The Gospel relates that “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to John the Baptist.” When I read that statement, what made me do a double take was the word “all”. Everyone, everbody went. That’s a miracle in itself.
What would ever entice an entire populace to rise up from their comfort and contentment and move into the desert to acknowledge their sins?
One powerful memory I have from my childhood involves my mother and the sacrament of confession. I was probably around nine or ten, and I remember that on this one leisurely Saturday afternoon, my mother—out of the blue—asked me if I wanted to take a ride with her. I gladly said yes. So we got into the family station wagon and drove to St. Bernard’s Church. I especially remember us pulling into the parking lot which was totally deserted. There my mom parked the car, reached into her purse, pulled out a plaid kerchief, and tied it on her head (it was the 1960s). Then we into the church. And my mother went to confession.
I was awestruck by this. The Mystery of God and his mercy were obviously so real to my mother. It made me want to come to know for myself this irresistible God whom my mother loved so much that she happily interrupted her rare chance for relaxation on a Saturday afternoon and moved to put herself in his Presence. And there, in the darkness of the confessional, she got down on her knees and humbly entrusted to the Lord out loud the most shameful part of herself. She always came out of church happy.
As Pope Benedict XVI said, “Advent invites us to undertake the risk of stepping forward toward God’s mysterious presence, which alone can make us free.”
We take the risk of stepping forward by heeding the Baptist’s cry, Repent! “Repentance” notes St. Bernard, “is the feeling of a person irritated with himself or herself.” But repentance is not groveling or self-condemnation. Look what St. Cyril of Alexandria says: “Faith in Christ is the highest form of repentance.” And faith is acknowledging a Presence that changes us.
One outstanding grace of Advent is the awareness that there is Something greater than my sins, and that that Something Greater is always calling me out of myself … calling me away from my egoism, and envy, and selfishness. Repentance is simply the confession that I cannot truly be myself without Another. Whether we be a shepherd, one of the Magi, or even an angel, to be myself I need Someone greater than myself. And that is why we spend our Advent making straight our paths—like them—to the manger.
To do so, we head to the desert. For the desert is a place where we feel our powerlessness, our helplessness, our nothingness. The desert strips us of all the excuses we make, all the self-sufficiency, the compromises, the delusions, the lies we rely on. Scripture scholar Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains:
Every truly new word begins in the desert, the uninhabited land where nothing is taken for granted and where nothing pretends to be what it is not…. Repent! means “Turn your minds away from the attitudes you have defined for yourselves as the goal of your life, and come back to the mind of God.”… Repentance is the heart that melts us so that we can start moving, since where there is no movement there is no life.
That’s the desiderata of the desert. Let’s start moving by making the move to make a good Advent Confession.